SELF would like to remind our readers that, although it may be legal to purchase vaporizers where you are, the legality of cannabis is subject to both state and federal laws.
At this point, 33 states have legalized medical cannabis (e.g. weed or marijuana) and 10 plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use. So if you’re a fairly new and inexperienced cannabis consumer, it’s understandable that all of the options and information out there is a little confusing. One thing you’ve probably heard about or seen before is a weed vaporizer (often referred to as a vape or vape pen). So how do you know if a vaporizer is right for you? We’ve got you covered.
But, before we start, there are a few things to keep in mind. The fact that we can even have this conversation is a result of the vast strides cannabis legalization and normalization have made in the past several years. And it’s important to remember that some communities—especially communities of color—have been and still are being affected by prohibitive laws more so than others. The same culture of prohibition that leads to and perpetuates these disparities also makes it incredibly difficult to study cannabis, including the effects of smoking and vaping.
With all of that said, here’s what we do and don’t know about the potential benefits of using a vape—plus, how to find one that’s right for you.
First off, just how risky is exposure to cannabis smoke?
Well, it’s more complicated than you might imagine. Although we can estimate the risks of smoking cannabis relative to, say, smoking cigarettes, we haven’t been able to really quantify the absolute risks associated with smoking cannabis on its own, Mallory Loflin, Ph.D., a researcher at University of California San Diego whose work focuses on the potential uses for medical cannabis among veterans, tells SELF. (To be clear, we’re just talking health risks here.)
But we do know some things: As with basically anything that burns, the process of combustion creates compounds that can cause lung irritation resulting in coughing or wheezing in the short term, Loflin says. Some of the compounds created in that process are also associated with an increased risk for things like lung cancer. But whether or not exposure to those pyrolytic compounds (meaning they’re created when plant material is burned) in the amount that regular cannabis smokers experience could cause problems in the long term isn’t entirely clear.
One solid long-term study that examined long-term cannabis use was published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention in 2006, as Jordan Tishler, M.D., medical cannabis expert at InhaleMD in Boston, tells SELF.
For this study, researchers collected data for 1,210 people living in Los Angeles who had a history of lung or other upper aerodigestive cancers (such as oral or laryngeal cancers) and 1,040 control participants without a history of those cancers, but matched to the other participants based on age, gender, and their neighborhood.
The researchers then conducted interviews with all the participants about their use of cannabis, including the frequency, type, and duration of their use. They were also asked about their use of other substances, including tobacco and alcohol, as well as their other demographic information and their family history of cancer.
Results showed that, after statistically adjusting for tobacco use, there were no significant associations between cannabis use and the chances of developing cancer—people who reported using cannabis were not significantly more or less likely to be in the cancer or control group. The study authors do concede that their results may have been affected by selection bias and the difficulties inherent in asking people to recall their own drug use. Plus Loflin points out the fact that statistically disentangling the risks associated with smoking isn’t quite the same thing as using participants who only have long-term experience with smoking cannabis (which are, understandably, difficult to find).
But overall the authors conclude that their results suggest “the association of these cancers with marijuana, even long-term or heavy use, is not strong and may be below practically detectable limits.”
So, although there are still plenty of unanswered questions, any issues with smoking cannabis seem to be mostly confined to the time during which you’re actually smoking. “My takeaway is: Let’s avoid smoke if we can, because why not?” Dr. Tishler says. “That way we don’t get exposed to things that we might be afraid of even if they don’t seem to be causing a problem.”
Loflin, who recently co-authored a review of previous studies looking at the effects of smoking versus vaping, says that vaporization may be beneficial in avoiding those compounds and preventing those acute issues (e.g. lung irritation)—but only under certain circumstances.
When you take away the actual smoke associated with smoking cannabis, what other health risks should you keep in mind? Again, it’s complicated and hard to study under the current legislation, but we do know that cannabis can temporarily increase your heart rate, make you feel sleepy or drowsy, affect your short-term memory, and cause some transient anxiety. And, of course, using a vaporizer won’t eliminate those risks.
Vaporizers are everywhere, but are they actually any better for you than smoking?
Cannabis releases cannabinoids (the compounds that provide a “high” and some potential benefits) at a temperature lower than that at which it burns. So, the whole point of using a vaporizer is to heat the herb to a point at which it’s releasing the things you want it to without combusting, Dr. Tishler says.
Although there hasn’t been a well-controlled direct comparison of the effects of smoking versus vaping cannabis, the research we do have suggests using a vaporizer reduces your exposure to the worrying compounds associated with smoke. “We already know that there are significantly less pyrolytic compounds in smoked cannabis compared to smoked tobacco,” Loflin says. “And if you compare smoked cannabis to vaporized cannabis (using a specific type of vaporizer) there have been several studies that have shown that you really, really reduce the amount of pyrolytic carcinogenic compounds.”
