While images of joints and bongs will permeate cannabis lore for decades to come, alternative consumption methods have existed for thousands of years. From the drinking of tea-like Indian bhang (cannabis buds soaked in hot milk and spices) to the ancient middle eastern tradition of marinating cannabis flowers in olive oil for anointment to the skin, the smoking of cannabis is actually a fairly contemporary means of ingestion.
The emergence of the medical marijuana movement has motivated the development of alternative cannabinoid consumption methods. Joining sublingual sprays, tinctures, capsules, and edibles is a relatively old technology: Vaporization. This method of extracting THC and other valuable cannabinoids from the cannabis plant offers the advantages of decreased harm to the lungs, long-term cost reduction, and significantly decreased smell during consumption (aiding in stealth for those where consumption is illegal).
Medical quality vaporization requires a device called, appropriately enough, a vaporizer. Available in a wide variety of forms—from temperature controllable forced air vaporizers, such as the $500-600 German-produced Volcano, to simple manually operated glass devices for under $20—vaporization is more than a cultural experiment. In fact, it is becoming more common for dispensaries and smoking cafes to rent or offer free use of high-end vaporizers.
In the world of vaporization, the terminology is different. All metaphors related to the combustion of cannabis suddenly fail to apply to this often high-tech method of separating THC from the cannabis plant for administration to a patient. No longer do generations-old references to “burning a spliff” or “torching some herb” suffice. Instead, one toasts or vapes one’s stash.
Pen vapes have recently become all the rage, especially in trendy legalized states like Colorado and Oregon. While some of these devices produce a good vapor stream and extract as much medicine as possible, others are cheap imposters that are reported to produce a cheap high that doesn’t approach the experience of smoking. This post focuses on desktop vaporizers.
A Brief History
While high-end vaporizers are relatively novel, references to the vaporization of cannabis date back at least as far as the 5th century B.C. Greek writer Herodotus described a plant cultivated by the Scythians that they threw upon red hot stones within a closed room, producing a vapor. Herodotus humbly noted that the Scythian vapor bath produced an effect “…that no Grecian vapor-bath can surpass. The Scythians, transported with the vapor, shout aloud.”
In 1989, a self-purported U.S. government employee who identified himself simply as “Dr. Lunglife” provided a manuscript to High Times in New York City. The paper detailed the process for building a basic vaporization machine from parts purchased at a local RadioShack electronics store (see Vaporizing THC Oil: An Alternative to Smoking Marijuana in the May 1989 issue of High Times).
In 1994, at the 7th Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, Sensi Seed Bank employee “Eagle Bill” demonstrated what is believed to be the first temperature controllable heat gun version of a vaporizer. Using only trim leaves and bottom-of-the-plant buds, Eagle Bill wowed passers-by with a clean, powerful high. Shortly thereafter, commercial vaporization units began to trickle onto the market.
Objectively, vaporization provides many of the “convenience” advantages of smoking while avoiding most of the—albeit controversial—health risks associated with the burning of cannabis leaves and flowers. It offers rapid onset (a characteristic of smoking, but not eating) and very efficient extraction and utilization of cannabinoids (clearly superior to smoking).
This greater efficiency means that vaporization sings a siren song not heard on the island of smoking: More for your money. High-quality vaporization simply stretching one’s medicine supply. In a world where the price of cannabis often competes with that of gold—and the most ill are typically those with the least financial power—this is a tremendous advantage (especially for patients consuming high volumes).
Vaporization allows most patients to consume 50-75 percent of what they typically would smoke to produce the same effect. For those who are chronic smokers, this can result in significant savings over a period of only one or two years.
While vaporization offers significant mid- to long-term cost savings compared to smoking, it sports a heavy duty upfront expense—at least for the most efficient machines that are best suited to medicinal users. The benchmark, at least for the time being, is the Volcano. At $500 USD, however, this model is simply beyond the budget of many cannabis consumers.
Many patients 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,” Dr. Rick Doblin, founder and president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in Sarasota, Florida, told me during an interview. “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,” he said.
When one burns any herb, the goal is to extract the substances of medicinal or psychotropic value. Unfortunately, research has shown that burning cannabis typically produces more than one hundred toxins, when a handful of cannabinoids and terpenoids is all one really wants. The combustion of cannabis is akin to collapsing an entire building, when all you need is to redecorate a single room.
Despite studies linking marijuana smoking with a decrease in the likelihood of contracting lung disease, a lack of toxins is simply superior to an abundance of what may or may not carry negative health consequences (especially for weak or very sensitive patients). Chemic Laboratories in Massachusetts illustrated this when it found that the Volcano can produce vapor that is 95 percent pure THC, with only three additional compounds present in the vapor (one of which is a cannabinoid). Regardless of the pleasures of smoking, many patients must necessarily seek the most efficient and least risky consumption methods available. Currently, this is either vaporization or edibles (with tinctures running a close third).
One of the most confusing elements of vaporization is the temperature at which it takes place. This is due, in large part, to the fact that vaporization occurs within a range of temperatures, not at a specific thermal point. To be more precise, each cannabinoid (111 have been discovered) vaporizes at a slightly different temperature.
Thus, different cannabinoid profiles are produced by variations in vaporization temperature. While the average recreational smoker will be hard pressed to perceive minute differences, a near-combustion temperature (about 220 degrees Celsius, or 428 degrees Fahrenheit) will produce a noticeably different medicinal effect or high type than a setting at the base of the vaporization temperature range (about 50 degrees cooler). This can have an impact for medical users who find maximum efficacy from a particular cannabinoid profile.
According to MAPS’ Doblin, lower vaporization temperatures result in a headier, more ethereal high, while higher temps produce a more body-engaged, indica-type effect. He recommends using higher temps in order to extract a maximum volume of cannabinoids.
Torching vs. Toasting
A thorough and fair comparison of smoking and vaping is outside the scope of this article. However, because the vast majority of patients smoke their medicine, comparing vaporization with this universal benchmark creates helpful and realistic reference points.
The greatest difference between a common form of smoking, such as a joint, and the pinnacle of vaping, the Volcano, lies not only in the efficiency of the extraction of cannabinoids, but also in the completeness of the collection and consumption of the transfer medium (vapor or smoke). When smoking a joint, much of the smoke is lost and never consumed, escaping into the air. This is obviously less true of bongs and pipes, but significant loss from “sidestream” smoke still occurs. In fact, a 1990 study by Mario Perez-Reyes (Marijuana Smoking: Factors that Influence the Bioavailability of Tetrahydrocannabinol) revealed that as much as 40-50 percent of the THC in a joint is lost to sidestream smoke.
While most vaporizers are not designed as well as the Volcano, many models do offer the efficiency of capturing all vapor for consumption by a patient, allowing none to escape or go to waste. The Vapolution is an affordable ($100) and efficient model that doesn’t waste medicine.
While burning herb is a one-pass process (for a given quantity), vaping involves several passes over a single portion of marijuana. Depending on the resinous nature of the sample, up to ten vaporization passes (ten bags of vapor, in the case of the Volcano) can be made over a single portion of cannabis. The first two passes produce the greatest strength vapor, with each concurrent pass producing less and less medicine (the collection bag becoming less hazy). For best results, one should stir the “duff” (toasted cannabis) after each vaporization pass.
True to the thousands of uses of the hemp plant, the spent duff that is a by-product of vaporization continues to offer utility. Toasted cannabis herb is well suited in the kitchen, complimenting soups, casseroles, and meats during cooking. It can even be used as a crude potpourri.
Both smoking and vaping offer excellent titration (dosing). Like smoking, edibles, and tinctures—but unlike pill solutions such as Marinol or the sublingual spray Sativex—vaping provides the economy of allowing patients to grow their own medicine, providing the added benefits of affordable supply and strain selection via targeted genetics.
It should first be noted that the “superiorities” of vaporization are sometimes subjective, especially for recreational smokers, but often for medical consumption as well. Even some hardcore medical users prefer smoking. “I’m a cigarette kinda girl,” said Alison Myrden, a noted Ontario-based multiple sclerosis patient/activist who has tried the Volcano. “I have too much trouble with my hands due to the MS to play with vaporizers or pipes,” she said.
Myrden’s situation highlights the reality that there is no best consumption method for cannabis. MS patients such as Myrden and others with severe neurological disorders (epilepsy, dystonia, etc.) often are forced to seek simplicity. The stress reduction that accompanies one’s preferred and highly subjective ingestion method is of significant note. The psychological stress produced by displeasure or frustration can easily eclipse the benefits of a technically superior means of consumption.
Caregivers and others in the medical marijuana community should consider vaporization as simply another option in the ever-widening range of consumption avenues.
According to the latest peer-reviewed research conducted by Dr. Dale Gieringer of NORML and published in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics, vapor produced by the Volcano was overwhelmingly populated by THC, but did contain trace amounts of other compounds (collaborating the previous findings of Chemic Laboratories).
“The major finding of this study was a drastic quantitative reduction in non-cannabinoid compounds in the vapor from the Volcano,” read the Gieringer study. “This strongly suggests that vaporization is an effective method for delivering medically active cannabinoids while effectively suppressing other potentially deleterious compounds that are a byproduct of combustion,” it summarized.
A leading edge unit such as the Volcano produces cannabis vapor that is pure enough, in fact, that it qualifies to be used as a scientific medical device. Doblin points out that the purity of cannabis vapor produced by a professional unit is great enough that even medical patients should harbor little worry regarding health risks.
“Vaporization does such a good job of reducing the risks that we’re aware of that I think there’s an excellent chance that high potency marijuana, vaporized, can be considered a medicine by organizations such as the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration],” said Doblin. Thus, vaporization is a technical advancement in the consumption of cannabis that is also serving as a political tool for researchers like Doblin.
The Future Will be Vaporized
While smoking will probably never fully disappear from the cannabis landscape, the future of vaporization promises to increase efficiencies and convenience even further. Smaller, more portable units will continue to emerge that provide results approaching the quality of today’s Volcano. While rabid detractors perpetually fail to establish a link between smoked cannabis and lung cancer, a significant percentage of the cannabis community will prefer smoking over vaping. Vaporization, however, will continue to lure greater numbers of disciples, both recreational and medical.
“The whole science and technology of vaporization is developing in a really good way,” said Doblin. “The whole process of vaporization is just going to become easier, more convenient, and less expensive,” he concluded. “I think there’s going to be a lot more people moving to vaporization in the future.”
 Thus, the urban legend of the perfect vaporization temperature being 420 degrees is actually true. In Fahrenheit, 420 degrees is within the recommended upper range of the vaping temperature scale.
[This article originally appeared in Cannabis Health Journal in November 2006 and was updated July 26, 2015.]
Gooey Rabinski is a technical writer and instructional designer who has contributed to magazines such as High Times, SKUNK, Heads, Weed World, Cannabis Health Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself. He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle, and a contributing writer at Whaxy.com.