The long-term health risks of consuming too much residual butane, as may occur when smoking cannabis and using a traditional lighter, are no secret. It’s one reason that cigar aficionados often use strips off cedar wood to light their expensive Cubans. Yet, every day, millions of cannabis smokers, many of whom have very fine and flavorful samples of the kind herb, light up with disposable Bic or Cricket lighters powered by this liquid fuel.
The problem? Not only does butane taint the flavor of smoked herb, it also burns at a temperature that’s much higher than necessary to properly combust one’s cannabis. In fact, it burns so hot that it destroys most terpenes, the volatile and delicate molecules that sometimes mimic and synergistically interact with cannabinoids — some of which intensify the effects of THC. Those who substitute wooden or paper matches for a lighter risk the inhalation of burned sulfur.
Enter hemp wicks, also sometimes incorrectly referred to as “hemp rope” or “hemp string.” Made of hemp twine dipped or otherwise coated in wax (typically beeswax), urban hipsters are increasingly carrying a bundle of this brown or grey organic fiber in their pocket or stash box for the purpose of lighting their bowls and blunts. The beeswax coating on the hemp wick, which sticks to itself but not to one’s fingers, burns at a significantly lower temperature than the flame of a butane lighter. This results in the terpene profile of the cannabis flower or concentrate smoked being better preserved, delivering greater medical efficacy or potentially improved psychoactive effect.
Lower temps also produce a hit that is less harsh and contains fewer carcinogens. Avoiding lighters fueled by butane and lighter fluid also prevents one from inhaling flint powder, a nasty substance no intelligent consumer wants in their mouth or lungs. Hemp wicks burn slowly and with a smaller flame than a butane lighter, allowing for more accurate bowl cornering and, thus, avoidance of the common oversmoking of ash, soot, and stems (nasty).
Better Than Butane
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the organization’s Pocket Guide to Hazardous Chemicals, defines butane as a “colorless gas with a gasoline-like or natural gas odor” and claims that exposure to the fuel-cum-solvent can cause symptoms such as drowsiness, asphyxia (suffocation), and even narcosis (a reversible state of central nervous system depression induced by a drug).
Butane lighters not only burn much hotter than is necessary or desired to best combust the herb, but they also pose the health risk of a continual flow of fuel to maintain the flame. In similar fashion, a Zippo lighter, via a wick, continually feeds lighter fluid to its flame. As long as one’s finger is holding the button on a butane lighter (or the Zippo has not been closed and deprived of oxygen), butane or lighter fluid is flowing and potentially being inhaled — along with the destruction of a boatload of terpenes and even many cannabinoids.
This is especially true for those who are smoking connoisseur-grade concentrates like kief and hash or bleeding edge extracts like live resin or rosin. Such expensive concentrated forms of cannabis are often sought for their superior aroma and flavor, exemplified by fine old school hashes and newfangled concoctions like live resin. These often hard-to-find objects of desire for marijuana aficionados shouldn’t be tainted by the flavor-destroying powers of burned butane.
Many also enjoy the full circle of using part of a hemp plant to light the flowers or concentrated resin of a cannabis plant. Because hemp twine can be legally and inexpensively purchased and waxed at home, industrial equipment is unnecessary, opening the door to small entrepreneurs. Hemp wick embraces the core values of the cannabis culture, exemplifying self-reliance and the support of cottage industries.
Hemp wicks can be extinguished using one of three methods: Being blown out, being flicked (rapidly shaken back-and-forth), or being snuffed using one’s thumb and forefinger. Many head shops and cannabis retail shops also sell special dispensers that hold the wick and allow a small portion to protrude so that it can be burned. After the wick ash is tapped, just enough of the twine protrudes to allow a fresh portion to be pulled from the holder for another round of clean smoking.
Hemp wick offers the advantage of lightly sticking to itself, depending on how thickly it is waxed. This offers the advantage of keeping a small bundle in one’s pocket that will remain wrapped or stuck to itself. A slick lifehack involves tightly wrapping a lighter in hemp wick and unwinding only enough to ignite a joint or hit a bowl of flowers, rewrapping the wick when done (the trick is to overlap the wick so it sticks to itself). Some companies even produce different grades of hemp wick, such as thin, thick, and super-thick. A variety from one brand lights more easily, but burns more rapidly, and is intended for joints and pipes. Another type of wick burns more slowly and is ideal for pipes, including water pipes and bongs.
Hemp twine isn’t for everyone. Hardcore environmentalists may prefer use of sulfur matches to light the waxed twine, fully avoiding petrochemicals (butane) or supporting the fossil fuel industry. Those who live in prohibitionist states, especially if they must hide their toking habit from roommates, partners, or children, may not want the hassle of lighting and extinguishing hemp wick each time they desire to burn down a jay or take a single hit from a bong or pipe.
The only way to get a cleaner hit than can be delivered by hemp wick, especially for those using top-shelf herb or exotic concentrates, is a solar hit. Solar hits involve use of a magnifying glass on a bright day to focus the sun’s rays on the tip of a joint or the bowl of a spoon or one hitter. After dark, however, one’s best option is a small bundle of waxed hemp twine wrapped around itself in their pocket or encasing their lighter. This approach also minimizes one’s use of disposable butane lighters, reducing waste and the consumption of fossil fuels.
Oh, and the best way to light one’s hemp twine? A candle.
Go forth, happy hipsters, and relegate those lighters to the back of one’s pocket in favor of old school smoking tech applied to 21st century cannabis legalization. Reputable brands of hemp wick include Humboldt Traders out of Northern California and HempWick from Florida. Both companies utilize locally harvested organic beeswax, hand craft their products, and send interested consumers free samples.
Photo credit: Gooey Rabinski, HumboldtTraders.com, Italhempwick.com
This post was originally published on November 3, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.