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The most efficient way to smoke cannabis? Study says dabs

February 4, 2019
Modern technology might beat old-school methods of delivering THC efficiently. (Leafly)
Modern technology might beat old-school methods of delivering THC efficiently. (Leafly)
There are so many different ways to use cannabis. But have you ever wondered what method is most efficient? A new study points to dabbing—suggesting that inhaling heated extract vapor maximizes delivery of cannabis’ active ingredients.

Dabbing outperforms alternatives

According to the 2019 study from Forensic Science International, dabbing is significantly more efficient at delivering cannabis’ main active ingredient—THC—compared to other inhaled methods like burning a joint or a pipe bowl.

Over 75% of the THC in a dab makes it into the users’ lungs. By contrast, smoking cannabis destroys about 75% of the THC before it can get into the user, the study found.

The experiment utilized a machine built in-house which replicated smoking and dabbing, while collecting the smoke and vapor for analysis. The smoke or vapor that would have made its way into the lungs was analyzed for cannabinoid content. Comparing this result with the cannabinoids in the original sample, scientists were able to estimate how much THC and CBD from the original cannabis product would make its way into the consumer’s system.  They called that the “recovery rate”.

Previous studies on vaping, smoking, and joints

While this study points to vast differences between smoking and dabbing, earlier studies found less pronounced results. A 2015 study by Dr. Jeffrey Raber found decent recovery rates for smoking, with a range of 27.5% to 46.3%. While this represents a more optimistic picture for cannabis smokers, it is still significantly lower than the reported 75.5% recovery rate for dabbing.

Dabbing is also different than “vaping”. Dabbers inhale extract that’s boiling off a heated piece of quartz, ceramic, or titanium.

Vapers might be toasting flower in a Pax, or a Volcano, or sipping vapor from the equivalent of an e-cigarette.

Research on vaporizers shows a wide range of recovery rates that vary greatly based on the vaporizer used. Most vaporizers averaged recovery rates in the mid-to-high 50’s.  One study showed rates from 51.4% – 82.7%, depending on the vaporizer. Only one vaporizer studied came close to the recovery rates for dabbing.

Keep those temps low

While dabbing seems to outperform the other methods at first glance, Dr. Raber argues that dabbing doesn’t always have such high recovery rates. His team performed experiments on dabbing and pipe smoking, along with his research on joints. They found much lower rates of recovery for dabbing—around 40%. His research suggests that dabbing is on par with smoking when it comes to recovery.

Still, he says, “It is certainly possible that you could see high efficiency in terms of recovery via a dab.”

So why would we see such large variation in these studies?

“It seems to primarily be based on temperature,” explains Dr. Raber.

Higher temperatures lead to more combustion, which may destroy or convert active cannabinoids into something else.

Related

The Avid Dabber: My Favorite Temperatures for Dabbing Cannabis Concentrates

In Raber’s experiments, he analyzed not only the smoke and vapor that goes to the lungs, but also the ash, side stream, and the exhaled smoke. Still, they only recovered about 50% of the cannabinoids from the original sample. The other 50% of the cannabinoids seemed to be destroyed or converted into something else. So, the new study may have used a lower temperature to dab, reducing combustion.

While combustion seems to be the culprit for smoking’s low numbers, we simply can’t assume that these cannabinoids just ‘go up in smoke’. After all, smoking joints has a strong effect that feels quite different from vaping or dabbing.

“It is quite possible other molecules that form during combustion, which are absent in vaporization, are leading to some of those experienced physiological effects,” explains Dr. Raber. Unfortunately, it would be very difficult to determine specifically what that molecule might be.

Is it dab o’clock yet? Leafly locates your local dab menus

Is dabbing THCA more efficient?

Another important factor in the varying rates is the composition of the extracts used.

“We did observe differences depending on concentrate composition,” recounts Dr. Raber about his own study.

Raber’s study used extract rich in THC, while the new study used the natural “acid” form of THC — called “THCA” — that you’ll find on the fresh plant. The difference is important.

It may be that dabbing with THCA extracts offers a particularly efficient way to consume THC.

Related

What Is THCA & What Are the Benefits of This Cannabinoid?

(We’re getting into organic chemistry here, but when you heat THCA it becomes THC — which is great for your recovery rate. But if you heat THC, it becomes CBN — bad for your recovery rate. This is why old weed is so weak. The THCA has mostly become THC and or worse, CBN.)

High-THCA extracts have become increasingly available in recent years, but they aren’t the standard when it comes to dabbing.

