By Wes Annac, Canna Words
Originally written for Openhearted Rebellion
When it comes to cannabis, smoking has been the norm for a long time. Although people have used the plant in various forms for centuries, the first thing you probably think of when you hear the word “marijuana” is somebody smoking it. But these days, modern technology is helping us get more out of the plant than ever.
Here, we’ll explore the health benefits of vaporizing cannabis and the downsides of smoking it.
I should give a disclaimer that this article is not intended to provide medical advice or encourage the use of a drug that’s still illegal in many places. I just enjoy researching interesting topics, and the purpose of this article is only to shed light on a healthier way people are using cannabis.
Vaporizers and Cannabinoids
First, The Weed Blog gives us an introduction to vaporizing cannabis:
“Vaporizing marijuana is a common technique for consuming marijuana, while at the same time negating many irritating respiratory toxins that [exist] within the grown marijuana flower and are released when smoked. Conversely, vaporizing cannabis allows one to get at all of the psychoactive ingredients available within that specific strain of marijuana, minus the combustion that ordinarily takes place during consumption.” (1)
The point of a vaporizer, The Weed Blog tells us, is to let the user take in the plant’s various cannabinoids (the active ingredients that produce its effects) while steering clear of carcinogens and anything bad for the lungs. We can’t see them, but we produce harmful chemicals when we burn marijuana. (1)
The Difference Between Smoke and Vapor
The Weed Blog explains the difference between marijuana smoke and vapor:
“While most don’t know it … There is a vast difference in the quality of smoke that one receives when they are vaporizing marijuana vs smoking marijuana. When one smokes a joint, or hits their bong approximately 88% of the combusted smoke gases contain non-cannabinoid elements, most of which do not get you high and provide potential health risks.” (1)
By comparison, you get “95% cannabinoids” when you vaporize. (1)
Jacqueline Havelka at Leafly explains one way vaping is healthier:
“Does vaporizing reduce ingestion of potentially harmful toxins like tar, ammonia, and carcinogens found in cannabis smoke? While there is very little research on cannabis vaporizing, studies over the years have shown that vaporizing does produce fewer carcinogenic compounds than smoking marijuana because it is heated but not combusted.” (2)
We release “over 100 toxins” when we burn cannabis, she writes:
“Although cannabis smoke is less toxic than cigarette smoke, inhalation of any combustion product is less than desirable. Any type of smoke still contains gases and particulates that can create lung irritation and respiratory problems. In fact, over 100 toxins and compounds are released when cannabis is burned.” (2)
Risks of Smoking & Benefits of Vaping
Jacqueline writes that with smoking comes the risk of developing bronchitis or respiratory infections, but this is due to the smoke itself, not the cannabinoids. A study on the differences between smoking and vaporizing found that the latter comes with “fewer respiratory effects”. Some users also believe the high from vaporizing is clearer due to the absence of smoke, but there aren’t many studies available to back up this claim. (2)
Jacqueline writes that participants in a 2014 study of 100 people who smoked and vaporized cannabis reported “several advantages” to vaporizing in comparison to smoking. These included the better taste the vapor offered and the absence of a smoky stench. Participants also reported getting more out of the same amount of material by vaping it. After the study, most of them reported that they “planned to continue” vaping. (2)
Cannabis users generally appreciate that vaping is “more discreet” than smoking, Jacqueline writes, and new users enjoy it because they can inhale in “short puffs” instead of breathing it in deeply. (2)
Smoking, Vaping, and Lung Health
Since it’s bad for your lungs to smoke anything, how does vaping hold up in regards to lung health? Is it a healthy enough alternative to switch to if you’ve already done damage to your lungs?
