BY BEN THOMAS | Original illustration for Ember by Sebastian Schwamm
The practice of microdosing has been making major headlines lately—with most of the focus on psychedelics; for example, Harvard’s research research on the potential benefits, and gossip journalists’ claim that Elon Musk micro-drops acid. But now, cannabis microdosing is attracting its own share of attention, as researchers find that low doses of THC and CBD can reduce chronic pain, improve mood, and relieve stress.
Even more strikingly, many studies are finding that microdoses produce stronger therapeutic effects than larger doses. In other words, patients who receive the lowest amounts of cannabis tend to experience the greatest amount of relief. While this result might sound hard to believe, it’s been confirmed in study after study—and in the reports of individual medical cannabis users who’ve switched to microdosing, and love the results.
How can microdosing cannabis be so effective? Here, we’ll take a closer look at how it works—and provide some tips for trying it yourself.
Cannabis microdosing dates back to the early days of the medical marijuana movement. Inspired by scientific studies that reported significant benefits for patients who microdosed on synthetic cannabinoids, advocates recommend microdosing by diluting tinctures and oils, using sublingual tabs and strips, or by breaking edibles into smaller pieces.
At the same time, opinions differ on what exactly constitutes a microdose. Some say the goal is to achieve benefits without a noticeable buzz—and Matthew Elmes, Director of Scientific Affairs at CannaCraft, belongs to this school of thought. “If a person is feeling overt psychoactive effects from THC, then the dose the person is taking is not really a microdose,” Elmes says.
Dustin Sulak, a physician and cannabis medicine practitioner in Maine, takes a different view. Sulak instructs his patients to start with just one milligram each of THC and CBD, and gradually increase the dose in one-milligram increments until they notice a change. “When you reach a point where you feel a difference after consuming,” Sulak says, “you’ve found your minimal effective dose.”
One key challenge with both these approaches, however, is that everyone’s body responds differently to cannabis—so the only way to calculate your ideal therapeutic dose is through trial and error. That can be extremely tricky when you’re working with traditional cannabis products, most of which don’t list their exact THC and CBD concentrations. For this reason, sublingual products like strips and tablets—whose packaging clearly lists their exact THC and CBD concentrations—are gaining popularity among microdosers.
What does a microdose do, exactly? People who’ve tried sativa-dominant microdoses report increased physical energy, while sativa-indica blends are reported to enhance mental focus and clarity. Indica-dominant microdoses, meanwhile, have been praised for helping people get to sleep more easily.
Clinical research backs up microdosers’ positive testimonials. In a 2012 study, for example, a team led by Russell K. Portenoy, chief medical officer at Beth Israel Medical Center gave a synthetic THC/CBD compound (Nabiximols) to cancer patients who weren’t responding to traditional opioid painkillers—and found that extremely low doses produced measurable pain relief.
In fact, a 2014 study found that cannabis microdoses can relieve much more than just physical pain. A team led by Colin Cameron, a psychiatrist at the University of Ottawa, reported that 4-mg doses of a different synthetic cannabinoid compound (Nabilone) also produced a “significant improvement” in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including insomnia and nightmares, as well as relief of chronic physical pain. And in a 2020 study led by Elon Eisenberg at the Institute of Pain Medicine, people given just 1 mg of THC showed significant pain decreases compared to placebo, even when they didn’t experience any noticeable psychoactive effects.
Even more surprisingly, patients who get lower doses of cannabinoids often reported the highest degree of relief—while higher-dose patients tend to report less improvement. For example, in a 2017 study led by Emma Childs, a psychiatrist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, people who received 7.5 mg of THC before a mock job interview reported experiencing less stress than people who received a 12.5-mg dose.
In other words, microdosing doesn’t just work better than a placebo—it often works even more effectively than standard cannabis dosing.
From the moment THC and CBD enter your body, they interact with one another (and with your body’s internal chemistry) in a highly intricate chemical dance. In some areas of the brain, for example, CBD appears to dampen the effects of THC—while THC seems to amplify the effects of CBD in some brain regions, but tones it down in others.
Sublinguals provide tighter control over these cannabinoid combos than smoking, vaping, or edibles do—and that makes them ideal for microdosing. When held under the tongue for the full absorption time, they send a precise formulation of THC and CBD straight into the bloodstream and brain; bypassing the liver, which converts delta-9-THC into more potent, longer-lasting 11-Hydroxy-THC.
Still, microdosing dosing can take a bit of practice for some people—especially when using sublingual dosage forms. “It's difficult to gauge exactly how much gets absorbed under the tongue, versus how much trickles down your throat,” Elmes says, “and the effects you experience may be slightly different depending on how much of [the sublingual dose] is swallowed.”
At the same time, the mild (or even imperceptible) effects of microdoses make them ideal for practicing with sublinguals—and for experimenting with a variety of CBD/THC percentages until you find the right balance for you. What’s more, sublinguals’ quick action and relatively short-lasting effects can give you room to try out a few different dosages per day.
And while some users report that they need to re-dose every six hours or so in order to get the relief they’re seeking, Elmes says that’s not necessarily true for everyone. “It’s tough to give a one-size-fits-all answer around dosing,” Elmes says. “Every person is truly unique, and it’s best to experiment to find the dose and re-dose frequency that works for them.”
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect.