Is Vaping Marijuana a Safer Alternative to Smoking?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend refraining from all vaping or e-cigarette products that contain THC.

When researchers asked 364 adults how they prefer to consume their medical cannabis, 53% reported that a vaporizer is their mode of choice. Among them, 80% believed vaping was a healthier alternative to other methods like a pipe or a bowl, and 34.4% felt vaporizers provided the best symptom relief.

The use of vaporizers for cannabis is on the rise, especially among youth. Still, concerns remain about whether or not these products are safe. In 2019, the CDC and the FDA explicitly warned against the use of e-cigarette or vaporizer products that contain THC, citing evidence that these products could contain harmful ingredients and increase your chances of lung damage.

Given the sheer volume of cannabis products available, selecting the right one for you can be overwhelming. Before you choose a vaporizer, make sure you weigh the pros and cons.

How to Vape Cannabis

Unlike traditional cigarettes that burn leaves to make smoke, vaporizers use batteries and small metal coils to heat a substance until it evaporates and is then inhaled. For this reason, they're often referred to as vapes, vape pens, and vaporizers. But not all devices vaporize the same way. There are three formats of cannabis that you will most likely encounter when looking at vaporizers: herb, oil, and wax.

Herb Vaporizers

These vaporizers have a chamber where dried cannabis flower is added. As the device is heated, the active therapeutic compounds in the cannabis are delivered in a concentrated vapor.

The cannabis is heated to just the right temperature so that it does not burn, which minimizes any tar or carcinogens that you may inhale when using a pipe or other combusted form. Many herb vaporizers also have temperature settings that you can change to control the amount of flavor and vapor you are inhaling.

Oil Pens

Instead of adding dry herb to the vaporizer, an oil concentrate that is extracted from the cannabis plant is added to the oil pen. During the oil extraction process, the cannabis oil is often cut with other carrier oils, such as hemp oil. As a result, vaporized oil is typically less potent than wax but more potent than vaporized herb.

Oil pens are a popular choice among first time users, as they are clean and easy to use. You can either choose a single-use oil pen that is disposed once the oil runs out, or you can purchase a reusable vaporizer with oil cartridge attachments that come in a variety of different flavors and cannabis strains. A single oil cartridge can last several weeks.

Wax Pens

Wax is a semi-solid substance extracted from the cannabis plant that has high concentrations of active compounds. Because it is not cut with other carrier oils, it tends to be much more potent than herb or oil. Wax vaporizers have three main components: the mouthpiece, the battery, and the atomizer.

The wax itself is purchased separately and added to the atomizer, where it is heated with a coil and vaporized. Wax can be somewhat more expensive and must be reloaded into the atomizer often, but due to its potency, some people find that vaporizing wax is the most efficient way to achieve the desired therapeutic effects.

Benefits of Vaping

Medical cannabis can be consumed in a plethora of ways, depending on your preference. You can consume it in baked goods or drinks, with a water pipe or rolling papers, in pill form or as a nasal spray, and of course, with a vaporizer. Some of the perceived benefits of using a vaporizer include:

  • Less smell: Cannabis has a strong and earthy smell that some people find bothersome. Vaporizers aren't totally odorless, but they do minimize the smell because the cannabis isn't burned.
  • Easy to use: Vaporizers can be less messy and require fewer steps to use. In general, all you need to do is keep the vaporizer charged and loaded with oil, wax, or herb.
  • Wastes less cannabis: Especially when compared to pipes and joints, vaporizers require less cannabis to achieve the desired effects. Doses are more potent, so you do not need to inhale as much.
  • More affordable: The upfront cost of purchasing a vaporizer can be more expensive, but cannabis concentrates last much longer than herb that is combusted.
  • No secondhand smoke: Vaporizing THC products does reduce the amount of carcinogens that others in the vicinity are exposed to. However, THC can still be detected in secondhand vapor.
  • Consistent doses: THC concentrations are often more consistent from one inhale of a vaporizer to the next, and the effects are almost instant. Conversely, it can take up to three hours after eating an edible to feel any effects at all.
  • Cleaner hit: Vaporizers may offer a purer and more potent hit than combusted cannabis, and the vapor may contain less toxins. Granted, this is only the case if the THC product is not contaminated with anything harmful.
  • Accessible in more places: Vaporizers can often be used in parks and public spaces, outside of work, in the home, or other places where cigarette or cannabis smoke are not tolerated.

