Vapour capers

Toke, smoke & choke
Sometimes I feel like crying when I hear my friend Brett burst forth with a choking, interminable cough after he’s taken a lung-busting hit of herb from his little brass pipe.

“Why don’t you use a water pipe or a vapourizer?” I ask after his tremors have passed.

“Because they suck and they don’t work,” he replies, relighting the pipe and launching into another vicious cough attack.

For Brett’s sake, I decided to research the respiratory effects of smoking marijuana and the relative merits of marijuana smoking techniques. Although US Drug War Commandant Barry McCaffrey argues against medical marijuana by claiming that “smoke cannot be a medicine,” many users enjoy the taste and feel of marijuana smoke.

Smoking marijuana is a great way to quickly alter body chemistry. When compared to the synthetic cannabis derivative Marinol, smoked marijuana is medically superior because it takes affect immediately. Marinol comes in pill form, making it useless for people with nausea, and it takes effect slowly with a weird high that is hard to manage.

Some of my friends, Brett included, measure a bud’s quality by its ability to kick the cough door open. Even if eating marijuana could produce the instantaneous, measured high the way smoking can, Brett would still opt for inhaling cannabinoids along with the other substances contained in marijuana smoke, such as carbon monoxide and possibly cancer-causing agents. For them, it’s “coughs be damned.”

Smoke is an integral part of marijuana’s magic ritual. It’s also a necessary part of getting high. You can get a tiny “buzz” from nuzzling your nose up to a phat bud and inhaling its aromatic terpenes, but to get stoned you need to heat the plant material enough to release its psychoactive components and render them molecularly appropriate for locking on to the brain’s cannabinoid receptor sites.

The triumph of the joint

Common sense would seem to indicate that smoking marijuana in a water pipe would be the cleanest method. We know that cannabinoids are not water soluble, so that nasty-smelling waterpipe water must contain harmful particulates which would otherwise be coating our lungs.

Pipe smoking, whether with water filtration or not, seems safer than smoking a joint. It makes sense to believe that inhaling burned paper and marijuana must be worse for your lungs than inhaling only marijuana.

But common sense isn’t always good sense. Dale Gieringer, who heads the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), published a major study of marijuana smoking methods in 1996 that contained surprising revelations about the various methods of smoking marijuana.
He tested “the smoke from seven different sources: a regular rolled joint, a joint with a cigarette filter, three different waterpipes, and two vapourizers.” His goal was to determine the amount of solids (tars) produced, and the amount and quality of cannabinoids such as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabinol (CBN) and cannabidiol (CBD).

Gieringer found that “the unfiltered joint outperformed all devices except the vapourizers.”

“Outperformed” means that unfiltered joints produced more THC relative to tars than did waterpipes or filtered joints. Apparently, pipe water filtered out less tar and more THC than expected. Waterpipe smoke contained less THC, and contained significant amounts of pollutants. Gieringer speculated that this reduced THC transmission may cause waterpipe users to smoke more, adding extra tars to their lungs. Waterpipes may provide more protection from noxious gases than other smoking methods, Gieringer noted, but his study did not measure gas pass-through.

Unfiltered joints have several drawbacks unrelated to the actual ratios of THC and tars they produce. Rolling joints takes longer than clipping part of a bud and putting it into a pipe bowl. Rolling requires that buds be cut, crumbled and crushed, which breaks resin glands and begins cannabinoid degradation.

On the other hand, joint fans argue, a properly rolled joint is itself a form of vapourizer. The smoker draws heat from the lit ember through the joint to the mouth, vapourizing cannabinoids. Unburned material near the roach end of the joint acts as a filter.

One of my friends says that the lung-friendliest way to smoke pot is to roll joints with hemp paper and smoke them about two thirds of the way to the end. He claims that most of the tars will be concentrated in the unburned portion. Gieringer’s study indicates that using pot as its own filter may well be better than using a cigarette filter, which is so efficient that it filters out cannabinoids as well as tars. To combat the waste of a partially smoked joint, my friend fills two thirds of the joint with high-potency bud and packs the mouth end with less-potent leaf. When he tosses a roach, he says, he’s actually tossing a filter made of leaf!

A partial high?

During my years as a marijuana writer, I’ve tried most of the vapourizers on the market. I’m somewhat of an exercise junkie, and wanted to find a less smoky way of getting high. I like to ride bicycles up steep hills and swim two miles a day. Clean lungs are important to me.

They’re also important to many medical marijuana users, some of whom are turning their attention to vapourizers because the device’s manufacturers claim that vapourizers heat marijuana just enough to create a vapour of psychoactive components, leaving the tars unburned and the lungs unsullied.

My personal research into vapourizers revealed that most of them had design and construction flaws, were hard to use, and produced an unsatisfying smoking ritual.

For example, I used a large vapourizer at the Seattle Hempfest in 1997. It was basically a soldering iron heating device attached to a small brass bowl, covered with what looked like a fishbowl. It took 30 minutes or more for the vapo to heat up, then I had to grasp the hot as hell thin-glassed fishbowl, put it aside, put bud in the brass bowl, put the fishbowl back on, wait for the chamber to fill with a thin mist of vapour, then suck on the vapour through a dank piece of aquarium hose.

