Are there benefits to switching from smokingto vaping cannabis?
As marijuana legalization sweeps the globe, innovators within cannabis culture are free to bring their products and ideas to the public. Novice and experienced cannabis users now have access to a marketplace bursting with new technology and choice. With so many safe and convenient ways to inhale, apply, and ingest marijuana, even seasoned cannabis smokers can be excused for feeling like fish out of water.
A growing and respectable body of scientific research has repeatedly attested to the value and efficacy of marijuana for medical and recreational use. Many of these studies, however, have failed to differentiate between smoked and vaporized cannabis, drawing mixed conclusions.
When smoking and vaping cannabis are analyzed separately, the results are clear: “Vaporization of cannabis is a safe and effective mode of delivery of THC. Further trials of clinical effectiveness of cannabis could utilize vaporization as a smokeless delivery system.”1
That is certainly a ringing endorsement and there is plenty more where that came from.6,8 But the understandable bottom line for many is that the price of a good vaporizer can be a deterrent. Especially when rolling papers and a lighter are so much more affordable. And yet many cannabis users, new and experienced, are making the permanent switch to vaping and aren’t looking back.
The Entourage Effect
To better understand the increasing popularity of vaping versus smoking cannabis, it can be helpful to know a bit about the delicate structure and properties of the herb.
Each cannabis bud or flower is coated in powerful compounds, many of which are visible. When evaluating the quality of a cured bud, milky or clear crystals should be apparent and abundant on the tightly packed green leaves. Often sticky to the touch, this resin is excreted by the glandular trichomes of the cannabis flower. This resin contains the compounds that make cannabis such a medicinal and therapeutic powerhouse. The three most recognized groups of compounds are cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids.
Cannabinoids include, but are not limited to, THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol), responsible for the psychoactive, analgesic, and other medicinal benefits cannabis is renowned for. The dazzling array of smells and flavours exhibited by the marijuana plant are owed to high concentrations of terpenes and flavonoids.
Each cannabis strain’s unique profile of these compounds, along with all other notable characteristics like appearance and potency, is known as its phenotype. If your chosen mode of cannabis consumption delivers an experience representative of its phenotype, you are feeling the ‘entourage effect’7. This is the term used to describe the unique chemical synergy produced by a cannabis strain’s intermingling qualities and contents. The more a bud’s integrity is preserved for inhalation, the better the benefits.
What Sets Apart Vaping From Smoking Cannabis?
Certainly, the fastest way to feel the psychoactive effects and medicinal benefits of cannabis is by inhaling its smoke or vapour. The active compounds enter the bloodstream through the lungs and produce a rapid onset. This almost immediate method of cannabinoid absorption makes inhalation a highly effective measure of dosage. Contrasted with cannabis edibles, which can take up to 45 minutes to take effect, an instant high means you can stay put or increase the dosage with maximal control.
To smoke cannabis, it needs to be combusted. The herb is burnt with an open flame, whose temperatures range from roughly 1100° Celsius (2012° Fahrenheit) to 1300-1500 Celsius (2400-2700° Fahrenheit). The smoke is inhaled and the desirable compounds are absorbed through the lungs. Smoking cannabis in this way can be achieved through rolling it in papers or tobacco leaves, as joints or blunts, respectively. One-hitters and pipes provide a familiar step to bongs and bubblers, which contain one or more chambers filled with water. The smoke passes through the water-filled chamber before inhalation, slightly tempering the smoke’s immediate heat and intensity.
Even with the addition of a water chamber, smoked cannabis can be an irritant, often causing coughing and a sore throat. It is the partial combustion of marijuana that produces polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), chemical compounds that are harmful to human health2,6.
There are additional drawbacks to smoking rather than vaping cannabis. Although attitudes towards smoking cannabis are relaxing where legalization has taken effect, smelling like you just smoked a joint can draw unwanted attention. It can also be problematic for those living in shared spaces and apartment buildings where it will impact others, no matter how well you ventilate your space.
Loss of quality
Cannabis connoisseurs want to experience the entourage effect as much as they want to enjoy the psychoactive and medicinal benefits in isolation. Smoking marijuana can make it quite difficult to differentiate between strains, let alone enjoy their subtlety of aroma, flavour, and effect. The phenotypes are dulled by the loss of terpenes and flavonoids to the uncontrolled heat of an open flame.
