Some of us have heard public figures state that they have tried cannabis but they did not inhale it. Such politically correct statements seem at least dubious if not ridicules, but these statements give rise to a more interesting question: can you inhale cannabis without smoking it?
Smoking is usually the first experience most people have with cannabis. It is an old method of cannabis consumption that has been around for thousands of years (1). However, in the last few years, vaporizers have seen a rise in popularity, as they offer several advantages to social consumers and especially medical cannabis users.
Vaporizers are devices which basically heat up the plant material without burning it. They do this by heating the chamber, where the cannabis is placed, or by heating the air that passes trough the plant material. Different constituents in cannabis have different evaporation temperatures and upon reaching the appropriate temperature the substances evaporate and can be inhaled by the consumer.
So what are the advantages of vaporization?
Lower temperatures, less toxic by-products
Depending on the model and price, vaporizers have one, a few or a rage of temperature settings. The models with manual temperature selection usually have a temperature range form 40 C up to 230 C. At around 230 C combustion of plant material can initiate, so this is usually the maximum temperature for vaporization.
THC starts to evaporate at temperatures as low as 140 and the majority of it is vaporized by 185 (2)
The burning temperatures when smoking are much higher reaching 900°C during a puff and falling to 400 C between puffs (3). These elevated temperatures produce a lot of toxic by-products and irritants that should be avoided. Lower temperatures and lack of pyrolysis make vaporizing an efficient and healthier way of cannabis consumption(4,5) compared to smoking.
“Based on the results, we can conclude that with the use of the vaporizer a much “cleaner” and therefore a more healthy cannabis vapor can be produced for the medicinal use of C. sativa, in comparison to the administration of THC via cigarettes. (4)“
Higher efficiency, Lower doses, More cost effective
Vaporization is a highly efficient way of cannabis consumption as you can use the herb more than once, as it does not get destroyed as in smoking. So after getting your required dose, you can reuse the same material in a later session. As there is are still some cannabinoids present in the vaporized material some people use the remaining material to make canna butter. Nothing goes to waste!
So with vaporization you get the same effects as smoking with lower doses of herbs which makes it more efficient and ultimately more cost effective.
Rapid onset and reliable dose titration
As in smoking, the effect of vaporizing is practically instantaneous as the herb constituents are rapidly absorbed into the blood via the lungs reaching peak plasma levels in just a few minutes(6). This is very important especially for patients that want to achieve immediate relief from their symptoms. If we compare it to oral administrations of cannabis, like extracts and edibles, titration is much easier as the consumer can stop when he perceives he has had the needed dose. First pass metabolism and delay of effects are also avoided.
Improved lung function
Using a vaporizer has been shown to decrease certain pulmonary symptoms. Many asthmatics have reported that since having started using cannabis with a vaporizer they haven’t had to use their asthma inhalers. This is also confirmed by several studies. Vaporiser use decreased respiratory problems such as cough, phlegm and tightness in the chest (7) and improvement and normalization of pulmonary function within one month (8).
No smoke, no smell
One of the practical aspects of vaporizers is that they do not produce smoke and virtually no smell. So you can use them in places where smoking is not an option.
Last but not least is the taste. The first thing that people who try vaporizing for the first time is the incredible taste of cannabis. The difference between smoking and vaporising is truly amazing as you can perceive the tastes and smell of different varieties of cannabis (9). The taste comes from the different terpens that are present in each strain of cannabis. Terpens are volatile molecules that give the characteristic smell to plants especially their flowers and fruits. Over 200 terpens have been found in cannabis and besides giving it its distinct smell they also have various therapeutic properties.
Choosing a vaporizer
There are many brands and models of different vaporizers nowadays on the market so choosing the right one can be a daunting process. Here are a couple of tips on what you should pay attention when looking for the right one for you:
Conduction and Convection
In the case of vaporiser conduction means heating the plant material by elevating the temperature of the heating chamber. The plant material is in direct contact with the chamber and with the rising temperature cannabinoids and terpens start to evaporate.
Another way to “extract” the constituents is by heating the air and then passing it trough the plant material. In convection vaporizers the heating element is placed away from the heating chamber and the herbs are not in direct contact the source of heat.
Both methods have their benefits and drawbacks, so besides pure convection and pure conduction there are also vaporisers that combine the two methods.
