The emergence of the medical marijuana movement has motivated the development of alternative methods of consuming cannabinoids, the elemental chemicals in pot that get recreational tokers high and medicate the sick.
Joining sublingual sprays, tinctures, pills, and edibles is a relatively old technology: Vaporization. This method of extracting THC, CBC, CBD, and other valuable cannabinoids from a pot plant offers the advantages of decreased harm to the lungs, long-term cost reduction, and decreased smell (aiding in stealth).
Cannabinoids are stored in the plant’s resinous trichomes, very sticky and nearly microscopic translucent stalks that appear on the surface of the flowers of mature cannabis plants. Trichomes lend the plant matter a sugary or powered appearance. Vaporization is the process of passing a heated stream of air through a body of ground cannabis, causing the trichomes — and the cannabinoids contained within — to vaporize, after which the vapor is delivered directly to a patient for inhalation or collected in an inflatable bag for leisurely consumption.
Many marijuana smokers report that vaporization produces a more heady, sativa-like high. “It does seem to be more of a body engagement when one smokes cannabis as compared to vaporization,” said Dr. Rick Doblin, founder and president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) based in San Francisco. Doblin continued,
“Maybe that’s from the smoke or the particulate matter…it’s hard to say exactly. But there does seem to be an ethereal, heady effect that comes from vaporization.”
Health advocates, in an effort called harm reduction, have long embraced the approach of vaporization, a way of extracting the THC and other cannabinoids from marijuana without the noxious toxins and smoke associated with burning the herb. Are there dangers associated with vaporizing cannabis? Chemically speaking, how does it differ from smoking the plant?
One of the most confusing elements of vaporization is the temperature at which it occurs. The Volcano vaporizer, for example, is adjustable between 266 and 446 degrees Fahrenheit (130 to 230 degrees Celsius). Instead of happening at a fixed temperature, vaporization occurs within a range of temperatures. To be more precise, each cannabinoid (more than 110 have been discovered) begins to vaporize at a slightly different temperature.
Thus, different cannabinoid profiles are produced by variations in vaporization temperature, especially at lower temps. While the average recreational smoker will be hard pressed to perceive minute differences, a near-combustion temperature of about 428 degrees F (220 degrees C) will produce a different high type than a setting at the base of the vaporization temperature range (which is about 160 degrees lower). MAPS’ Doblin recommends using higher temps to extract a maximum volume of cannabinoids and, thus, gain the greatest medical efficacy.
NORML’s 2004 Vaporization Study
Dr. Dale Gieringer of NORML in 2004 conducted a peer-reviewed research study published in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics. He found the vapor produced by the Volcano to be populated by only THC and trace amounts of CBD and CBN, two other cannabinoids (in some samples, only THC and CBN were detected, with an absence of CBD). Vapor produced by the Volcano was completely void of three toxins produced by smoking: Benzene (a known carcinogen), toluene, and naphthalene. Carbon monoxide and smoke tars were also “qualitatively reduced.”
Concluded the NORML study, as reported by Gieringer:
“Our research indicates that vaporization is a promising technology for smoke harm reduction.”
If vaporization is such an effective means of harm reduction, should patients who medicate using a vaporizer on a daily basis be concerned about health issues? Dobson believes vaporization does such a good job of reducing risks that he thinks high-potency marijuana, vaporized, can be considered a medicine by organizations such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Effective vaporizer solutions are available in a wide range of prices and quality levels. For patients who can’t afford the Volcano, which starts at $500, competing models are available at considerably lower prices. One example is the $100 Vapolution, a basic vaporizer from California.
Smoking cannabis will probably never be abandoned by humans. However, as an increasing number of states legally recognize medical cannabis and millions of patients begin to consume marijuana on a daily basis, many will opt for the more technically advanced option of vaping that carries few of the harmful toxins produced by smoking.
This post was originally published on May 29, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.