Steven Peters at Natural Revolution writes that along with the “pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and other byproducts” often used to grow cannabis, even an organically grown plant puts out some of the carcinogens we find in tobacco smoke when it’s combusted. (3)
As Steven writes, this is where vaporization comes in handy:
“…Vaporizing cannabis allows a person to receive all of the components such as THC, and other cannabinoids such as CBD that is available within a specific strain of cannabis, minus the combustion toxins, specifically polycyclic hydrocarbons such as benzopyrene which is highly carcinogenic that ordinarily takes place through combustion and during consumption of smoked products including cannabis.” (3)
Steven writes that atmospheric benzopyrene is commonly found in “residential wood burning”, but we can also find it in “coal tar”, “automobile exhaust fumes” (most commonly diesel engines), and “charbroiled food”. (3)
It doesn’t sound like something we’d want to inhale.
Furthermore, as Steven writes:
“Dr. Tashkin [Director of the Pulmonary Function Laboratories at the University of California] found that regular smoking of marijuana by itself causes visible and microscopic injury to the large airways that are consistently associated with an increased likelihood of symptoms of chronic bronchitis that subside after cessation of use.” (3)
Despite this, Steven writes that Dr. Tashkin found no evidence indicating smoking marijuana “leads to significant abnormalities in lung function”. He also found “no clear link” between smoking it and developing COPD or “lower respiratory tract infections”. (3)
According to Dr. Tashkin:
“…Findings from a limited number of well-designed epidemiological studies do not suggest an increased risk for the development of either lung or upper airway cancer from light or moderate use, although evidence is mixed concerning possible carcinogenic risks of heavy, long-term use.” (3)
So, it seems that though there are risks associated with smoking cannabis, your chances of developing lung cancer or something else debilitating are slim.
The risks, Steven writes, include coughing, inflammation, and trouble exhaling. He reminds us that to smoke cannabis is to breathe “hot, smoldering plant materials into your body”. To vape it, however, is to use a device with a temperature setting that heats up the herb or oil enough to release the cannabinoids but not enough to combust it. (3)
This will help you “avoid a scorched itching throat many times associated with smoking cannabis”, Steven writes. He also writes that rolling papers and various smoking devices are harsh on the throat and lungs. Some manufacturers make rolling papers with “bleach or other chemicals”, which can harm your lung tissue. By using a vaporizer, you avoid all of this. (3)
United Patients Group on Vaping and Lung Health
According to the United Patients Group:
“The connection between cannabis smoking and lung health was brought to the forefront about ten years ago with a comprehensive [report] involving close to 7,000 participants conducted by researchers at State University, New York and the University of Southern California.
“In the report, published in Harm Reduction Journal, researchers stated that ‘the safety of cannabis can increase with the use of a vaporizer.’ They also found that ‘regular users of joints, blunts, pipes, and water pipes might decrease respiratory symptoms by switching to a vaporizer.’” (4)
The UPG reports that although the researchers added cigarette smoking into the mix, thus muddying the results, they still found that vaporizing cannabis is the better choice for lung health even with many other factors considered. Those include “age, sex, cigarette smoking, and amount of cannabis used”. (4)
“Pen” and “Tabletop” Vapes
Most of us know vaping is healthier, the UPG reports, but not everyone is aware that just like with tobacco, there are different ways to vape cannabis. Most vaporizers come in one of two main styles: “tabletop” (bigger and more efficient units you’d put on a table) and “pen” (smaller and more discreet, sometimes known as portable vapes). (4)
From there, the UPG tells us, you have the choice of a vaporizer that works for dry herb, oils, or both. (4) Of those who vaporize, many prefer oils:
“Some patients prefer to use vaporizers that convert dry herb and flowers to cool vapor. This preference can be for a variety of reasons: taste, consistency of experience and ease of access for herb versus oil, just to name a few. However, most medical cannabis users who vape use oils. This is because the extraction process that renders cannabis oil can normally fine tune CBD and THC levels more exactly than dry herb can.” (4)
What we should really focus on is the quality of the vaporizer we choose:
“The key thing to remember, however, when it comes to using any kind of vaporizer is quality. Experts recommend staying away from any kind of vaporizer that is mass-produced or may have been put together using chemically-harsh glues or heavy metals.