Loss of potency
The process of combustion also compromises the volume of cannabinoids absorbed, a fundamental component of the entourage effect. A 2018 study compared the effects of smoking and vaping equal amounts of cannabis and found “greater pharmacodynamic effects and higher concentrations of THC in blood”8 resulting from inhaling cannabis vapour versus smoke.
“In short, vapourizers show promise for cannabis users who want to avoid pulmonary problems and prefer a more rapid onset than edibles provide.”6This is the conclusion of an exhaustive 2015 analysis of all relevant studies regarding lung health and vaping cannabis. How does it work and what makes it so different from smoking cannabis?
Controlled Heat, No Combustion
Marijuana’s delicate chemical profile works in our favour. The sticky resin excreted by the flower’s glandular trichomes is in a liquid state and prime for transitioning into a gas or vapour at carefully controlled temperatures. Vaporizers do just that by employing either convection or conduction instead of combustion. The optimal temperature range is from around 163° Celsius (325° Fahrenheit) up to 221° Celsius (430° Fahrenheit). These are ideal temperatures for vaporizing cannabis to preserve its integrity, but most vaporizers will provide wider ranges for versatility.
Conduction or Convection
In conducting devices, the herb comes into contact with a heated element, and air is either inhaled or automatically pushed through the crushed flower to create vapour. Convection vaporizers take one additional step to preserve the herb’s integrity by using an entirely separate chamber to create hot air that is then pushed through the herb. It is a subtle difference, but minimizing the delicate flower’s contact with the heating element preserves its chemical profile and produces a truly superior vapour.
The Benefits of Vaping Cannabis
The benefits of vaping need to be experienced to be appreciated. Vaping scratches all the same itches that smoking cannabis does while providing important added benefits. The smell of cannabis vapour is far more subtle than cannabis smoke and doesn’t linger, making it a welcome alternative for small-space dwellers trying to be good neighbours. The increased potency8 of cannabis vapour allows users to save money by needing to consume less for the same effect. As if that weren’t savings enough, the by-product of vaping can also be used! Already Vaped Buds (AVBs) can be safely ingested as they have been decarboxylated. This not only opens up a unique world of cooking with cannabis but essentially doubles its value. To learn more about AVBs, check out our article 'What to Do With Already Vaped Buds (AVBs)'.
While smoking a joint is a simple pleasure that will always have its place in cannabis culture, the benefits of vaping cannabis for health and recreation can’t be overlooked.
- Abrams, D. I., Vizoso, H. P. and Shade, S. B. (2007) “Vaporization as a smokeless cannabis delivery system: a pilot study,” PMC US National Library of Medicine, [online] Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17429350/#affiliation-1 (Accessed 16 January 2021).
- Abdel-Shafy, H. I. and Mansour, M. S. M. (2016) “A review on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: Source, environmental impact, effect on human health and remediation,” Science Direct, Egyptian Journal of Petroleum, [online] Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1110062114200237 (Accessed 19 January 2021).
- Cain, P. (2019) “Why you should probably stop smoking weed and buy a vape device,” Global News, [online] Available from: https://globalnews.ca/news/5275930/smoking-marijuana-unhealthy/ (Accessed 19 January 2021).
- Johnson, J. (2020) “What to know about terpenes,” Medical News Today, [online] Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/what-are-terpenes (Accessed 19 January 2021).
- Joshee, N., Dhekney, S. A. and Parajuli, P. (2019) “Therapeutic and Medicinal Uses of Terpenes,” PMC US National Library of Medicine, [online] Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7120914/ (Accessed 19 January 2021).
- Loflin, MA, M. and Earleywine, PhD, M. (2015) “No smoke, no fire: What the initial literature suggests regarding vapourized cannabis and respiratory risk,” PMC US National Library of Medicine, [online] Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4456813/ (Accessed 19 January 2021).
- Ratliff, S. (2020) “The Science Behind the Entourage Effect,” Cannabis Tech, [online] Available from: https://www.cannabistech.com/articles/what-is-the-entourage-effect-in-cannabis/ (Accessed 20 January 2021).
- Spindle, PhD, T. R., Cone, PhD, E. J. and Schlienz, PhD, N. J. (2018) “Acute Effects of Smoked and Vaporized Cannabis in Healthy Adults Who Infrequently Use Cannabis: A Crossover Trial,” PMC US National Library of Medicine, [online] Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6324384/ (Accessed 16 January 2021).