Novel Delivery Methods for Medical Cannabis Users

There is no doubt that vaping is better than smoking cannabis but even vaping can lead to respiratory problems. Moreover many medical cannabis users do not want the negative stigma commonly associated with “smoking weed.” Finally, in certain states, including New York, where medical cannabis is legal, dispensaries are not allowed to sell leaf or plant-like material to patients.  This is causing medical cannabis companies to figure out creative ways in which to deliver cannabinoid-based products and remain compliant with individual state mandates and cannabis regulations.

Interestingly, many of these so-called innovative delivery methods for cannabis are routine delivery technologies that have already been tested, refined and approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). or example,  Colorado-based Next Frontier Biosciences, founded by former biotechnology executives and research scientists,  recently created a micro dosing-based, nasal mist delivery system intended for the pain management market segment. Likewise, similar companies with biotechnology and healthcare backgrounds are also developing time-release transdermal patches, sublingual sprays and suppository-based systems.  These developments suggest that the medical cannabis industry is beginning to mature and is likely to become mainstream in the not-too-distant future.

Commercializing Cannabis-Derived Pharmaceuticals: Manufacturing, Quality and Healthcare Challenges

While overcoming the legal and regulatory challenges for commercializing cannabis- derived pharmaceuticals is essential, there are a variety of technical, manufacturing and healthcare obstacles that must be addressed before this class of molecules can be successful.

First, substantial financial investment must be made in infrastructure and production facilities to breed and grow different cannabis strains to obtain appropriate chemical compositions and extracts to treat specific therapeutic indications (1). Industry experts contend that this investment must include research on strain construction, cannabinoid concentrations at different stages of plant growth/harvest times and yield improvements. Interestingly, crop failure (not having a redundancy of supply) is a serious issue that all commercial entities in the medical cannabis industry must address and contend with to meet commercial demand.

Second, plant growth (use of insecticides, herbicides etc), extraction processes, and product formulation of cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals must be conducted according to Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP) and rigorous quality standards (1). After all, the primary reason for seeking regulatory approval for these drugs is to demonstrate to patients and healthcare providers that cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals have been thoroughly reviewed, are well characterized and determined to be safe and effective. Implementation of pharmaceutical CGMPs (2) will ensure cannabis-derived pharmaceutical product safety, efficacy and quality over time.

Third, the route of delivery and dosing regimens for cannabis-based pharmaceuticals for specific indications will be vitally important. While smoking/vaporizing cannabis is currently the most obvious method to deliver desired therapeutic effects, it may not be the most effective to maximize its therapeutic benefits for different indications and individual patients (3). Over the past few years, there has been a growing interest in exploring oral, oromucosal, topical and sustained release delivery of cannabis-derived pharmaceutical depending upon the therapeutic indication of interest.

Fourth, efforts must be initiated to get Cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals on the drug formularies of state government insurers and third party insurance companies. At present, medical marijuana costs are usually not reimbursable by conventional health insurance companies (4) and out-of-pocket expenditures can be costly especially for those individuals who suffer from long term, chronic clinical indications like cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. However, if Cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (and are rescheduled) it is likely that these drugs will be covered by government and third party healthcare payers (5).

Finally, safeguards must be put into place to ensure protection against misuse, fraud and abuse of Cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals by healthcare providers and patients. The development of novel metered dose devices to deliver these products will help to limit misuse and abuse.


  1. Accessed July 18, 2017
  2.  Accessed July 18, 2017
  3.   Accessed July 18, 2017
  4.  Accessed July 18, 2017
  5. Accessed July 18, 2017


Optimizing Cannabis Delivery

The plethora of therapeutic benefits offered by Cannabis has largely been attributed to a class of naturally-occurring, plant-derived chemicals terpenophenolic compounds known as phytocannabinoids (1, 2). Over 60 pharmacologically-active cannabinoids have been identified to date (3).

While inhalation (smoking and vaporization) and ingestion are the most common routes of administration of Cannabis products but other routes including rectal, sublingual, transdermal, ophthalmic, intrathecal and intravenous routes have been used (4).


Historically, smoking is the most common and easiest method for Cannabis delivery. Scientifically-speaking, smoking is inhalation of smoke produced by combustion of the Cannabis flower or concentrated forms of Cannabis. Smoking allows users to immediately feel Cannabis’ effects because inhaled smoke containing cannabinoids like THC, CBD and others (2) passes directly from the lungs into the bloodstream.  These blood-borne molecules instantaneously bind to Cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2 (6, 7) and mediate the various psychoactive and therapeutic effects of Cannabis.