“It is worth doing your own research into companies that can guarantee their products are made without the use of these materials than can off-gas at high temperatures. It is also best to stick with ceramic or titanium heating elements; these are seen as safer than vapes made of steel, glass or fiber.” (4)
Vapor Is “95% Smoke and Carcinogen-Free”
According to this infographic on smoking vs. vaping cannabis, 88% of combusted cannabis smoke contains the potentially hazardous non-cannabinoid chemicals we learned about earlier. If you hold in cannabis smoke with the belief that it will increase the effect, all you’ll really do is take in more tar and harmful chemicals. You absorb “95% of the THC” in the first few seconds you breathe in the smoke or vapor, making it useless to hold in. (1)
Cannabis vapor, the infographic tells us, is “95% smoke and carcinogen-free”. As we learned, this is because a vaporizer heats the herb to a predetermined temperature which brings out its cannabinoids “in vapor form” without combusting the material. 338 degrees Fahrenheit is an ideal vaporization temperature, and by 392 degrees, the herb begins to combust. Vaporization of cannabinoids begins at 285 degrees. (1)
The infographic provides some basic information on the different cannabinoids you receive from vaping:
- Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC): The most well-known cannabinoid, THC provides the “main” euphoric and sedative feelings cannabis is known for. (1) (It also provides pain relief and has an array of other medical uses.)
- Cannabidiol (CBD): The cannabinoid with perhaps the most medicinal potential. It is non-psychoactive and can even counter the psychoactive effect of THC. It “holds the most promise” to help with dire medical conditions. (1)
- Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV): Found mostly in Central African strains, THCV shows promise for treating “metabolic disorders” that include diabetes. It could also potentially help suppress appetite. (1)
- Cannabinol (CBN): Somewhat psychoactive, this cannabinoid results from “the degradation of THC”. A “fresh plant” will contain little if any CBN. (1)
- Cannabichromene (CBC): A cannabinoid similar in structure to THC, THCV, CBD, CBN, and others. (1)
- Cannabicyclol (CBL): A non-psychoactive cannabinoid “found in the Cannabis species”. (1)
Depending on various factors including the cannabinoids your strain is bred to enhance, you might only receive THC and no other cannabinoids if you smoke the plant. Moreover, you’ll receive less THC than if you vaporize. With vaporization, you’ll get more THC and more of the other cannabinoids that come with their own benefits.
I couldn’t tell you whether smoking or vaping cannabis is better, as it comes down to each user’s personal preference. But it should be no surprise that when it comes to which is healthier, vaping is the unequivocal winner.
Old-fashioned cannabis smokers are understandably wary of all this new technology complicating what used to be a simple thing. But along with being better for everyone, vaporization opens the door for medical patients with throat or lung conditions who can’t smoke.
New technology isn’t always bad, and people are slowly realizing that vaping is much healthier than smoking. As people continue to support it, the technology will improve over time. The result will be a much safer and more efficient way to use herbs of all kinds.
- “Smoking Marijuana Vs. Vaporizing Marijuana Infographic”, The Weed Blog, August 17, 2012 – https://www.themaven.net/theweedblog/culture/smoking-marijuana-vs-vaporizing-marijuana-infographic-P-B_zAy9CU-wSEoSDDwECQ?full=1
- Jacqueline Havelka, “Is Vaping Safe? The Differences Between Vaping vs. Smoking Cannabis”, Leafly, April 27, 2017 – https://www.leafly.com/news/health/vaping-vs-smoking-marijuana-safety
- Steven Peters, “Smoking Vs. Vaporizing Cannabis – Know The Facts”, Natural Revolution – http://naturalrevolution.org/smoking-vs-vaporizing-cannabis-420/
- “Effects of Smoking vs. Vaping Marijuana: Is Vaporizing Cannabis Better? Some Researchers Say Yes.”, United Patients Group, February 10, 2017 – https://unitedpatientsgroup.com/blog/2017/02/10/vaporizing-cannabis-better-researchers-say-yes/