Does Vaping Offer Health Benefits Over Smoking?

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. Burning leaves can also cause chemical reactions that lead you to inhale potentially toxic compounds, some of which are linked to cancer. 

Vaporizers don’t burn anything. Instead, they heat up THC-containing substances 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 can feel much smoother on the lungs.

Warnings About Vaping

Vaping weed might seem like a less harmful alternative to smoking, but it’s not entirely harmless. In addition to the health risks associated with THC, vaping itself can be potentially damaging to a person’s health.

In early 2019, people started presenting to the hospital with a severe respiratory illness that led to lung injuries. So far, the illness has been linked to the use of THC-infused vaping products in 80% of cases. According to the CDC, 2,807 cases were reported as of February 2020, and of those, 68 people died. The illness has now come to be known as EVALI (e-cigarette or vaping use-associated lung injury).

Investigators believe EVALI could be linked to vitamin E acetate additives that are used in some counterfeit THC products. They have also detected pesticides, opioids, poisons, heavy metals, and a fungicide that turns into hydrogen cyanide when combusted. The exact cause of EVALI is still under investigation.

The CDC recommends that people avoid using vaping products that contain THC, especially those that have been modified or purchased off the street. Vaping products should only be used as intended by the manufacturer.

Harmful Ingredients

When you vape weed, the therapeutic compounds in THC aren't the only things you are 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. Ingredient lists don't always include what they should, 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. 

Some of the ingredients found in vaping products include: 

  • Heavy metals: The tiny coils that heat the vaporizer are made with a wide variety of metals that can weaken and break down over time. Small amounts of heavy metals or other debris can get into the aerosol you inhale.
  • 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: There may be less debris found in vaporizers than there are in pipes or cigarettes, but studies show that vaping fluids can still contain tiny particulates that, when inhaled, get deep into the lungs and cause irritation. 
  • Flavorants: Added flavors used in many e-cigarettes and THC-infused vaping products can contain such fluids as diacetyl, which has been linked to serious lung issues when inhaled.

As of Feb. 1, 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the manufacture and sale of flavored vaping products (excluding menthol and tobacco).

For its part, the FDA 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. 

Signs of Lung Injury

EVALI is a type of chemical-induced injury that manifests like an illness of the lungs and respiratory tract. Its symptoms seem to begin gradually and can be confused for other respiratory conditions, such as pneumonia. The symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain 
  • Gastrointestinal issues like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Weight Loss
  • Abdominal pain

Keep in mind that the use of e-cigarettes and vaping in general puts you at a greater risk of lung disease, heart disease, and cancer.And though you are not smoking nicotine, that doesn't mean you aren't ingesting other harmful toxins.

Are Dispensary Weed Carts Safe?

Vaporizer products purchased from a dispensary may be safer than black market vape products. In terms of the EVALI outbreak, there were:

  • 1.7 cases per million people in states where recreational marijuana is legal
  • 8.8 cases per million people in states where only medical marijuana is legal
  • 8.1 cases per million people in states where marijuana consumption is prohibited

You can see there were almost as many cases in medical marijuana states as there were in prohibition states. This would indicate that recreational users who do not have access to a dispensary are more at risk of developing EVALI.

Cannabis is legal for medical use in 35 states, but consumers should still be proactive in ensuring the products they choose are legal and fully tested. For products that are, dispensaries should be able to provide a full report of the product's lab results.

