Although smoking and vaping are inhalational methods, they are quite different. Smoking medical cannabis refers to burning cannabis and inhaling smoky fumes, which contain several combustible products that are potentially toxic and/or carcinogenic. Vaping entails electronically heating oils, wax, and/or plant material in a battery-powered vaporiser or atomiser. The heating generates an aerosolised mixture of water vapour, compounds derived from the thermal decomposition of medical cannabis, and other chemical components. This process is also called ‘cannavaping’ when specifically referring to cannabis inhalation.
Heating cannabis results in the decarboxylation of the acidic cannabinoids. These naturally occurring compounds include delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, and cannabichromenic acid, which are converted into THC and CBD. Higher temperatures increase the concentration of THC. Terpenes are also present in medical cannabis; they are responsible for the cannabis odour and might result in cannabinoid-effect augmentation. High temperatures decrease terpene concentrations. Vaping leads to a release of higher concentrations of active ingredients and fewer carcinogens, in comparison to smoking, since the temperatures utilised by vaping are lower. The device refill materials may contain a wide range of contaminants and are under little governmental regulation or control. The dangers involved remain uncertain and safety is not documented. Cannabis oil is the most common source utilised in vaping and relies on several different solvents, such as naphtha, petroleum ether, or olive oil for extraction. Some solvents are toxic and even small concentrations are not safe.
Smoking medical cannabis is the most dangerous way of ingesting it. Burning cannabis is the thing that releases tar and cancer causing chemicals. Unlike a joint or bong, a vaporiser heats cannabis to below its combustion temperature to produce a vapour. This means that the THC is released but the smoke containing tar and toxins is significantly reduced. Whilst the evidence is not conclusive, it is likely that vaporisers reduce the risk to your lungs. It is also likely that some types of vaporisers are better than others in protecting your health.
There are several surprising differences between smoking and vaporising cannabis…
1. Lower Temperatures: When you take a flame to plant material, you combust the material to create smoke. Vaporisation works differently. Vaporisers are devices that heat medical cannabis at temperatures low enough to melt fatty cannabis resins and oils without burning the plant material. Once melted, these resins transform from their solid form to a type of steam. This steam is the vapour you exhale after using a vaporiser. Heating at lower temperatures has several benefits. However, when purchasing a vaporiser, it is important to opt for a device that allows for temperature customisation. Vaporisers that heat above 229 degrees Celsius will combust the medical cannabis material. At this temperature, a vaporiser is no different than a high-tech smoking device. The most common medical cannabis vaporisation temperature range is between 165-187 degrees Celsius. At this range, consumers will likely get a moderately visible vapour that avoids burning plant embers.
2. Greater Cannabinoid Efficiency: You don’t want to waste your medical cannabis! This is another, often overlooked factor in smoking vs vaping medical cannabis. When you’re smoking, you immediately destroy 50% of the cannabinoids upon combustion. You lose another 15-20% of these medical compounds due to smoke burn-off. That’s a very low-efficiency rate, maybe the lowest for medical cannabis delivery methods.
3. Few Potential Carcinogens: Another major difference between smoke and vapour is potentially toxic compounds. A 2001 American study found that heating medical cannabis to 185 degrees Celsius eliminated the creation of toxic and potentially carcinogenic compounds found in cannabis smoke. Although the correlation between cannabis and cancer is contested, known and possible carcinogens are released during the process of smoking. The carcinogens in question are benzene, naphthalene, and toluene.
Benzene is formed during natural processes that involve combustion, like smoking. In high concentrations, this compound can be damaging to the reproductive system. Naphthalene is a potential carcinogen. In high concentrations, the compound can destroy oxygen-carrying red blood cells. In severe cases such as exposure to excessive amounts of naphthalene, this can cause organ damage. Toluene is a benzene derivative, though it is far less toxic than its parent compound. While it is unknown whether or not toluene is carcinogenic, exposure to too much of this compound is known to have negative effects on the central nervous system, including headache, nausea, fatigue, and sleepiness. Inhaled toluene can also irritate the eyes and upper respiratory tract.
