Vaporizers Are Not A Safe Way To Smoke Marijuana
Chris Vincent, MD, is board-certified in family medicine. He is a clinical professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and practices at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
10/21/2019 UPDATE: Recent illnesses have been associated with use of e-cigarettes (vaping). Since the specific causes of these lung injury cases are not yet known, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends refraining from all vaping products. Because THC products appear to be implicated in many if not most of these vaping-related lung injuries, nobody should consume marijuana products by vaping.
Most people (92.1%) who use marijuana in the United States reported using only a combusted form of marijuana like from a joint or bowl, but that could be changing. Vaping cannabis products is more popular among teens and young adults, and trends show vaping overall is climbing fast in that population — in part, because many think it’s a healthier alternative to smoking.
Vaping weed, as opposed to smoking it, exposes you to fewer of the toxic compounds that come from burning cannabis. But there are still significant risks from vaping, including exposing the body to harmful ingredients and potentially increasing your chances of lung damage. Here’s what we know about the possible health impacts of vaping weed.
What Is a Vaporizer?
Before diving into the health effects of vaping, it can be helpful to first understand what it means to vaporize weed as opposed to smoking it.
If you’ve seen an e-cigarette device like JUUL, you’ve seen a vaporizer. Unlike traditional cigarettes that burn leaves to make smoke, these devices use batteries and small metal coils to heat up a liquid and create a vapor-like aerosol —which is why these devices are referred to as “vaporizers” and using them is often called “vaping.”
People vape a wide range of things, including nicotine, flavorings, and cannabis products like THC and CBD made from flower or concentrate.
Why Do People Think Vaping Marijuana Is Safer?
Smoking anything — be it tobacco or marijuana leaves — is inarguably dangerous to your health. When you smoke, you inhale very hot pieces of debris that irritate the sensitive tissue in your lungs, which is why heavy marijuana smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to have respiratory issues like chronic bronchitis . Burning leaves can also cause chemical reactions that lead you to inhale potentially toxic compounds, some of which are linked to cancer.
In contrast, vaporizers don’t burn anything. They heat up cannabis-containing fluids until they’re hot enough to create an aerosol — but not so hot that they combust. Compared to the hot, harsh smoke produced by burning leaves, the aerosol made by vaporizers feels a lot easier on the lungs. One small study, for example, found that cannabis users with breathing problems were able to recover some of their lung function after making the switch to vaping.
What Are the Risks of Vaping Marijuana?
While vaping weed might seem like a less harmful alternative to smoking it, it’s not entirely harmless. In addition to the health risks associated with THC — the psychoactive chemical in cannabis — vaping itself can be potentially damaging to a person’s health.
Potentially Harmful Ingredients
When you vape weed, it’s not the only thing you’re inhaling. Vape fluids use a wide range of ingredients to suspend THC or CBD, create a vapor-like aerosol, or add flavor — all of which can irritate the delicate tissues and air sacs in the lungs.
Part of the issue with vaping cartridges is that they haven’t been as tightly regulated as other products. Ingredients lists aren’t always complete, and people sometimes don’t know what’s inside the vaping fluids. Because there’s so much variation among vaping products, it’s difficult to say exactly what is in any one pod or device.
- Heavy metals: Vape pens themselves can cause small amounts of heavy metals or other debris to get into the aerosol you inhale, too. The tiny coils often used to heat up vaping fluid are made using a wide variety of metals that can get weakened and break down over time.
- Carcinogenic compounds: Some of the chemicals used to suspend THC or make a “vapor” can also release potentially dangerous, cancer-causing compounds when they’re heated up.
- Ultrafine particulates: Because vaporizers don’t burn leaves, they don’t have as many of the tiny pieces of debris that are found in combusted products like pipes or cigarettes. But studies show that vaping fluids can still contain some extremely tiny particulates that, when inhaled, get deep into the lungs and cause irritation.
- Flavorants: Added flavors have become popular with e-cigarettes, especially among teens and young adults, and they’re also sometimes added to vaping products with cannabis compounds. Some of the chemicals used to flavor vape fluids like diacetyl have been linked to serious lung issues when inhaled. As of Feb. 1, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans the manufacture and sale of flavored vaping products (excluding menthol and tobacco).
For its part, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has started to rein in vaping companies by sending warning letters to manufacturers who market their products using false or misleading claims about their contents. Even so, vape pen users can still purchase bootleg versions of products online or even make their own at home — neither of which are guaranteed to be tested for safety.