Is dabbing really more efficient overall? Or is it about low-temp dabbing with THCA to max out recovery rates? More research is needed to fully understand this picture.

Face-Off: Dabs and vapes might beat joints for efficiency. Note: rates can vary by device, method and chemistry Sources: 'A preliminary investigation of lung availability of cannabinoids by smoking marijuana or dabbing BHO and decarboxylation rate of THC- and CBD-acids.' Marianne Hädener, Sina Vieten, Wolfgang Weinmann, Hellmut Mahler. Forensic Science International, Vol. 295. February 2019, Pages 207-212. 'The Conversion and Transfer of Cannabinoids from Cannabis to Smoke Stream in Cigarettes' Sytze Elzinga, Oscar Ortiz, Jeffrey C Raber, Natural Products Chemistry & Research, Jan. 2015

OG Face-Off: Dabs and vapes might beat joints for efficiency. Note: rates can vary by device, method and chemistry
Sources: ‘A preliminary investigation of lung availability of cannabinoids by smoking marijuana or dabbing BHO and decarboxylation rate of THC- and CBD-acids’, Forensic Science International, Feb. 2019; ‘The Conversion and Transfer of Cannabinoids from Cannabis to Smoke Stream in Cigarettes’, Natural Products Chemistry & Research, Jan. 2015; ‘Medicinal Cannabis: In Vitro Validation of Vaporizers for the Smoke-Free Inhalation of Cannabis’ PLoS One. 2016 (Graphic by Leafly)

Sounds like low-temp, THCA dabs might be the way to go! Comment below!

Emily Earlenbaugh's Bio Image

Emily Earlenbaugh

Dr. Emily Earlenbaugh is a cannabis writer and educator. She is the Director of Education for Mindful Cannabis Consulting, where she teaches patients how to find the cannabis options that work best for them. She regularly writes about cannabis science and culture for publications like Cannabis Now Magazine, SF Chronicle’s GreenState, HelloMD, and Big Buds Magazine. Emily has a doctorate in philosophy of science from UC Davis.

View Emily Earlenbaugh's articles

  • Jay

    This is not news….anyone who smokes knows this, also eating or drinking works far better for me than smoking ever has. The only caveat is uncontrollable nap time.
    The studies we need to see are rock solid medical and psychological research, like the stories I’ve read about THC killing cancer cells.

    • carol taylor

      Jay, Hi my name is Carol. I have copd. And I have PTSD sleep insomnia…I dont like to smoke. I see you use it other ways. I used indica. What’s the way to to consume indica…and how ?
      Carol

  • Tigerpond

    What about decarbing flower and just eating a piece of it. I wonder how effective that is? Would you get 100% of the THC, CBD, etc.?

    • Harvey Gamel

      sure works for me

  • viper643

    What does the residue that forms on the inside of a water pipe bowl consist of ? I have scraped this stuff off and it has a consistency similar to crumble. Mixed with a bit of flower; it has an immense effect.

  • Maegwin

    “Only one vaporizer studied came close to the recovery rates for dabbing.” Which vaporizer?

    • Lourene C K Thornton

      It was the Volcano Plenty vaporizer. It retails for about $250. In the second link in the article is to the study of different vapes. About halfway down they have the results of the vaporizers used.

    • tomblank

      table 1 sys the arizer solo had the highest at 82.7% THC recovered. Volcano was only 58%

  • Boogity boo

    I’d be curious to know the vape that delivered the highest quantity. Is that info available or did I just not see it in the article?

  • JP’s FourTwenty

    Did they ever vaporize the flower and see the results? THCA is on the flower so it would be nice to see the RR on that.

  • Karl Nennig

    Problem I got is you use a substantial amount of cannabis to make it.

  • I’d like to know more about the analysis of the vapor/smoke prior to entering the lungs and after leaving the lungs. I’ve always thought that there is a lot of active chemicals being exhaled (from ANY inhaled substance) and that the actual amount taken into the blood stream is a small percentage of what’s in the smoke. It seems like this study produced that data but didn’t disclose the numbers.

    • Lourene C K Thornton

      The second link in this article is to the study done of vaporizers. It was the Plenty Vaporizer that was the best. They retail for about $250.

      • tomblank

        Nope, re read table 1 in n the line”this study”. You have to open the table, its arizer solo at 82.7%

  • Leslie Newman

    “The highest recoveries were obtained with Arizer Solo®, namely 67.5–82.7%. No differences were seen between THC and CBD. ” This is from the study mentioned.