Introduction to Cannabis Vapes and Vaping
Considered a safer alternative to smoking, here’s what you should know about vaporizers, vape pens, and inhaling cannabis concentrates.
What is vaping anyway?
Vaping is not the same as smoking. While smoking cannabis heats dried flower or extract to the point of burning or combustion, vaporizing cannabis heats the material at a lower temperature, which boils cannabinoid and terpene oils into a vapour without burning the actual plant matter. The resulting vapour, or mist, is then inhaled. Vaporized cannabis from Health Canada-approved sources is less irritating to the throat and lung than smoked cannabis, and contains significantly fewer harmful chemicals in comparison to smoke.
Many vaporizers offer patients the ability to set the temperature, which lets you target the unique boiling point of individual terpenes or cannabinoids to zero-in on their desired effects. In fact, not all cannabis compounds burn at once: simple (mono) terpenes boil first, then THC, then more complex terpenes, followed by the cannabinoids CBD and CBN, and finally THCV and CBC. There are also cost-savings in vaporizing over smoking: none of the beneficial compounds in cannabis are lost to the surrounding air, so you’ll need less product per dose.
Another way to vape cannabis is with a prefilled extract cartridge or pen, often referred to as a ‘vape.’ A glass cartridge with cannabis extract oil fits onto a slim battery, and the entire device resembles a pen, or sometimes a thin rectangle. As with dried flower vaporizers, vape pens heat the cannabis extract at a lower temperature, transforming its contents into an inhaled vapour.
How long do the effects of vaping last?
Like smoking, the effects of vaping are felt within seconds or minutes, with the full effect felt after 10 to 30 minutes. Depending on the individual, effects will last about three to four hours, and possibly up to six. Cannabis extracts are more potent than flower, so patients should observe how their body reacts after the first few inhalations before continuing.
Vaporizers versus vape pens: What’s the difference?
Dried flower vaporizers come in two forms: conduction and convection.
Conduction: Conduction vaporizers use a heated metal plate to warm ground cannabis flower and transform its compounds into vapour. An example of a conduction vaporizer is the Grenco G Pen Elite Vaporizer. Only one side of the cannabis is heated, however, which risks uneven heat or even scorching some of the plant matter. This can be mitigated by stirring grounds mid-dose if needed.
Convection: These vaporizers circulate hot air around the ground cannabis flower, just like a convection oven. An example of a convection vaporizer is the Storz & Bickel Mighty Vaporizer. Because of the contactless, even heat, convection vaporizers are touted as delivering a cleaner inhalation than conduction. However, these devices also come with a higher price tag.
With both conduction and convection dried flower vaporizers, you can choose from tabletop versions that stay plugged in, or rechargeable, battery-operated handheld devices that travel easily.
Vape pens: Prefilled extract cartridge vape pens offer another portable alternative. They are available in both disposable and reusable options. Disposable vape pens, such as Viola Grandma's Pie Live Terpene Vape Pen, require a minimal investment from patients—once the pen is done, you throw it away (or drop it off at your local e-waste disposal location). Alternatively, rechargeable battery systems, such as dosist dose pen rechargeable system, use cartridge replacements that offer flexibility on top of convenience; if patients use more than one kind of cannabis to treat their symptoms, they can switch out cartridges at any point. Vape pens also don’t require the visual and physical dexterity required to grind and pack a dried flower vaporizer. With newer technologies, there are metered-dose vaporizers to help with dose control and even pens that can sync with smartphones and laptops to monitor use.
What’s in a vape pen cartridge?
The cannabis extract in a prefilled vape pen cartridge or ‘cart’ is not the same as cannabis oil intended for oral ingestion or topical use. The oil or distillate meant for vaping must be thin enough to transform into vapour once heated, and pass the rigorous testing and guidelines set out by Health Canada. Many licensed vape cartridge manufacturers use cannabis distillate, which is just cannabis extract oil that’s been further refined until just THC or CBD (or both) is left. However, because terpenes are lost in the distillation process, some manufacturers add these aromatic compounds back in. Other vape cartridges from Licensed Producers contain supercritical CO2 extract oil, which can retain some terpenes in the extraction process—these cartridges are often referred to as ‘full-spectrum’ or ‘resin’. As per Health Canada’s stipulations, all ingredients in vape cartridges must be listed on the package. Additives such as propylene glycol or glycerol are sometimes used to dilute oil or distillate to achieve the right consistency for vaping. The safety of these additives is closely monitored by Health Canada.
Patients can currently choose from the following oil cartridge options, ranging from 0.25g to 1.0g in size:
Disposable pens: These typically do not have a power button, just inhale to activate. The cartridge is usually attached to the battery as a single unit. Once the battery is dead, or the cartridge is empty, the entire pen is discarded.