4. Different Flavours: Different medical cannabis flavours are expressed when exposed to different temperatures. Cannabis plants get their unique aroma from molecules called terpenes. Terpenes are natural aroma chemicals found in plant resins, and they also impact how different cannabis varieties make you feel. Different terpenes have different boiling points. This means that when heated to low temperatures, some flavours and aromas are more likely to express than when heated to high temperatures. Adjusting the temperature on a vaporiser will allow you to fine-tune the medical cannabis experience. Some terpenes, like beta-caryophyllene, which has a peppery aroma and is also found in black pepper, can be released at temperatures of 118 degrees Celsius. Other terpenes, like lavender-scented linalool, can tolerate higher heat. Unlike smoking, vaporisation can allow you to experience a more diverse range of flavours and fragrances from your medical cannabis flower or oil.
5. Customisable Experience: Another major difference between smoking and vaporisation is the ability to better customise the medical cannabis experience. This involves adjusting your vaporisation temperature. Not only do different temperature settings expel different scents and tastes from your medical cannabis, but the amount of heat that you use can help determine how strongly you’ll feel the effects of your prescribed medical cannabis product.
What to look for in a Vaporiser
Vaporisation is the healthiest way to inhale medical cannabis. However, not all vaporisers are created equal. It’s important to do your research before investing in a vapour device. Some vaporisers can be made with metal alloys that are not recommended for high heat. Others can contain too many plastic pieces near the heating elements. These materials are more likely to off-gas and release potentially harmful compounds into your vapour. If you’re shopping for a good vaporiser, here are a few tips to consider…
· Avoid buying pre-filled cartridges that contain thinning agents like propylene glycol and polyethylene glycol.
· Choose a vaporiser that uses medical and/or airline-grade materials.
· Opt for stainless steel, titanium, or ceramic ovens and heating elements.
· Opt for glass or ceramic vapour paths.
· Opt for vaporisers that have adjustable temperature controls.
Doctors and scientists are increasingly realising that medical cannabis is often a safer alternative to opiods. Whether you use medical cannabis, oil, or resin –particularly for patients – the biggest risk of smoking cannabis is the smoke itself. Combustion, not the medical cannabis itself, is the culprit. Cannabis smoke contains the same kind of cancer-causing chemicals as cigarette smoke.
The solution – Vaporisation
Unlike a joint or bong, vaporisers heat medical cannabis to temperatures that release cannabinoids – the good stuff secreted by cannabis flowers that provide relief to a variety of symptoms including pain, nausea, anxiety, and inflammation – in a fine mist without creating the toxins associated with combustion. Because nothing is burned, it does not produce the same toxic by-products that smoking does. The result is that respiratory symptoms like cough, phlegm, and tightness in the chest are less severe among users of a vaporiser.
Medical Cannabis Administration
While medical cannabis products come in different forms and variations – like extracts, tinctures, gel capsules, sprays, etc. – the cannabis flower is still an integral part of the cannabinoid therapy and is ultimately the cannabis product that raises the most questions when it comes to the correct administration.
The cannabis flower is different in the way that cannabinoids are present in the plant and non-effective acids, which must first be activated by decarboxylation through heat exposure. One way to achieve this is by vaporisation. Medical cannabis vaporisers are designed to heat and thereby decarboxylate the cannabinoids in the flower in a controlled manner and to convert them into an inhalable aerosol without creating any toxic by-products.
The Importance of Medical Cannabis Vaporisers for Medical Professionals and Patients
Medical cannabis vaporisers should be part of a discussion involving medical cannabis (flower) therapy. Other administration forms of medical cannabis have proven to be either harmful due to the production of toxic by-products, or suboptimal due to the lack of validation data. It is of utmost importance that healthcare professionals are informed and sensitised to prescribing the correct medical cannabis administration form for their patients.