Is Going Sublingual the Best Alternative to Vaping?

If you don't like to smoke or vape, and edibles aren't your thing, try this under-the-tongue option.

Kin Slips are an alternative to vaping from Oakland.

If you’ve ever ingested cannabis edibles, you might have had a bad experience. It’s a common occurrence: you down a pot cookie. You don’t feel much, so an hour later, you down another one. An hour after that, you’re huddled in a corner, basically tripping balls, and not in a good way.

This problem was much more common before legalization of recreational cannabis in several states brought professionally manufactured edibles to the general marketplace. Recent innovations in manufacturing, and regulations requiring dosage and labeling information, have made it easier to avoid ingesting too much THC. But edibles are still very tricky. The effects are still hard to predict. It’s hard to know how long they will take to kick in, and how strong they will be when they do. And thanks to the fact that the active ingredients in edibles are processed by the digestive system, the effects are often very different than they are when cannabis is smoked or vaped — methods that send THC and other ingredients straight into the bloodstream.

But a lot of people don’t like smoking. Vaping can be a good alternative, but it still involves breathing something other than air into your lungs, which is a risk even in the best of times. And given the recent spate of illnesses and deaths connected to illicitly manufactured vape products, many people are understandably nervous about vaping at all.

There are, however, alternatives. Chief among them: sublingual products, which are placed under the tongue where active ingredients are absorbed by the mucus membranes and sent directly to the bloodstream. These products come in a few different forms, including liquid tinctures, pills, and strips. By most accounts, the latter form is the most effective. Where edibles take anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours to kick in, sublingual strips do so nearly as quickly as smoking or vaping: often within seconds. And the high is similar, too. “I feel it in my face, just like smoking a joint,” said Christopher Garcia, the curator and inventory manager for Hi-Fidelity, a Berkeley cannabis dispensary.

There are only a few makers of sublingual strips, and the one that basically owns the market just now happens to be located in Oakland. Joshua Kirby, founder and CEO of Kin Slips, set out in 2016 to create a “true alternative” to smoking and vaping — an edible that didn’t act like other edibles.

People who have tried the strips seem to agree: they provide all the benefits of smoking or vaping, but none of the drawbacks, all while avoiding the complications posed by most edibles. Users simply tuck the strip under their tongue, and voila. The other methods of sublingual consumption aren’t as useful. Some tinctures are sold as “sublingual,” and you can squirt them under your tongue. But besides the potential of drooling, you eventually have to swallow the stuff, and whatever hasn’t been absorbed by the mucus membrane ends up getting processed by the digestive system, where two things happen: 1. The effective ingredients (such as THC or CBD) are broken down by stomach acids and enzymes and 2. The processing of the ingredients alters the effect, converting all kinds of THC into the same chemical. So if you buy an edible that indicates it was made from “Indica” or “Sativa,” it means essentially nothing.

An outfit called Level, based in San Francisco, makes sublingual tablets that dissolve under the tongue. People seem to like them, but Kirby asserts that strips work more efficiently, since their surface area is in constant contact with the mucus membranes.

Kin Slips sells about 90 percent of all sublingual strips in the United States, Kirby said. But the market is surprisingly small. Kirby wouldn’t share any sales figures, but he did allow that “the market is really challenging,” largely because most people haven’t heard of the strips, and also because just as they were coming on the market, there was an explosion of new cannabis products hitting the shelves.

Still, with people starting to question vapes, this might be the time for the market to gain some traction. Kirby said the vaping crisis, which has sickened hundreds and killed at least a couple of dozen, “is a horrible situation.” He doesn’t need to change his marketing message, though: “We’ve always positioned ourselves as an alternative to vapes.” While he’s gotten reports of “an uptick in sales” since the vaping illnesses started hitting the news, the more telling sign to him is that retailers that weren’t interested in carrying his products before are now calling him.

According to Garcia, there hasn’t been “much of a plunge” in sales of vape cartridges at Hi-Fidelity, presumably because most current cannabis users believe that ones bought from a licensed, regulated shop are most likely safe. The problem is that newcomers might be scared off. And Kirby said younger people tend to be less interested in breathing anything into their lungs. “That’s why we’re here, to get people away from smoking and away from inhaling,” he said.