You should also beware of dispensaries that try to circumvent regulations. For example, dispensaries that don't charge a sales tax may be evading other regulations as well, which may increase your risk of illness or injury.

Are Dry Herb Vaporizers Safe?

Some vaporizers may also be better for your health than others. Compounds in cannabis oils and waxes can be adulterated during the manufacturing process to enhance the flavors or consistency of a product. When it comes to dried herb itself, what you see is generally what you get. Abnormalities in dried cannabis can typically be detected at the store—like mold, for example.

When visiting a dispensary to pick up dried cannabis for your vaporizer, ask to view a few different strains at the counter. Look for mold and smell for mildew; black and white spots or a coating of greyish-white fuzz are signs the cannabis could be rotting.

Vaporizers for Flower

You can select the best strain of cannabis in the dispensary, but it won't matter much if your vaporizer doesn't perform well or isn't safe. By now, a few brands in particular are well known for the quality of their vaporizers, and some are answering the call for vaporizers that are safer, cleaner, and more versatile. For example:

  • Pax 3: If you sometimes alter between flower or concentrates, these pocket-sized hybrid vapes could be your thing. Vapes by Pax come with access to a mobile phone app that lets you filter flavors, adjust the temperature, and more.
  • Arizer Extreme Q: This desktop vaporizer is a healthy alternative to other more compact vapes. It includes an extra chamber that filters vapor, so that only the active ingredients in cannabis are inhaled.
  • Storz & Bickel Mighty: The Mighty is a handheld version of Storz & Bickel's popular desktop vaporizers, but it's arguably just as powerful. It features a cooling unit that helps deliver a smoother, more flavorful hit, whether you are using dried herbs or concentrates.

Vaporizers come in all different shapes and sizes, and one may be more fitting for your lifestyle than the other. If you are an active person looking for a vaporizer that you can take with you, an oil or wax pen like the Pax 3 can conveniently fit in your purse or pocket. On the other hand, if you would like a vaporizer that is more difficult to lose, desktop vaporizers like the Arizer Extreme Q are a sturdier and more powerful option.

Safer Ways To Consume Cannabis

Both smoking and vaporizing cannabis are associated with severe and potentially life-threatening conditions. Fortunately, there are safer ways to consume cannabis that don't involve secondhand smoke and aren't harmful to your lungs.

Edibles: Cannabis extract oils or butters can be used to cook or bake any number of sweet or savory foods. Since there's no smoke, there is no risk to your lungs, but dosing can be tricky. It can take upwards of two hours before you notice an edible's effects. Be patient, and don't consume more while you're waiting.

Tinctures: These alcohol-based cannabis extracts are often cut with hemp oil or CBD (cannabidiol) oil. When administered sublingually (under the tongue), a tincture's effects can take effect within 20 minutes, and just a few drops under the tongue can be as potent as a full, THC-infused edible. A tincture's dropper makes it easier to keep doses consistent.

Sublinguals: Mouth sprays, dissolvable tablets, and strips or films are all popular sublinguals that are fast-acting and safe to consume. Like tinctures, they don't have a strong taste that sticks around in your mouth and they're easy to conceal.

Suppositories: Rectal suppositories are effective treatments for IBS, hemorrhoids, constipation, and other digestive or urinary issues. Vaginal suppositories can also be used to treat menstrual cramps and endometriosis. You may consider suppositories if you would prefer to avoid the psychoactive effects of THC.

Any time you consume cannabis in an edible, sublingual, or suppository form, start with a low dose and be patient if you don't feel the effects right away. For sublinguals and suppositories, wait at least 20 minutes before upping your dose. For edibles, wait at least three hours.

A Word From Verywell 

According to a 2019 survey of 42,531 students from hundreds of schools across the U.S., 20.8% of 12th graders reported that they had vaped marijuana. These numbers are climbing each year, and the risks posed to youths should not be underestimated.

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 products that contain THC.

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.

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