While joints and bongs will probably forever be a part of pot culture, 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 methods of consuming cannabinoids, the elemental chemicals in pot that get recreational tokers high or medicate the sick. Joining sublingual sprays, tinctures, pills, and edibles is a relatively old technology: Vaporization.
This method of extracting THC 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).
Vaporizers are available in a wide variety of forms—from temperature controllable forced air models such as the $550 German Volcano to simple manually operated glass devices for under $20. It’s becoming common for smoking cafes and compassion clubs to rent or offer free use of high-end vaporizers. “Vapor lounges” are becoming common at dispensaries in Colorado, California, Oregon, and throughout Canada.
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 a cannabis bud. No longer do generations-old references to “burning a spliff” or “torching some herb” suffice. Instead, one toasts or vapes one’s stash.
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 of cannabinoids (superior to smoking). This greater efficiency means that vaporization offers a cost savings over smoking that results from stretching your supply. In a world where cannabis prices often compete with those of gold, this is a significant advantage.
While vaporization offers mid- to long-term cost savings compared to smoking, it sports a heavy upfront expense—at least for the most efficient machines. The benchmark, at least for the time being, is the Volcano. At more than half a grand, however, this model is beyond the budget of many pot users. Fortunately, prices will surely decrease as market competition and demand increases. Other capable (and less expensive) models include the herbalAire, Vapolution, Erbo Pipe, and Vapman.
Many tokers 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 the San Francisco bay area. “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. However, research has shown that burning cannabis also extracts more than one hundred toxins—when a handful of cannabinoids, flavonoids (flavor), and terpenoids (odor) is all you really want.
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. 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). Vaporization and edibles are currently the least risky consumption methods available for patients using marijuana medicinally (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 (more than 60 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 different high type than a setting at the base of the vaporization temperature range (about 50 degrees cooler).
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.
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’s also serving as a political tool for researchers like Doblin.
Torching vs. Toasting
The greatest difference between a common form of smoking, such as a joint, and high-efficiency vaping (something like 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, allowing none to escape or go to waste. Examples include the herbalAire and Vapolution.
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 (the collection bag becoming less hazy). For best results, one should stir the “duff” (toasted cannabis) after every vaporization pass.
True to the thousands of uses of the hemp plant, the spent duff that’s 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, delivering the added benefits of affordable supply and strain selection.
The Future Will be Vaporized
While smoking will probably never disappear from the cannabis landscape, the future of vaporization promises even greater efficiencies and convenience. Smaller, more portable units will begin to emerge that provide results approaching the quality of today’s best models. Vaporization 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 somewhat true. In Fahrenheit, 420 degrees is within the recommended upper range of the vaping temperature scale.
[This article was originally written in April 2007 and updated March 2015.]
All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003-2017 Gooey Rabinski. All Rights Reserved.
Gooey Rabinski is a technical writer, photographer, and compliance documentation specialist for cannabis businesses who has contributed feature articles to magazines and media outlets such as High Times, CannaBiz Journal, MERRY JANE, Emerald Magazine, Grow Magazine, Herb.co, The Kind, Skunk, Cannabis Culture, Whaxy, Heads, Weed World, Green Flower Media, Cannabis Health Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself.
He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.