Higher Doses of THC
A small study published in 2018 looked at whether using a vaporizer or traditional pipe changed how weed affected the body. In it, the researchers found that inhaling vaporized cannabis resulted in participants having higher concentrations of THC in the bloodstream and more psychoactive effects than when they smoked it in a traditional pipe — even though the cannabis doses were carefully controlled to be the same at the outset.
Vaping THC and Lung Injury
In 2019, cases of severe lung disease linked to vaping started popping up throughout the United States. By November, more than 2,290 cases of the condition — dubbed e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI) — were reported in every state but Alaska, and at least 47 people had died. Public health officials still aren’t sure what’s behind the outbreak, but everyone who got sick reported a history of vaping, and most reported using vaping products that contained THC.
The cases weren’t initially easy to spot, in part because they look a lot like other respiratory conditions, including the flu. The symptoms of EVALI include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Gastrointestinal issues like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Weight Loss
- Abdominal pain
The bulk of the cases were linked to bootleg products containing THC, such as those bought from informal sources or illicit dealers online, prompting the CDC to flag them as a major player in the outbreak.
Health officials still aren’t certain what specific compound or ingredient is causing the lung damage, but there is some suggestion vitamin E acetate may be a culprit. As a result, the CDC issued a recommendation that people avoid using vaping products that contain THC, especially one that was purchased off the street or that have been modified or used in a way other than intended by the manufacturer.
A Word From Verywell
Vaping marijuana might expose you to fewer toxic ingredients than smoking it, but it’s far from harmless. A lot more research is needed to fully understand the health risks associated with vaping in general and vaping marijuana and its related compounds specifically.
If you or someone you know has a marijuana or other substance use disorder, talk to your doctor about evidence-based treatment options, or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889. You can also get help by using SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator.While vaporizing weed might expose you to fewer cancer-causing substances, there are some potentially serious risks to vaping.
Vaping Safety Facts: Dry Herb Vs Oil Pens and E-liquid Vapes
An alternative to vape pens, which use concentrated oils, is vaporizing dry herbs.
Disclaimer: This article is meant for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. For medical advice, please consult a medical professional.
There has been some excellent (and not so excellent) reporting about the recent outbreak of vaping related lung illnesses. In this post, we will highlight information from the best sources we can find, and expand the discussion to include “dry herb vaporization.”
E-cigs, or vaping, defined
“Vaping,” as reported by most news outlets, is defined as “heating a liquid to produce an aerosol that users inhale into their lungs. The liquid can contain: nicotine, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabinoid (CBD) oils, and other substances and additives.” This definition doesn’t account for dry herb vaporizing, which is different from vaporizing liquids.
On October 18, 2019, Planet of the Vapes conducted an interview with Dr. Arno Hazekamp, one of the world’s foremost cannabis researchers.
When asked to define liquid vaping, he had the following to say.
“What you do when you are using liquid vaporizers, with pre-filled pods, it means that somebody else has already made a whole bunch of decisions for you about not just the variety, you never get to see the variety so you have to trust that it is what they say, but also the chemistry involved in the extraction, the decarboxylation if they did that, winterization, the adding of flavors, and the removing of chlorophyll, things like that – that’s all done for you. And that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have a very, very different effect. If it’s done right, maybe you get the same components in your lungs after inhalation. But the thing is, with the dry herb (vaporizer) you can kind of make those decisions yourself, and with liquid vaporizers, those decisions are made for you. And one of my issues with that is you don’t know what the quality is of those liquids.”
“The big problem is that somebody else has cooked up that entire liquid for you, and you don’t know what’s in there. So it’s processed food versus the pure, natural ingredients, which is the herb. You can see it (dry herb). You can touch it (dry herb).”
Summary of Vaping-Associated Pulmonary Injury (VAPI)
As of October 29th, 2019, the CDC has identified 1,888 cases of vaping related lung illness in every state except Alaska, the District of Columbia, and one U.S. territory, with 33 deaths. All patients reported a history of e-cigarette use, which the CDC defines as “electronic cigarettes – or e-cigarettes — are also called vapes, e-hookahs, vape pens, tank systems, mods, and electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS).”
