The cannabis vaporizer seems poised to overtake more traditional methods of cannabis use in the near future. Even today, vaporizers are the smokable cannabis market’s most popular accessory.
There’s at least one good reason for that. Let’s take a deeper look at what makes vaping so popular, and how you can use the vaporizer to complement your medical cannabis regimen. There are also, however, risks involved, and a mystery illness has led authorities in the United States to recommend against vaping — for the time being.
The Health Benefits of Vaping
Vaping entails the smokeless vaporization of cannabis, in order to inhale the plant’s active ingredients. The health and wellness-promoting qualities of medical cannabis shine through this delivery method, as they always seem to do. Yet consumption of cannabis by vaporization carries several unique health benefits of its own.
Reduced Carcinogens: Ingesting or inhaling burnt materials is almost never a healthy idea. Because it circumvents any type of combustion, vaping is safer for the lungs. Keeping your vape at a low-to-moderate temperature may also be a good idea, of course. As one 2016 study on the therapeutic potential of vaping put it, vape pens “should be carefully designed to minimize potential overheating.” Optimal temperatures for vaping are in the 160-180°C (320-356°F) range.
Fast acting: Vaping, like smoking, is the fastest way to get the effects of medical cannabis into your system. Often the “peak value” of your experience happens around 10-20 minutes after inhalation, and may last for up to three to five hours. Some patients tend to prefer non-psychotropic CBD vapes for anxiety, while others may find more relief with THC. It appears as though CBD has a broader therapeutic index than THC does. So while overdoing CBD probably won’t cause anxiety, overdoing THC just might.
Enhanced Dosing: While dosing with edibles can be messy or imprecise, optimizing your vape dose is usually easier. Many vapes can be ‘loaded’ with pre-filled cartridges containing a measured amount of cannabis product. If you goe through a lab-verified vape cartridge containing 300 milligrams of cannabinoids every 10 days, for example, then you know that you’re averaging 30 mg of total cannabinoids a day.
Bioavailability, Pharmacology, and More: The bioavailability of vaping can vary quite wildly depending on how deeply you inhale, how long you inhale for, and more. Studies indicate that the absorption rates of inhalation are normally between 10-60%. Some of the factors that could affect the absorption rate are the amount and type of cannabis, duration of vaporization, and the temperature used for vaporizing. One notable study found that the most efficient delivery occurred at 439°F / 226°C.
While high-tempurature vaping may seem best, it’s not necessarily that simple. Many of cannabis’s more-than-540 ingredients are heat-sensitive. Terpenes, for example, begin to vaporize at 258°F. Cannabinoids, on the other hand, require a much higher temperature point around 315°F or more.
Vapes: One Delivery Method, Many Moving Parts
Modern vaporizers often come in the form of thin, pen-shaped devices. Tiny internal coils heat up a vape’s cannabis content to just the right temperature, at which point users can take a “draw” off the device and inhale its vapor.
There are four main components of the typical cannabis vape pen:
- The atomizer: a heating element that directly vaporizes cannabis.
- The tank: a container or cartridge that holds cannabis oil or, in some cases, flower material. Tanks may be refillable or disposable.
- The mouthpiece: The small piece on the end of a vape pen that the user inhales through.
- The battery: A rechargeable battery that provides power and heat to the vape pen.
There are several different types of vaporizers available in today’s market. Here are some of the most common ones:
Conduction vaporizer: Conduction vaporizers were the first type to reach the market. They are often less expensive and more user-friendly than other alternatives. They’re also more efficient. That’s because conduction is a process in which heat is transmitted directly from one substance to the next; in this case, from coil to cannabis oil.
Water-cooled vaporizer: Also known as the “liquid filtration vaporizer,” this type of vape is one of the newest on the market. It combines the smoothness of vaping with the additional filtration of a water bong.
Portable oil vaporizer: These vaporizers are called “vape pens” because of their size and shape. Portable oil vaporizers are often inexpensive, even though many of them contain high-quality, CO2-extracted cannabis oil. Just be aware that some vapes may use untested, unregulated fillers — so look for quality controlled products. As always, lab verification is important.
Portable Flower Vaporizer: Similar to the option above, portable flower vapes contain a chamber for cannabis flower as opposed to a container for melted cannabis oil.
Tabletop Vaporizer: Many vaporizers in this category are expensive, though they often have extra features like precise temperature control. Users who opt for a low-temperature setting may find that the delicate flavors of the cannabis plant are perfectly preserved. Pharmacological effects may be better preserved, too, as intact terpenes and cannabinoids work together to provide a powerful entourage effect.
Potential Health Risks
The scientific community is generally in consensus about vaporization being a safe and effective delivery method. All the way back in 2008, a study in The Journal of Psychopharmacology called vaping a “suitable method for the administration of THC.”
Just because vaping is generally safe, however, does not mean that everything is safe to vape. Many vape products use harmful ‘cutting agents’ to improve their viscosity. One cutting agent used by some producers is polyethylene glycol (PEG). When PEG overheats, it can produce cancer-causing molecules called carbonyls. One of the better known carbonyls is formaldehyde.
As harmful as long-term exposure to PEG may be, vaping presents even more pressing issues. In 2019, a mystery vaping-related lung illness began to appear across the United States. Hundreds of people have been hospitalized and at least nine have died from the illness across the United States, which health authorities have not definitively found a cause.
Some reports have pointed to another diluting agent, vitamin E acetate, as a possible culprit. Most of the cases of the mystery vaping illness have involved THC products, although it is believed they are largely black-market products. Vitamin E acetate was not, however, present in the vapes of all those who have fallen ill.
Until the cause of the mystery illness is found, health officials in the United States have recommended people not use vaping products. Some states and cities have banned them outright.
Vaping Safely and Effectively
One of the keys to vaping correctly is treating your cannabis well. Avoid vaping the same cannabis material again and again, and avoid vaping on very high heat settings. Some studies show that polyethylene glycol converts too quickly to formaldehyde at around 215°C / 419°F.
Medical cannabis patients are encouraged to seek out the strain or concentrate of their choice, so long as it comes from a reputable source with reputable lab testing. Look for tests that ensure your product is freedom from mold, mycotoxins, aflatoxins, heavy metals, and residual solvents.
Customers should also be aware of their cannabis’s strength — these numbers should be made readily available via lab testing, too. Use caution with ultra-strong concentrates (over 80% THC) and ultra-strong cannabis flower (over 25% THC).