Vaporization involves heating Cannabis or concentrates//extracts to temperatures slightly lower than combustion. This technique causes cannabinoids and other molecules found in Cannabis to reach their individual boiling points (which are lower than their combustion points) and vaporize in the absence of combustion (8). By avoiding combustion, the toxic byproducts generated by smoking Cannabis are greatly reduced and the effective dose of Cannabinoids are enhanced (combustion destroys a larger percentage of cannabinoids as compared with vaporization). Like smoking, vaporized Cannabis passes directly from the lungs into the bloodstream and its effects are felt almost immediately.


Dabbing is a new method of delivery that involved placing a small amount of Cannabis extracts or oils—a dab—onto a heated surface (usually titanium or quartz and known as a “nail”) and vaporizing it on contact.

Like vaporization, cannabinoids pass directly from the lungs to the bloodstream and produces immediate effects. It is important to note, that dabbing can accommodate only Cannabis extracts or oils not actual Cannabis flower or plant material.

While becoming increasingly popular, dabbing can be dangerous if the right Cannabis extraction methods and appropriate equipment are not used.

Oral Delivery

Oral delivery of Cannabis and its products usually involves eating. Unlike smoking, it can take up to 2 hours or more to experience the effects of ingested Cannabis because cannabinoids are slowly absorbed into the bloodstream during digestion. Also, when ingested, Cannabis is metabolized by the liver cytochrome system and Δ-9-THC (Delta 9 Tetrahydrocannabinol) is converted to 11-hydroxy-THC, a more potent form of THC (9).

Oral delivery of Cannabis can include edibles (brownies, cookies, cakes, candy or fruit snacks), Cannabis oil/extract capsules and Cannabis-infused beverages.

Other oral delivery routes include sublingual delivery (under the tongue) or oromucosal sprays. Cannabis tinctures are frequently used for sublingual delivery and extracts are frequently delivered via the oromucosal route. Unlike ingestion, Cannabis products delivered via the sublingual or oromucosal routes are quickly delivered to the bloodstream and offer immediate effects.

Topical/Transdermal Delivery

Whereas other methods of Cannabis delivery offer systemic (body wide) effects, topical application of Cannabis salves, balms and creams generally offer more localized action (although high enough doses and repeated use of these products can sometime lead to systemic effects). These products are useful to treat arthritis, chapped skin, eczema, minor burns, muscle soreness, sunburns, swellings, joint pain, and tendonitis

Topical delivery is becoming more widespread for persons who use Cannabis for medical rather than recreational purposes. Currently, Cannabis developers are experimenting with controlled-dosage transdermal patches to treat persons with chronic illnesses (10, 11).

Cannabis Suppositories

Other Cannabis delivery method involves rectal suppositories.  Like smoking, vaporization and sublingual/oromucosal delivery, rectally-delivered Cannabis extracts/oils are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream via the colon and provide long lasting effects. Albeit not the most appealing or dignified delivery methods, Cannabis suppositories are effective.


  1. Alexander A, Smith PF, Rosengren RJ. (2009) Cannabinoids in the treatment of cancer. Cancer Letters 285(1):6-12.
  2. Aizpurua-Olaizola O, Omar J, Navarro P, Olivares M, Etxebarria N, Usobiaga A. (2014) Identification and quantification of cannabinoids in Cannabis sativa L. plants by high performance liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry 406(29):7549-7560.
  3. Gerra G, Zaimovic A, Gerra ML, et al. (2010) Pharmacology and toxicology of Cannabis derivatives and endocannabinoid agonists. Recent patents on CNS drug discovery 5(1):46-52.
  4. .Bowles DW, O’Bryant CL, Camidge DR, Jimeno A. (2012) The intersection between cannabis and cancer in the United States. Critical Reviews in Oncology/Hematology 83(1):1-10.
  5. Aizpurua-Olaizola O, Omar J, Navarro P, Olivares M, Etxebarria N, Usobiaga A. (2014) Identification and quantification of cannabinoids in Cannabis sativa L. plants by high performance liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry 406(29):7549-7560.
  6. Elphick MR, Egertova M. (2001) The neurobiology and evolution of cannabinoid signaling. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 356(1407):381-408.
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  8. Hartman RL, Brown TL, Milavetz G, Spurgin A, Gorelick DA, Gaffney G, Huestis MA. (2015 ) Controlled Cannabis Vaporizer Administration: Blood and Plasma Cannabinoids with and without Alcohol Clin Chem.;61(6):850-69
  9. Newmeyer MN, Swortwood MJ, Barnes AJ, Abulseoud OA, Scheidweiler KB, Huestis MA Free and Glucuronide Whole Blood Cannabinoids’ Pharmacokinetics after Controlled Smoked, Vaporized, and Oral Cannabis Administration in Frequent and Occasional Cannabis Users: Identification of Recent Cannabis Intake (2016) Clin Chem. 62(12):1579-1592
  10. Accessed June 27, 2017
  11.  Accessed June 27, 2017