The exact cause(s) hasn’t been determined yet, but one possibility is black market cartridges tainted with Vitamin E acetate. Raw cannabis oil is too thick to work in most cartridges, so packagers add thinners to make it runny enough to vaporize. This has been going on for years without much issue. But recently, as customers realized runny oil was weaker, packagers added a thickener (most are made of Vitamin E acetate) to make it ‘look’ more pure. The customer ends up with a thc cartridge that has been weakened twice, once with the thinner, and again with the thickener. Tragically, the thickener also deposits in the lungs, possibly causing the illness. This excellent article reported as many as 60% of THC cartridges on the black market could be affected.
The CDC doesn’t think one cause is responsible for all the illnesses, and they are investigating multiple possibilities. NBC commissioned some tests of 18 THC cartridges, and found a fungicide that turns into hydrogen cyanide when burned. The cartridges obtained from the black market also tested positive for pesticides and Vitamin E.
On October 2, Doctors at the Mayo Clinic examined samples of lung tissue from 17 patients, all of which looked as if the people had been exposed to toxic chemicals, the researchers said.
Reported symptoms of the illness include shortness of breath, tightening in the chest, coughing, nausea, and stomach pains. Coughing is not unusual when vaping, unless it’s intense or painful. If you vape with an oil cartridge and experience these symptoms, see a health professional, and bring your cartridge with you.
What is dry herb, or flower, vaporization?
An alternative to vape pens, which use concentrated oils, is vaporizing dry herbs. With a dry herb vaporizer, you’re in control of what you vaporize, and it’s much harder to adulterate the herbs without detection. You load the vaporizer like you would a pipe, but instead of burning the herbs and inhaling smoke, you inhale vapors as they boil off the heated herbs.
Dr. Arno Hazekamp explains dry herb vaporizing as simply “smoking without smoke.”
The dry herb vaporizer market has been growing for two decades without incident.
What do we know about dry herb vaporization?
Vaporizing dry herbs has been practiced for quite a while. There is a wealth of scientific studies on the subject, most performed in countries that have long regulated cannabis, such as Israel and the Netherlands. Bedrocan has performed a number of studies, including an excellent discussion on dry herb vaporization, titled “Vaping vs vaporization”. It’s important to note that none of the cases of VAPI have involved vaporizing dry herb. Instead of giving you our opinion, we’ve gathered some significant studies to help you research and make your own decision. All of the studies below were performed with dry herb vaporizers.
“The results indicate that vaporization can deliver therapeutic doses of cannabinoids with a drastic reduction in pyrolytic smoke compounds. Vaporization therefore appears to be an attractive alternative to smoked marijuana for future medical cannabis studies.”
“Data from a large Internet sample revealed that the use of a vaporizer predicted fewer respiratory symptoms even when age, sex, cigarette smoking, and amount of cannabis used were taken into account. A significant interaction revealed that the impact of a vaporizer was larger as the amount of cannabis used increased. These data suggest that the safety of cannabis can increase with the use of a vaporizer. Regular users of joints, blunts, pipes, and water pipes might decrease respiratory symptoms by switching to a vaporizer.”
There is no shortage of reliable information on the subject available on the internet. Our intent is to help you cut through the clutter to be armed with facts that lead to responsible decisions. These are not the only articles available on the subject, but finding them can be difficult the first time. The easiest way to find more articles, is to read the list of references at the end of each study.
Medically approved dry herb vaporizers (not for sale in US)
Storz & Bickel manufactures two vaporizers (under the ‘Vapormed’ brand) that have been licensed for medical use in Canada and Israel: the Volcano Medic and the Mighty Medic. These vaporizers are only available by prescription in Canada and Israel, but their mass-market counterparts are very popular in many countries. Due to friendly regulation, Israel is one of the world leaders in cannabis research.
Some vaporizer manufacturers have made public posts or statements about the illness. Magic Flight made several Instagram posts about the differences between their Launch Box dry herb vaporizer and concentrate vaporizers. Storz & Bickel made a statement reminding us that none of their dry herb vaporizers have been involved in any of the incidents, and they are the only manufacturer to produce and distribute medical cannabis vaporizers internationally. PAX also made a public statement on their site, and followed it up with an announcement of the creation of a Health Advisory Board.There has been some excellent (and not so excellent) reporting about the recent outbreak of vaping related lung illnesses. In this post, we will highlight information from the best sources we can find, and expand the discussion to include “dry herb vaporization.” ]]>