For instance, a study published in 2004 in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics looked directly at the compounds found in cannabis smoke versus those created via vaporization. It found that by and large, cannabis vapor is made up of the things you’d expect (and want) to see: cannabinoids. Although there were some of the same pyrolytic compounds in vapor that were also seen in smoke, they appeared in vastly smaller amounts in vapor than smoke.
And when looking at how that translates to actual humans, research is promising so far. “Data from my lab reveal that cannabis users who report symptoms of bronchitis or respiratory irritation show significant improvements in lung function and symptoms of bronchitis after switching to the vaporizer for a month,” Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University at Albany, SUNY, tells SELF.
Indeed, in one of Earleywine’s studies, published in 2010 in the International Journal of Drug Policy, 20 participants who used cannabis frequently and reported symptoms of lung irritation all switched to using a vaporizer for one month. After that month, eight of the participants developed a respiratory infection. But the 12 who didn’t reported that their symptoms had significantly improved. Although this is a small preliminary study, it suggests that vaping does, in fact, cause fewer lung issues than smoking.
The quality of the vaporizer you’re using—and what you put in it—can vastly change your experience.
“It turns out that not all vaporizers do a particularly good job [of heating without combustion],” Dr. Tishler says. “The big divide seems to be the vape pens and the flower vaporizers.”
Nearly all of the studies that have been conducted about vaping were done using a type of flower vape, such as the Volcano or other tabletop vaporizers, Loflin says. The Volcano is a classic (and expensive) vape that uses both convection and conduction heating to create vapor from plant material that’s collected in a bag, which then inflates like a balloon. Devices like this are effective, but often unwieldy and tend to be difficult to dose.
However, because similar studies haven’t been conducted with every weed vaporizer on the market, we don’t know if the results would generalize to them, including “the ubiquitous vape pens that heat oil,” Earleywine says.
The vape pens work similarly to e-cigarettes, meaning they are essentially a battery attached to a heating coil that holds a cartridge. The cartridge contains cannabis extracts suspended in some sort of liquid filler, which could be propylene or polyethelene glycol (often found in e-cigs) or it could be MCT oil or, more recently, liquid terpenes. We don’t know much about the effects of inhaling these ingredients when heated at high temperatures in these amounts, but we do know they can cause lung irritation even when vaped. So, in general, Dr. Tishler advises his patients to stick with vaporizers that work with plant material rather than oil cartridges.
But whatever you choose, the quality of the stuff you’re putting in the vaporizer matters just as much as the device itself, Loflin says. Both pesticide residue and mold have been found on herb, for instance. And when it comes to vape pens (especially CBD varieties), they may not always contain what they say. So, as always, it pays to get your stuff from a trustworthy source.
If you’re going with herb (the actual plant material), then you’ll want to decide whether you want a vaporizer that uses conductive heating, convective heating, or a combination of the two. A vape that uses a conductive heating method places the plant material right in contact with the heating element, which means there’s still a chance that it will burn unless the temperature is well controlled. With convective heating, on the other hand, the heating element doesn’t come in direct contact with the herb, but rather heats up the air around it. (Vape pens work entirely differently because they’re heating oil, not plant material.)
There are pros and cons to both—vapes that use conductive heating tend to be cheaper while those that use convective heating may have less stable temperatures because the air may cool as you draw in, for instance—which is why Dr. Tishler prefers vapes that combine the two.
The most important component, though, is that you have some method of monitoring the temperature of the vape. That might be done directly on the device with a digital thermometer or lights that change color or through the use of a bluetooth-connected app, for instance.
With so many unknowns, this is something you definitely want to discuss with your doctor or a knowledgeable budtender before spending your money.
In addition to the way your vape works and the quality of the cannabis you’re using, your own physiology—including any conditions you might have—could also affect your experience. And if, after everything, you decide that vaping isn’t right for you, that’s totally OK.
Plus, as we’ve seen, questions about cannabis rarely have an easy answer. For instance, “It would certainly make sense that vaporizing would be better that smoking, especially for folks with asthma, but data are not available,” Earleywine says. Curiously, there is even scattered evidence that cannabis can ease the symptoms of asthma in some cases.
So, if you do have a chronic condition that could interfere with your cannabis consumption, and with so many other ways to consume cannabis (without smoking), you can work with a medical professional to figure out what makes the most sense for you.
If you do want to try vaping your cannabis, here are a few options that we’d suggest looking into. Based on our experts’ advice, we looked for devices that offer some method of monitoring their heat level (via a digital display, app, or light color), work with plant material (some will also take concentrates), are relatively portable, and come with great reviews. And all the devices on this list meet at least a few of those criteria.