510 cartridges: Currently the most common type of vape extract pen, a 510-thread cartridge screws into a 510 vape battery that comes with a charger. These are available in different voltage strengths.
PAX pods: These cartridges plug into PAX portable vaporizers, which also have temperature control settings.
dosist pods: When plugged into its compatible pen, dosist pods are designed to release 2.5mg of cannabinoids per inhalation, making it easy for patients to know how much they’re getting.
Why is the cannabinoid percentage so high in vape cartridges?
Just like the difference between vanilla bean and vanilla extract, when cannabis flower is converted into an extract, it becomes much more concentrated. While cannabinoids THC or CBD usually don’t exceed 20%, in cannabis flower, the extracts in vape pens can contain upwards of 80% of either cannabinoid—or even a balanced 50-50 of THC to CBD. What this means for patients is vape pens deliver more cannabinoids per inhalation. Here’s a simplified comparison:
Vape pen with extract: 4mg THC, assuming one slow inhalation of 5 seconds of 80% THC in a 0.5g cartridge;
Vaporizer with dried flower: 1.5mg THC, assuming one slow inhalation of 5 seconds of 20% THC in 0.3g ground flower added to the heating element.
Remember that more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to cannabis. While some patients may benefit from higher doses of isolated cannabinoids, other patients may need the full-spectrum effects of dried flower to manage their symptoms.
Are vape pens safe?
There has been concern over the safety of vape pens and their connection with severe pulmonary illnesses. In Canada, all vape pens are heavily regulated and overseen by multiple legislative bodies at the federal level. Cannabis vapes sold by licensed retailers are manufactured and tested under strict federal guidelines, then undergo approval and licensing through Health Canada.
Medical Cannabis by Shoppers goes even further by providing only heavily vetted vape pens of the highest quality for patients. Your cannabis-trained pharmacist can address any concerns you may have about vape pens and guide you towards the product that will best manage your symptoms.
What is a dab pen?
The term ‘dabbing’ refers to inhaling a tiny amount—a dab—of cannabis concentrate. A device called a dab rig is used to heat and inhale cannabis concentrate. Dab pens are a cross between a dab rig and a vape pen. Dab pens are a cross between a dab rig and a vape pen. This battery-operated device heats a small chamber where a ‘dab’ of concentrate is manually added, and the resulting vapour inhaled. While adding your own cannabis concentrate involves an extra step compared to vape pens, the type of concentrate used may offer patients advantages. Sticky, semi-solid cannabis waxes offer very potent cannabinoids that may ease severe symptoms quickly. For patients looking for full-spectrum effects, live resins are made by flash-freezing raw cannabis, which retains even more terpenes and plant compounds than dried and cured cannabis flower. Some dab pens can also be used to vape both concentrates and dried flower, offering flexible modes of treatment to patients.
How do you vape cannabis?
The advantage of vaping over smoking rests in the lower temperature, which sits between 340˚F and 480˚F (171˚C to 220˚C). Not only does vaping avoid harmful compounds produced by high heat combustion, but the lower temperature also reduces irritation in the throat and lungs. If you find vaping still makes you cough, try reducing the temperature.
A vape pen is the easiest to use: just turn on (if needed), bring the mouthpiece to your lips, inhale slowly, and exhale. There is no material advantage to holding your breath.
A dab pen may need to be turned on and heated before the concentrate is added. Once ready, inhale slowly, and exhale.
A dried flower vape will also need preheating. Add ground cannabis to the chamber, preheat, and use when desired temperature is reached. Slowly inhale the vapour, and exhale. Note that terpene oils will generally boil before cannabinoids, which are flavourless, so don’t stop vaping once the flavour is gone. It may take three or four inhalations to get all the beneficial plant compounds.
How do you know when your vaporized dried flower is done?
While you do want to continue vaping after the flavour is gone, you don’t want to go too far and risk burning the plant material. Your throat is a good first indicator: when the vapour feels harsh or tastes toasty, it’s probably time to stop. Taken too far, the flower will produce an unpleasant, acrid smell and taste. If you’re unsure, open the vaporizer and check the colour: spent cannabis is brown and crunchy. If it’s just pale brown with some moisture left, stir the chamber and continue with a few more inhalations.
Already vaped bud (AVB): Compost or re-use?
Patients who are inclined can re-use their AVB. Because the cannabis has already been decarboxylated (heated), any residual cannabinoids in the AVB are active. The toasty brown cannabis can be added to tea or fresh coffee grounds, sprinkled into food or infused into cooking oils. The drawback is it’s hard to gauge which cannabinoids are leftover, and how potent they are.