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The different ways to smoke and consume cannabis

April 24, 2014

When it comes to cannabis consumption, the second-most important consideration, after the flower itself, is the delivery method. This point is often overlooked, as evidenced by the prevalence of consumers who have limited their experimentation to only one or two methods. If you find yourself within this category but aspire to become a comprehensive cannabis aficionado, let this be your checklist. Gaining the mental and physical benefits of cannabis is largely dependent upon how it’s consumed, with each method providing a unique experience and host of effects. Who knows — you could find a new favorite. Let the exploration begin!

There are three basic delivery methods: inhalation, oral, and topical. Under these umbrella methods are various techniques that serve unique functions, each appropriate for different occasions.

Inhalation Delivery Methods

When cannabis is inhaled, the gases enter the lungs before absorbing into the bloodstream. There are currently two prevalent types of inhalation methods: smoking and vaporization.

Different Ways of Smoking Cannabis

This ancient custom is the method most commonly associated with cannabis, and there are many different ways for consumers to smoke. Advances in vaporization technology, however, have offered smokers an alternative method with fewer health concerns. The effects associated with smoking are widely debated, but health professionals are in agreement that smoke-free methods pose less risk and are medically preferred.


6 ways to enjoy cannabis without having to smoke it

Cannabis smokers have a wide array of devices at their disposal, including hand pipes, water pipes, rolling papers, hookahs, and homemade one-time use devices. Each of these provides different experiences and influence the grade of smoke inhaled.

Hand Pipes

Hand pipes for smoking cannabis

These are probably the most common smoking device in circulation today and generally favored for their convenience: they are small, portable, and simple to use. Hand pipes have grown into an artistic expression and are available in countless creative forms and styles, both for decoration and functionality (such as disguise pipes that imitate everyday objects). Hand pipes operate by trapping the smoke produced from burning cannabis, which is then inhaled by the user.

Water Pipes

Water pipe (or bong) for smoking cannabis

Water pipes come in slightly different variations, including but not limited to bongs and bubblers. Like hand pipes, these come in a variety of styles and designs but increase in sophistication by incorporating water. The health benefits associated with the addition of water are up for debate: water cools the smoke, but it’s uncertain whether it acts as an effective filter for harmful constituents.


Cannabis Science 101: The Complex Chemistry of the Bong

Rolling Papers

Rolling papers for smoking cannabis

Generally, these are used to smoke joints or blunts. Joints are cannabis rolled in a paper, the composition of which varies across an assortment of plants including but not limited to hemp, bamboo, and rice. Blunts are cannabis rolled in cigar paper made from the tobacco plant and contain nicotine. Blunt consumers often prefer the flavor and combined effects of the nicotine and cannabis; however, the medical risks linked to nicotine deter most health-conscious cannabis consumers.


What’s the difference between joints, blunts, and spliffs?


Hookahs for smoking cannabis

This is one of the less common methods of smoking cannabis and is generally associated with smoking shisha, the American term for wet tobacco. Cannabis is rarely smoked alone in a hookah because its low water content causes the plant to burn faster than it can be inhaled, producing an acrid taste and wasting the herb. For economically-conscious smokers, this is likely the prominent concern as large quantities of cannabis are needed to yield the same results as other smoking methods.

To resolve this, cannabis is sandwiched between tobacco, introducing the same health concerns associated with blunts. However, the hookah does allow multiple people to smoke at the same time, significantly changing the smoking experience.

Homemade One-Time Use Devices

An apple pipe, one of many homemade devices for smoking cannabis

This method may allow for the greatest creativity and includes all disposable cannabis smoking devices. The most common homemade device is a pipe due to its simplicity, but skilled crafters have taken on water pipe designs as well. Health effects associated with this method are equally variable depending on the material and method used for assembly.


Vaping cannabis

Vaporizers are the logical choice for moderate to experienced and/or health-conscious cannabis consumers. A vaporizer steadily heats herbs to a temperature that is high enough to extract THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids, but the temperatures are too low for the potentially harmful toxins that are released during combustion. Essentially, vaporization minimizes the health risks associated with smoking. This improvement comes with an equally significant reduction in odor, which is generally the first acknowledgement of first-time vaporizer users. There is a diverse landscape of vaporizer models and the market is only expanding as the technology improves.


Which Type of Vaporizer Best Suits You?

There are multiple elements that distinguish vaporizer designs, markedly portability and product. As the market grows, so does the efficiency and quality of portable models, which generally fall short to fixed models (requiring an outlet power source) in durability and robustness. The form of cannabis product is the other primary component: many vaporizers take cannabis concentrates which come in a variety of forms, including oil and wax. These can be added manually or using cartridges, depending on the design. The prevalence of concentrate vapes is due to mechanical simplicity; fewer vaporizers take flower, which require a heating element to accomplish vaporization, and thus a more sophisticated design.

A younger delivery method that is a point of contention amongst the cannabis community and attentive policy makers is dabbing. Dabbing is a form of vaporization in which potent cannabis concentrates are dropped on a heated nail, creating vapor that is trapped in a glass globe and inhaled. Although there are obvious health benefits associated with clean concentrates over combustible flower, concerns arise from dabbing’s image and the intense effects of high-THC extracts.

Oral Delivery Methods

Oral delivery includes all techniques that are administered through the mouth, including tinctures, ingestible oils, and infused food/drinks. We most often assume that oral delivery denotes ingestion through the digestive tract before entering the bloodstream, but this is not always the case. Tinctures are essentially a topical application that is administered through the mouth, and they are immediately absorbed into the bloodstream unlike edibles or drinks.


