Vaporizing Cannabis: More Alternatives for Nonsmokers
Vaporizing the psychoactive and medicinal cannabinoids in marijuana is a safe alternative to smoking flower buds from the plant
By David Jay Brown | Published in Santa Cruz Patch
Several weeks ago, I wrote a column about cooking with cannabis. I wrote that it is a safe alternative to smoking the plant for its psychoactive effects or medicinal benefits—as not everyone who uses cannabis enjoys the process of inhaling harsh smoke into their lungs.
This week we’ll discuss vaporizers that make the psychoactive components of cannabis airborne and inhalable, without burning the plant matter and creating smoke.
The vaporization process allows one to avoid the production of toxic and irritating smoke, because the temperature that it heats the cannabis flowers to is just high enough to boil off and vaporize the active cannabinoids without causing the combustion of the plant material—so there is no smoke, or very little smoke.
A number of scientific studies have demonstrated that vaporizing cannabis exposes people to much lower levels of harmful substances than smoking the herb does.
A study conducted by the local Santa Cruz medical research organization MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) and California NORML (the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws) showed that the use of vaporizers significantly reduces the toxins in marijuana smoke, and that vaporization reduces the possibility of any health risks from smoking, such as respiratory harm.
Cannabis vapor from a well-made vaporizer contains virtually no tar or particulate matter, and much lower levels of dangerous gases, like carbon monoxide.
(MAPS has been trying for years to continue its vaporizer research, and although the Food and Drug Association has approved its next study, the Drug Enforcement Administration has prevented it from happening by not allowing the researchers to obtain the necessary cannabis. For more information about this, see the article that I wrote for High Times on the subject.)
The MAPS/NORML study tested a device called “the M1 Volatizer,” which was marketed as an “aromatherapy vaporizer” by Alternative Delivery Systems Inc. Like most high-end vaporizers, it consisted of a sensitive electric-heating element inside a refillable chamber that heats up a pinch of cannabis to temperatures that range between 356-392 degrees F (180-200 degrees C). Output from the vaporizer was analyzed and compared with smoke produced by burning the sample.
When using the better vaporizers, the vapor is often saved and inhaled with a reusable plastic bag. The less-expensive models are more similar to using a traditional pipe, as they use a flame to heat the plant material without combusting it.
In downtown Santa Cruz, a number of shops carry vaporizers, ranging widely in price and quality. Pipeline, my longtime favorite smoke shop in downtown Santa Cruz, carries some of the best vaporizers in town, and I think that it has the most complete selection. Pipeline’s price range varies from $20-$650. The “Volcano Vaporizer” models—among the very best vaporizers made—sell for $500-$650, although their most popular models,called “VaporBrothers” and “Magic Flight Box,” are much less expensive.
According to a salesperson at the Star Zone Smoke Shop on Seabright, that shop’s vaporizers range from $100-$300, and the best-selling model is also the cheapest, called “the Eazyvape.” Graffix Pleasure on Pacific Avenue also sells vaporizers from $50-$650. A salesperson for the store said that the most popular model is called the “Iolite,” because it’s portable and runs off of butane.
Personally, I’ve tried around a dozen different vaporizers of widely ranging quality, and I was only able to experience smoke-free vapor with the high-end Volcano vaporizers, which have the best quality heating elements. Unless the temperature is controlled very carefully and precisely, some smoke will mix in with the vapor, and all of the lower-priced models that I tried did this.
Still, some of the low-end vaporizers might be healthier than burning buds in a conventional pipe and sucking all that harsh smoke into one’s lungs. In the high-end models that I tried, there was no taste of smoke at all. However, many people report that the psychoactive effects from vaporized cannabis are somewhat different than smoking it, and some people still prefer smoking it, for the different effects as well as for the taste.
Surprisingly, I also got pretty good results with the very cheapest vaporizer available, which is a simple glass tube that costs around $20 at Pipeline. One simply places a pinch of the herb into the glass tube, and lights it from below the glass tube, so the flame never ignites the plant material. I actually got less smoke using this model than some of the vaporizers that cost several hundred dollars.
Special note: Thank you to everyone who voted for me as the “Best Writer in Santa Cruz” in the annual Good Times poll. In a town where Robert Anton Wilson, Robert Heinlein and Gregory Bateson have all lived, it certainly feels like an honor to win this title. Be sure to check out the Good Times cover story about my work by Damon Orion in the April 14 issue.