There’s something truly delightful about placing a perfect little bud in the bowl of a pipe, watching it light up as the flame kisses the trichomes, and pulling a deep, smokey hit into your lungs. And there’s something tragic about the taste of your butane lighter mixing in with the smoke, and staying on your tongue after you exhale.
Or much worse, when the bowl is all but empty, and you take another long hit to clear the remains — and end up taking a long, deep pull of butane.
Cigarette lighters are cheap, convenient, and almost always within reach no matter how many of your friends have a knack for stealing lighters. But is it the best or safest way to smoke?
One of the best alternatives is cheap, easy, and made from cannabis — the hemp wick.
What is a hemp wick?
It’s pretty much right there in the name: a hemp wick is basically a long thin piece of hemp rope that’s coated in beeswax. Think a very long candlewick made out of hemp — but with no candle. The beeswax helps the wick burn slowly and steadily, though it can also mean it takes a little bit longer to light. Hemp wicks can be used for lighting a joint or a blunt but their greatest utility will be with bongs and pipes. This is because it only takes a second to spark a joint or a blunt, so the amount of butane you inhale is minor. With a pipe or a bong, you can hold the lighter flame over the herb for a long time, inhaling much more of the gas.
Why are hemp wicks better?
First and foremost, using a hemp wick lets you avoid the harsh taste of butane gas when you smoke. Instead, with the hemp wick you have a rather pleasant smell that can be like a faint, distant campfire — or exactly what you’re picturing when you hear “burning a length of hemp string coated in beeswax.”
Another potential bonus with hemp wicks has to do with the fact that while cigarette lighter can reach around 3,500 degrees fahrenheit, hemp wicks burn about half as hot, meaning that they can really pull the full flavor from the cannabis flower, without losing as many terpenes in the process.
Finally, they’re quite affordable. You should have no problem finding a spool of dozens of feet for just a few dollars or more. And even if you are a very heavy smoker, a large coil of hemp wick should last a few months or more — and much longer than those cheap lighters from the convenience store.
Is a hemp wick safer than a lighter?
Many people have taken a long, butane hit from a cashed bowl and had the thought: “did I just take a full hit of lighter fluid?”
According to the Environmental Working Group, butane is “classified as expected to be toxic or harmful” and there is “strong evidence” that it is a human irritant, toxen, or allergen. Meanwhile, the 12th volume of “Acute Exposure Guideline Levels for Selected Airborne Chemicals” found that “the toxicity of butane is low,” but that in cases of butane abuse the predominant effects “are central nervous system (CNS) and cardiac effects.”
A 2014 study that looked at street vendors who refill cigarette lighters with butane/propane admixed liquefied petroleum gas found that heavy exposure to the gas “is associated with airflow decrements,” and a 2017 report in the Saudi Medical Journal concluded that “delayed onset of ventricular fibrillation may be because of a low level of toxicity from butane inhalation.”
The truth is, there is some reason to be concerned about the health effects of inhaling butane. And if the research suggests it’s only truly dangerous in large amounts, why not avoid it if you can — even in small amounts?
That isn’t to suggest that using a hemp wick is bereft of potential risk though. Considering that they burn at more than 1,500 degrees, and the combustion of the wick produces carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, it’s not completely harmless for the lungs either.
The drawbacks of a hemp wick
If you think about a lighter or a match, the main function at the end of the day is extremely direct — to create a flame to combust something that needs a flame. A hemp wick still needs to be lit in order to be used, so you’ll still need something to spark the wick — either a match, a gas range, or a cigarette lighter. Taking a lighter and sparking a hemp wick to then spark a bowl or a joint, adds another step to the process.
It’s sort of the two-factor authentication of getting high.
A hemp wick also isn’t quite as easy to quick draw from your shirt pocket and spark a joint one-handed. You need two hands and it could break the flow of things in the moment when you pack a bowl and then reach into your drawer or stash box to grab what your new friend may mistake for a large ball of yarn.
Because of the beeswax, hemp wicks can also take a little time to light, which means you may still go through lighters rather quickly just by using them to light your hemp wick.
The flame on a hemp wick also tends to be lower than that of a lighter on the high setting, so when using a pipe, the flame can take longer to ignite the bowl, and it can easily get sucked down and extinguished.
Finally, when you put out your hemp wick, there will still be an ember at the end of the wick, which is easy to put out but also leaves a little bit of ash to fall to the table, somewhat like a stick of incense.
Basically, think of hemp wicks as a great tool for at-home smoking. A great alternative to the butane lighter, to have at the ready on your coffee table for long sessions of repeated bong hits, where you won’t have to keep taking long, deep hits off a cigarette lighter.