Drinking/ingesting cannabis as a tincture

Tinctures are a liquid cannabis extract used by consumers looking for dosage control and fast-acting effects without the health risks associated with smoking. Most commonly, alcohol is used as the solvent (any proof greater than 80 can be used effectively), but other fat-soluble liquids can be used as well, such as vinegar or glycerol. Generally, three or four drops of the tincture are placed under the tongue, where it’s absorbed into the body versus swallowed and digested. When ingested, tinctures are immediately absorbed in an empty stomach but require time to process through the liver, reducing dosage control.


Cannabis tinctures 101: What are they, how to make them, and how to use them

Ingestible Oils

Ingestible cannabis oil capsules falling out of jar

Ingestible oils are a happy medium between edibles and concentrates: they are swallowed and digested like an infused product, but often have the consistency of oil. These oils can either be eaten or put in easily-ingested capsules. One popular oil is Rick Simpson Oil (RSO), which originated in 2003 when Simpson used concentrated cannabis to treat his skin cancer. RSO is made by extracting the therapeutic compounds of cannabis with alcohol and then evaporating the solvent, leaving behind a tar-like substance resembling oil.


Cannabis-infused mac n' cheese ball edibles on plates next to cannabis flower

Eating or drinking cannabis provides significantly different effects from delivery methods that immediately enter the bloodstream, such as smoking or vaping. Edibles can be defined as any food that contains cannabis, whether or not the cannabinoids are bioavailable. These products have longer onsets and tend to cause powerful full-body, psychoactive effects.

Infused food and drinks can be made a variety of ways depending on the dish. Most often, edibles are infused with a staple infused ingredient high in fat — like butter or olive oil — that enable extraction of the plant’s therapeutic properties. Adding tinctures to dishes is another great option for dosage control and simplicity. Generally, cooking with cannabis flower can be difficult because of the complication associated with cannabinoid activation (including sensitive heating temperatures and times, and sufficient solvent fat). However, as the prevalence of cannabis grows, so does the presence of flower in the kitchen.


Cannabis-Infused Edibles 101: What to Know About Dosing, Potency, and Labeling

Topical Delivery Methods

Topical cannabis administration utilizes full cannabis extract — a thick oil that has been decarboxylated to activate cannabinoids. Once cannabinoids are activated, they can be absorbed through your skin.

Woman holding cannabis topical lotion container

Topical effects differ from other medicating methods in that they don’t provide the cerebral stimulation that users describe as “being high.” Because of this, topicals are appropriate for consumers needing a clear head and localized relief (for example, muscle aches or soreness).


How Are Cannabis-Infused Topicals Made? Leafly Tours a Manufacturing Lab

Image Sources: Sara Dilley and Clare Barboza

  • Nice write up!

  • Rick

    You forgot to mention hot-knives in the smoking section.

  • Ranger 2.0

    There are no health risks associated with nicotine unless you have other medical conditions. The health risks are in burning the tobacco plant itself. I just don’t want anyone to be confused thinking that it’s the nicotine that’s bad for you

    • Mary Nell Greer-Burnette

      and I dont think tobacco is addictive- I do however believe the companies put in *extra* so that you are hooked and get health risks from the additives – not pure tobacco- i could be wrong- I DONT smoke LOL

      • Ronald Nelson

        Hello Mary Nell

      • David Franklin

        Because nothing that’s pure could ever be addictive, (coughs) opium (cough).

      • Peter Simmons

        You are wrong. Why do you post comments you haven’t a clue are real?

    • 1plakat

      nicotine is a carcinogen and high addictive. It def poses elevated health risks.

    • Wayne Smith

      Whew, I’m relieved. I always seek my best medical advice from anonymous individuals in the comments section of stories.

    • Peter Simmons

      Is that why tobacco chewers regularly get mouth cancer?

  • Don LoVetere

    any results with Restless Leg Syndrome?

    • Peter Simmons

      Yes, it’s excellent treatment.

  • David Nichols

    Smoking Cannabis may be beneficial to your health. Don’t just enjoy it but remember the risks. Take Marijuana moderately and remember your safety.

    • Tracy

      yea that right

  • Peter Simmons

    Recent research has found no correlation between smoking cannabis alone and cancer of lungs or throat. It protects against cancer, is used to treat cancers such as skin, lung and brain cancers, so why would smoking it be different? Some smoke comfrey for coughs and sore throats, comfrey is another medicinal herb. The best way to get an effective herb to the lungs is to smoke or vape. Lung cancer patients should smoke strong weed, regularly, stay away from chemo which poisons your body, destroys your immune system [that’s trying to fight the cancer] and makes you open to infections, so they put you on antibiotics, none of which stops the nausea and vomiting from being poisoned, except of course cannabis. Best to cut out the middleman and go straight to the cure.

  • George Lawhead

    i have joint pain in my hands and a torn min. in knee, with arthr. will a topical treatment help ?


  • Violet Bluez

    Nicotine is highly addictive like cocaine, I quit in 1979, my husband quit in 2013. My mother quit after 33 years but the damage was already done to her lungs, I took care of my mom while watching her become terminal, I watched her suffering daily, Take my word for it, Nicotine is addictive , God gave us all green herbs. I believe it is a Godsend for not only pain but for seizures and cancer. It should be 100% legal,

  • viper643

    Etain, a New York medical dispensary has a water soluble powder. Have never seen this type of THC delivery system on Leafly. Anyone have a clue how it is processed ?

  • Eric Harris

    I will be able to legally buy Cannabis in IL next year. I took up vaping nic after 10 years off of smoking. I plan to stop and switch to Cannabis. I don’t want to smoke. So what is the best way IYO? Vaping, gummies?

  • Just be careful on the dosage, that’s all I can say. Nothing bad can happen, but when you go all in, it last a long time.

  • Camryn Frazier

    Hi, so when i smoke it causes more pain do you know of a reason of why it might do that