How Is Cannabis Used?

March 27, 2024
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How is marijuana used?

Humans have been using cannabis for everything from clothing to funeral rites, but marijuana has been used to treat various wellness-related issues for thousands of years.

Today, cannabis remains the most commonly consumed psychoactive substance in the world, and some scholars have argued that, with the advent of changing public attitudes and increasingly lenient legislation, efforts should be made to acknowledge and record the cultural importance of cannabis in the same way we recognize wine.

In this post, we’ll explain how cannabis is most often consumed today before exploring some of the reasons people consume cannabis today and throughout history, as well as how people’s preferences regarding their cannabis products have changed over time.

How is cannabis consumed?

Arguments in favor of preserving cannabis cultures aren’t the only result of increased legalization and public acceptance. According to a 2018 literature review, the liberalization of drug laws and outright legalization of cannabis has led to a shift in how people consume the plant and its products.

“Specifically, while the majority of cannabis products traditionally have been smoked (e.g., by a cannabis cigarette (joint), or a hash pipe), an increasingly varied range of [consumption] methods has evolved, including both inhalational (e.g., smoking and/or vaporizing) and non-inhalational (e.g., edible, other) use routes,” the review’s authors report.

Despite the observable increase in non-smoking consumption methods, smoking remains the most popular way to consume cannabis in the United States, according to a survey of about 5,200 individuals published in 2020.

The same survey also found differences between the preferred consumption methods of individuals who consume cannabis recreationally versus individuals who partially or exclusively consume cannabis for medical purposes. For example, while combustion (i.e., smoking) was the most common consumption method for both medical-only and recreational users, the rec users second most common method was oral ingestion (i.e., edibles) while the medical users second most common consumption method was topical (i.e., creams).

Many reported using cannabis for both recreational and medical reasons. This group was most likely to use diverse consumption methods and showed a greater preference for vaporization relative to the medical-only respondents.

“We also found that combustion methods were more commonly used for recreational purposes, whereas ingestion methods were more commonly used for medical purposes. In contrast with previous studies, however, we estimated a greater rate of using vaporization for recreational purposes than for medical purposes,” the survey’s authors add. 

How do people use cannabis?

Regardless of how or why you choose to consume cannabis, each consumption method comes with its own risks and perks. 

“Recreational users may be more likely to seek intense and immediate effects for pleasure, which can be achieved by combustion and vaporization with high potency and immediate delivery,” the survey’s authors explain. “In contrast, ingestion and topicals have mild, delayed and prolonged effects that are more suitable for treating chronic symptoms.”

As the authors of both the 2018 literature review and the 2020 survey note, combustion comes with the greatest risks to the respiratory system. While vaporization poses a much lower risk level relative to combustion, some researchers are cautious of the high potency of some vaporization products, such as dabs and oil pens. Edibles offer an excellent option for individuals who are wary of protecting their cardiovascular health. With their classic delayed onset, however, edibles also come with risks of over-intoxication.

Cannabis researcher and Harvard Medical School physician Peter Grinspoon, MD, suggests that users should avoid smoking if at all possible and opt for dry herb vaporizers, tinctures, and edibles. For individuals who do choose to smoke, he advises against holding the smoke in your lungs — a practice that, in popular culture, has been suggested to increase the intensity of cannabis’ effects but in reality just irritates your lungs.

Historical and contemporary reasons for consuming cannabis

Studies of cannabis and the ancient world are rife with evidence for the plant’s use for a wide range of medical cases, as well as for its intoxicating properties. Despite its botanical origins in Central Asia, the plant’s hardy nature enabled it to spread across the globe, moving from the Tibetan Plateau first to Europe via Russia and then to Eastern cultures.

According to a 2018 review article published in the Journal of Cellular Physiology, “the first evidence of Cannabis exploitation by humans date[s] back to more than 10,000 years ago, at the end of [the] Ice Age.” 

The authors state that some of the earliest evidence for cannabis’ medical potential is recorded in the Shen Nung Pen Ts’ao Ching, a Chinese pharmacopeia written in the 1st century BCE to record practices that had been passed down orally until that point. 

In ancient China, cannabis was also used for fiber and food, as well as for ritualistic purposes, though the use of cannabis as an intoxicant appears to have been mainly restricted to shamans whose practices fell out of favor during the Han Dynasty. 

Cannabis also makes a prominent appearance in the medico-cultural Ayurvedic tradition that arose on the Indian subcontinent in ancient times. The use of cannabis in the Ayurvedic tradition is recorded in the Atharva Veda, a holy text detailing practices for emotional and physical wellness, and Vedic texts call cannabis a “source of happiness,” a “joy-giver” and “liberator.” Ayurvedic medicine uses cannabis to treat a variety of ailments, including pain, sexual issues, anxiety, and gastrointestinal problems. The use of cannabis in Ayurvedic medicine also influenced Buddhist and Islamic traditional medicine. 

Cannabis continues to play a significant role in contemporary Western medicine, and studies of cannabis helped bring about the discovery of the endocannabinoid system and subsequent research. The criminalization of cannabis in the Western world has historically made scientific research difficult. This issue is quite pronounced, as ECS research will likely revolutionize medicine in the coming decades.

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