Portable or desktop
First you should decide if you want a desktop or a portable vaporizer. The later is more practical as you can take it with you and use it virtually anywhere. While desktop devices usually are more efficient as they do not need to worry about size, a recent study have shown that some portable devices are as efficient or more efficient in cannabinoid recovery than their desktop counterparts (8).
Different models have fixed or adjustable temperature settings. The adjustable temperature models are usually more expensive but they give you the freedom to set the temperature exactly the way you prefer.
Mouthpiece and heating chamber
You should pay attention to the materials from which the areas that are in contact with heat, such as mouthpiece and the heating chamber, are made of. The materials should be inert, non-reactive, so that no toxic or taste altering chemicals are unleashed during the heating process. You should look for models that have a ceramic heating chamber and glass mouthpiece. Also the partway from the heating chamber to the mouth should be of the same inert material, ideally glass.
Some vaporizers have a heating element, such as a coil, in the heating chamber. This is not recommended as the coil heats up and initiates combustion of the plant material making it the same as smoking.
Dry herbs, extracts, e-liquids
Most vaporizers are designed for dry herbs but popularity in extracts and e-liquids, in the last few years, has motivated vaporizer manufacturers to incorporate also these additional options. Newer models have canisters, mesh and cotton pads that are designed for extract consumption in your favourite vaporiser. Some models also have removable upper parts that you can interchange, depending on what type of cannabis preparation you want to consume.
Price can be an important factor in determining what model you will purchase. Desktop models are in general more expensive that portable ones. We can roughly categorize vaporizers into low end (under 100 $/€), medium (100-200 $/€) and high end (over 200 $/€) products. While higher priced products will usually be better, price does not always equal better quality. New models are being released at an increasing rate, with newer technology and more options and prices are steadily falling. With a little research you can find a product that will fulfil your needs without clearing your savings.
Vaporisers are on the rise and their popularity is growing each year, especially in the recreational market. The medical oriented companies are also investing into vape technology, with particular emphasis on rapid delivery, standardized doses and ease of use (11,12). The future looks bright, as vaporizer companies are listening to their customers needs and new improved models are being released in an ever increasing rate.
1. Historical and cultural uses of cannabis and the Canadian “marijuana clash”.
Leah Spicer, 12 April 2002, Library of the Parliment
2. The Handbook of Cannabis Therapeutics: From Bench to Bedside.
Ethan B. Russo,Franjo Grotenhermen, 2014 (p.191)
3. Chemistry and Toxicology of Cigarette Smoke and Biomarkers of Exposure and Harm (How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: The Biology and Behavioral Basis for Smoking-Attributable Disease: A Report of the Surgeon General.
Page 1, NCI bookshelf (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK53014/)
4. Cannabis Vaporizer Combines Efficient Delivery of THC with Effective Suppression of Pyrolytic Compounds.
Gieringer et al. 2004 Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics
5. Cannabis smoke condensate III: The cannabinoid content of vaporised Cannabis sativa.
Pomahacova et al. 2009, Inhalation Toxicology
6. Development and pharmacokinetic characterization of pulmonal and intravenous delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in humans.
Naef et al. 2004, Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences
7. Decreased respiratory symptoms in cannabis users who vaporize.
Earleywine et al. 2007, Harm reduction journal
8. Pulmonary function in cannabis users: Support for a clinical trial of the vaporizer.
Van Dam et al. 2010, International Journal on Drug Policy
9. Metabolic fingerprinting of Cannabis sativa L., cannabinoids and terpenoids for chemotaxonomic and drug standardization purposes. Fischedick et al. 2010, Phytochemistry
10. Medicinal Cannabis: In Vitro Validation of Vaporizers for the Smoke-Free Inhalation of Cannabis.
Lanz et al. 2016, Plos One
11. The Pharmacokinetics, Efficacy, Safety, and Ease of Use of a Novel Portable Metered-Dose Cannabis Inhaler in Patients With Chronic Neuropathic Pain: A Phase 1a Study.
Eisenberg et al. 2014, Journal of Pain & Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy
12. A protocol for the delivery of cannabidiol (CBD) and combined CBD and Δ9 -tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) by vaporisation.
Solowij et al. 2014, BMC Pharmacology and Toxicology