Vapourising has been around for a while now, having taken the tobacco market by storm, bringing with it a veritable cornucopia of accessories and e-liquids. But vapourising cannabis flower predates this vape-boom and differs from it in a number of important ways. We will look at these, and also compare them to other widely practised methods of smoking.
Benefits of vaping dry herb over smoking
When it comes to vapourising cannabis, there are two ways; vapourising what is essentially a THC-infused e-liquid (often in the form of a ‘vape pen – think of a Juul that gets you high) and vapourising the flower (or a concentrate) itself. We will be focussing on the latter, which closely resembles smoking, but is a little cleaner. Vapourising flower as opposed to smoking it is certainly healthier at first glance, no smoke enters the body: that means no carbon monoxide and none of the smoke-associated carcinogens. It’s also more hygienic, you’re much less likely to have a lingering stink of smoke on your breath or smoke-stained teeth if you swap smoking for vaping. Sounds pretty good, right? Vaping would appear to have a significant health and hygiene advantage over the more traditional smoking methods, e.g. smoking joints/spliffs/bongs. Furthermore, vaping is more discreet than rolling a joint meaning users and patients are more likely to be able to medicate without drawing unwanted attention.
Vaping cannabis flower takes longer than smoking it. The flower is heated gently and progressively by a heating element, which then directs the vapour into a tube to be inhaled by the consumer. Vapour is about 10 times cooler and far cleaner than smoke making the process far less damaging to the lungs. It also takes longer for the effects to make themselves known – it is a much more sedentary and gradual process than traditional smoking – the degree to which this is true will vary depending on the consumer, of course. It would be difficult to argue that vaping cannabis flower is as bad for the body as smoking it – it’s the smoke that causes the damage. However, the health concerns associated with vaping flower vs. vaping juice or concentrates are less clear cut.
Vaping concentrates and vaping juice are also different – I know, it’s a confusing world. THC-infused vaping juice is only available in US states which have legalised recreational cannabis use. It’s basically the same thing as an e-liquid, but containing THC to varying degrees. There were several high-profile cases in the US that identified this type of e-liquid to have had a damaging effect on the lining of the consumers’ lungs – however, this was shown to be a result of the clandestine capsules in which the liquid was stored and contaminated, and cannot be ascribed to the act of vaping itself.
The vast majority of vaping is done with concentrates – this is the most popular and effective way to vaporise cannabis for recreational purposes. The clue is in the name: concentrates – these can take the form of live resin, BHO (butane hash oil) and ‘shatter’, to name a few. These are highly potent and concentrated, with THC levels exceeding 60% and sometimes reaching 90%. The difference between the concentrates is largely to do with how the concentrate is extracted from the plant. BHO is commonly described as the least pure form of extract, often done at home and using intense heat and pressure. There is speculation backed up by scant scientific evidence (due to its illegality) that vaping BHO can damage the lungs, simply due to the fact that butane is used in the extraction. Other concentrates like wax, resin and shatter, typically do not use butane in the extraction and are thus viewed as less damaging on the lungs.
The fact that vaping cannabis flower is the only method you are allowed to use to ingest medical cannabis in the UK, shows that doctors and scientists believe it to be a healthier option than smoking. AccessKaneh, an independent Medical Cannabis Advocacy Agency, has experts based all over the world, who appear to agree that vaporising cannabis is the quickest and safest way to treat conditions. As well as being safer, the vaping process also maintains more of the beneficial cannabinoids, making it more economical – you use and burn fewer cannabis buds.
Whilst there have been few studies conducted into the long-term effects of vaping, experts seem to agree that the negative effects of smoking on the body are lessened if consumers switch to vaping cannabis flower. Marilyn Huestis, chief of chemistry and drug metabolism at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has looked into the physiological effects of vaping cannabis and concluded that, in comparison to those that smoke cannabis, users who vaporise “report decreased respiratory symptoms”.
The long and the short of it is that, much like vaping in general, due to the relative novelty of the majority of these products, there are no long-term studies to consult, and the harmful effects are unclear. There is plenty of evidence to support the theory that it is healthier than smoking in the short term, but little to no evidence in the long term. When comparing vaping oil/juice to vaping cannabis flower, we are again forced to conclude that there is insufficient evidence to reach a meaningful conclusion. Intuitively, the slow-burn vapourising of the flower seems like it would involve the inhalation of fewer chemicals compared to the vapourising of treated concentrates. Again, this will depend on the type of concentrate, and how it was produced.
As is often the case, meaningful research cannot be undertaken on a substance that is largely classified. In order for a comprehensive analysis, we must work towards a transparent policy whereby scientists are permitted to conduct long-term studies on controlled substances to assess their potential health benefits.