Lame hits were all I could get. I could never tell when I was getting a large amount of vapour, and the stuff I did inhale tasted strange, like a mixture of weak hash and nothing. Each bowl vapourized quickly, leaving a mass of browned vegetable matter that presumably had been drained of its psychoactive components. I went through six grams of Shiva in ten minutes, but felt as if I’d smoked only one gram.

The vapourizer high was an incomplete one. It was as if I was attending a symphony orchestra recital but could only hear the flutes. Where were the booming tympanis, the crying violins, the crashing cymbals?

The vapo high felt like an early harvest high: edgy, nervous, jarring, visual but not hallucinatory. All the narcotic effects of a regular full-bodied high were missing ? increased sense of touch, muscle relaxation, the hammer down.

My intuitive perception that the vapo high tends to be an incomplete high was confirmed by Gieringer’s study. He found that although the two vapourizers he tested (one of which was produced in Canada) outperformed unfiltered joints in terms of raw cannabinoid/tar ratio, the cannabinoids produced were “unusually high in CBN, leaving 30% less THC as a percentage of the total cannabinoids than with other smoking devices.”

CBD and CBN have medicinal value, but are only marginally psychoactive. Thus, using vapourizers might be a good choice for medical users who want what CBD and CBN can offer and want to avoid getting stoned. After smoking six grams of killer bud in a vapo, I didn’t feel stoned, just annoyed!

Fine-tuned technology

Cannabis researcher Jon Hanna tested several types of vapourizers and published the results in the Summer, 1998 edition of The Resonance Project (a Seattle-based entheogenic publication with sporadic publication).

He found severe design flaws in all but one of the vapourizers tested. Vapourizers range from industrial strength to homemade funk, but they all need intelligently placed components that work for the user to ensure proper vapourization of THC and other cannabinoids in maximized amounts and potentials. Hanna had almost no complaints about the Hemp BC vapourizer, which is now marketed by Woodstock hemp supplies of Montreal, Canada.

Special, handcarved versions of these vapourizers used to grace the tables at Hemp BC’s Cannabis Cafe, before local meanies swooped in to confiscate them and charged Marc Emery with “promoting vapourizers.”

Fred Robson, the 24-year-old executive officer of Woodstock, says that the company first marketed its vapourizer in 1993. “We’ve redesigned it six times,” Robson says, “in response to our own research and comments from customers. We definitely believe that our vapourizer is a healthier alternative to regular smoking methods, and we’ve made changes that address concerns raised by the TRP article and other criticisms.”

Robson’s changes include outfitting his vapourizer with a smaller, thicker, screw- on glass dome.

“This makes the unit very portable so you can hold it in your hand,” he explains. “The glass doesn’t heat up to the point where you burn your hands. There’s less oxygen in the chamber, so THC is not degraded by excess contact with oxygen like it is in other vapourizers. The screw-in feature prevents leakage and breakage.”

Customers have responded favourably to the changes. Robson says he sold hundreds of units in 1998, and that his company offers a 30-day guarantee and a lot of detailed instructions explaining the nuances of vapourizer usage.

“It is a learning process,” he says. “You have to learn to finely chop your tobacco, to pack the bowl correctly, to know when the vapours are ready, to know when the machine is overheating and when to turn it off. You have to use it with fresh, sticky tobacco. Overdried material burns. People have to develop a relationship with the device, and then they find that they really like it. Most of our customers tell us that other vapourizers they’ve tried were pathetic and that they felt ripped off. But we have people walking in and telling us our vapourizer produces the best experiences they’ve ever had. We have gotten very few complaints.”

I have yet to try a Woodstock vapourizer, but Robson’s enthusiasm and sincerity give me hope that he has come up with a vapo that does what it’s supposed to do without sacrificing the full high that we all know and love.

Vapo-culture rules!

Vapourizers have attracted a loyal following. Vapoheads enjoy melting the brown cannabinoid residue off the inside of their glass bowls, collecting it, and using as a form of hash oil. They note that vapourizers are often missing from paraphernalia laws, and that police do not easily recognize the odd-looking device as a smoking contraption. Some vapoheads use the devices to smoke DMT and other entheogens; this doesn’t work with all types of vapourizers, but it does with a few.

As for the respiratory effects of smoking pot, it depends on the kind and amount of pot you smoke, and how you smoke it. Yet it seems almost certain that a vapourizer is the cleanest toke there is.

The medical specialists who wrote the incredible book Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts found that “moderate smoking of marijuana appears to pose minimal danger to the lungs.” They say that although heavy marijuana users are at less risk for emphysema than are tobacco smokers, they are likely to suffer from more adverse respiratory symptoms than nonsmokers.

They also note that although there has never been a case of cancer directly linked to marijuana use, “because researchers have found precancerous changes in cells taken from heavy marijuana smokers, the possibility of lung cancer from marijuana cannot be ruled out.”
All the experts agree that the best way to minimize potential marijuana-induced respiratory damage is to smoke the highest potency marijuana possible, thereby reducing the amount of material inhaled.

This isn’t particularly useful advice for my friend Brett, who smokes about 30 bowls per day of the strongest pot he can get. For him and the rest of us, the choice of how we inhale the magical smoke will probably remain a matter of personal preference rather than a matter of health.
Woodstock vapourizers can be obtained by calling

1-800-330-HEMP, or at