Cannabis edibles — especially CBD-based ones — and sublingual (under-the-tongue) drops are two products that have skyrocketed in popularity in the wake of the marijuana legalization movement. Making a decision on whether to consume sublingual vs. edible cannabis is an important one that impacts dosage, side-effects, and drug interactions.
Because producers don’t have to sneak around anymore, they can handle large quantities of cannabis in the open and process it using state-of-the-art equipment in legal facilities. As a result, cannabis companies have created a wide array of products and dosing methods. The first cannabidiol (CBD)-based drug approved by the FDA, the child seizure drug Epidiolex, comes as sublingual drops, for example.
Smoking or vaping is the most efficient method of consuming cannabis, but because of differences in lung and airway sensitivities, as well as inhalation technique, it’s not an ideal method for therapeutic dosing. Also, some recreational smokers may want to find a better dosing method because they’re sick of wheezing as they walk up the stairs.
Dosage varies drastically depending on how you consume your cannabinoids. To be precise, be sure to use our THC Dosage Calculator and CBD Dosage calculator, which takes into account consumption method and past experience.
Furthermore, marijuana smoke on its own hasn’t been linked to lung cancer, but as with any chronic smoke exposure, it can cause emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, both debilitating and potentially fatal in their own right.
“The oromucosal… route (is a) minor, but interesting, administration route,” according to the journal Molecules. “The pharmacokinetics and dynamics of cannabinoids vary as a function of the route of administration with absorption showing the most variability of the principal pharmacokinetic steps.”
Sublingual vs. Edible Cannabis: What’s the difference?
Though both are administered orally, sublingual drops and edible cannabis products don’t work in the same way. Edible products, whether brownies, chocolates or gummies, get first broken down in the stomach and passed through the liver before they release tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and other potent cannabinoids into the bloodstream.
With edibles, you avoid lung irritation, but you experience a delayed onset and it’s not very efficient. Your stomach acid and liver destroy a significant amount of the medicine before the rest finally makes it into your bloodstream. This is all part of “first-pass metabolism”, which allows molecules to enter the bloodstream after first being absorbed by the intestines and processed by the liver.
And it’s through the bloodstream that cannabinoids travel to the endocannabinoid receptors in your brain and nervous system, producing the marijuana high and therapeutic benefits.
Sublingual drops, on the other hand, try to have the best of both worlds: Direct bloodstream administration similar to smoking or vaping, but bypassing the lungs altogether.
Cannabinoids are permeable through mucous membranes in your mouth, and under the tongue you have a dense complex of tiny blood vessels and saliva ducts that can absorb the drug components directly into the bloodstream.
Some cannabinoids even come in the form of nasal sprays; you have lots of blood vessels under your thin nasal membranes that can absorb cannabinoids just as well as the underside of your tongue.
This is handy because it wastes less cannabinoid material that edibles. The medicine travels directly into your bloodstream, bypassing the liver. The THC and CBD in your drops will hit your liver eventually, but hopefully not before the Pink Floyd laser light show you’re attending is over.
Plus, pharmaceutical manufacturers have a whole arsenal of additives and binders that make membrane absorption more efficient. These compounds are already used in other kinds of medicated creams and drops that are the delivery vehicles for all sorts of other topical and oromucosal medications.
Should you swallow sublingual drops?
The caveat for sublingual drops: Don’t swallow. Depending on the potency of the drops, if you swallow them, they may not have any effect. The aim is to get the medicine into your bloodstream directly through the mucous membranes in your mouth. Swallowing the drops may expose the cannabinoids in there to your stomach acid and will pass the medicine through your liver before it reaches the bloodstream, defeating the whole point of the sublingual in the first place.
Some savvy consumers may think “well, hey I paid for it…might as well try and absorb as much as possible, even if its just another 1mg…it’s better than spitting it out!”. Such consumers would be pretty accurate in their thinking, to be honest. However, another case can be made for refraining from swallowing your sublingual dose: if you are a slow metabolizer of THC and/or CBD, then going through first-pass metabolism can cause accumulation of THC and/or CBD in the liver, making it more likely to interact with other medications and potentially cause more-intense-than-anticipated experiences and side-effects.
Strain Genie’s Cannabis DNA test lets you know if you are a slow or fast metabolizer of CBD and THC and how this impacts your consumption, specifically sublingual vs. edible cannabis.
Additionally, swallowed drops likely wouldn’t even have an effect as strong as the same amount of cannabinoids baked into a brownie. The cannabinoids in the drops aren’t mixed in with fats, sugars, and starches that would shield them somewhat from your stomach acid. As such, it’s probable most of the cannabinoid molecules in your drops would get pulled apart in your stomach if you swallowed them directly.