New York state is set to legalize medical marijuana today, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo expected to sign a bill passed by the state’s legislature last week. But the proposed law is unique, and smoking a joint even for medical reasons will remain illegal.
Under the law, doctors can prescribe marijuana compounds for people who have just a handful of life-threatening and serious conditions, such as cancer and epilepsy. The new law also bars smoking the marijuana flower, and instead limits people to either taking pills, consuming the plant’s oils or extracts, or “vaporizing” the drug.
Experts say that vaporizing cannabis is probably healthier and less irritating to the lungs than smoking it, but this misty consumption method may also be more potent than smoking. And researchers know far less about the long-term effects of “vaping” the compounds in marijuana extracts or oils, compared with the effects of inhaling compounds directly from the plant, experts say.
“We don’t have the same safety data for extracts as we do for the flower,” the part of the plant most often burned when smoking marijuana, said Mitch Earleywine, a psychologist at the University at Albany in New York, who studies marijuana use.
It’s not exactly news that smoking marijuana can harm the lungs. Burning marijuana produces hundreds of cancer-causing compounds.
“Aside from all the carcinogens in it, you’re going to get soot in your lungs” from smoking marijuana, said Dr. John Malouff, a researcher at the University of New England in Australia, who has conducted research on the perceived benefits of vaporizing marijuana. “Because it’s not filtered in any way,” he said of smoking, “it’s really harsh to everything it touches.”
Vaporizers come in many forms, from the bulky plug-in tubes to the slim, battery-operated e-cigarette pens. Some heat marijuana flowers until a fine-mist vapor forms that contains cannabinoids, the compounds thought to be responsible for marijuana’s calming and mind-altering effects. Most vape pens, however are used to heat the oils and extracts of marijuana, which are colloquially called “dabs.”
The law’s restriction of marijuana consumption to vaping is sensible from a health perspective, Malouff said.
“If you’re going to approve marijuana for medical use, why would you have people smoke? There’s no medicine that people smoke,” Malouff said.
Several studies suggest that vaporizing is better for health than smoked marijuana.Malouff has found that chronic marijuana users cite reduced lung irritation, as well as improved taste and the absence of a lingering marijuana smell on their clothes and bodies, as key reasons for vaping rather than smoking the plant.
A 2004 study in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics found that vaporized marijuana contained little other than cannabinoids, and a 2007 study found users inhaled fewer toxic compounds and carbon monoxide when vaping compared with smoking marijuana.
And in 2010, Earleywine and his colleague Nicholas Van Dam found that marijuana users who complain of respiratory irritation reported a stark improvement in their symptoms just a month after switching to vaporized forms of marijuana. Those symptoms include asthma, shortness of breath and coughing up phlegm. The researchers also measured objective improvement in the participants’ lung function.
But although vaporizing may sidestep respiratory problems, its physiological effects could be slightly different than those of smoked marijuana. That’s especially true for vaporized extracts, which contain little other than cannabinoids such as THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana.
In Malouff’s study, many users reported that vaporized marijuana felt more potent.
By not allowing the smoking of marijuana, lawmakers may have aimed to avoid undercutting the state’s anti-smoking campaigns or to allow police to distinguish legal medical marijuana consumers from illegal pot growers, Earleywine said. But the law could have unintended consequences, as much less is known about the physiology of vaporizing dabs, he said.
In a forthcoming study in the journal Addictive Behaviors, Earleywine and his University at Albany colleague Mallory Loflin have found that compared to marijuana smokers, dab users may more rapidly develop tolerance to the active compounds, and may also have a greater risk of marijuana withdrawal.
Why vaping is better than smoking cannabis
Vaporizers are fascinatingly useful, and the average person simply does not understand how they work or why they’re such a great tool to own.
The most immediate negative impact of cannabis comes from the inhalation methods that the common smoker exposes themselves to on a regular basis. Igniting the buds is an easy and consistent way of reaching the temperatures required to release the various compounds that give cannabis its potency, but the fact of the matter is that the effects of combustion cause significant damage to the respiratory system.
Smoke inhalation delivers damaging carcinogens and an onslaught of other damaging materials directly through the bronchial tree and into the lungs. The most immediate effect is the irritation of the windpipe, but long-term exposure to any source of hot smoke is unnatural and very hard on the lungs.
Enter the Vaporizer
A vaporizer functions by heating the cannabinoids to their boiling temperature. Instead of the buds burning and producing copious amounts of smoke, a vaporizer dehydrates the buds and causes them to release their yield without ever catching fire and subsequently mixing with chemicals in the air as the oxygen burns.
What this means in more simple terms is that the vaporizer completely eliminates every last chemical that is directly associated with burning the buds. It’s important to realize that these chemicals do not necessarily arise from the plant itself; carcinogens can be found emanating from something as harmless as a campfire. The primary difference here is that patients and enthusiasts expose themselves to smoke so regularly that they put themselves at risk, and this is compounded by rolling the buds up in papers, as the burning of paper also releases additional carcinogens. Foods infused with cannabis also bypass the effects of smoke, but vapors take effect at roughly the same rate as smoking. In terms of health and speed of delivery, the vaporizer wins every time.
The Benefits Keep On Coming
While the health improvements associated with vaporizing are awesome, there are plenty of additional benefits to keep in mind.
First and foremost, the nasty byproducts of smoking are eliminated. There’s no need for an ashtray as the buds can simply be disposed of once they’ve been exhausted of their beneficial compounds. Clogged pipes of all kinds become a thing of the past, resin buildup is eliminated and the teeth no longer become stained by all that hot smoke.
In addition, the scent associated with burning is greatly reduced. While it isn’t entirely eliminated, it does not linger as long or as noticeably as smoke; the smell also does not carry as far as a result. This is a fantastic benefit for both remaining incognito and preventing the smell from accumulating in furniture, clothing, curtains and hair. It is also much more neighbor-friendly, as the chances of them being exposed to secondhand smoke or an unwanted smell is reduced by the factors listed above. What’s more is that an indirect benefit of vaporizing is that the chance of accidentally starting a fire or singeing hair is reduced when the lighter is eliminated from the equation.
The Financially-Savvy Choice
The final benefit that makes vaporizers such a no-brainer is the fact that they are wildly more efficient smoking methods. When smoking, many of the compounds inside of the buds continue to dissipate into the air regardless of whether or not they are being inhaled. This is due to the fact the fire continues to burn for as long as it has a fuel supply available that it can spread to. If the cannabis continues to burn the 30 percent of the time that the patient or enthusiast is smoking, then there is a significant amount of loss happening. The vaporizer also preserves much of the THC content of cannabis, meaning that on a fundamental level, there is more being delivered because of the nature of vaporization.
To put this into perspective, let’s compare a $200 vaporizer with a pipe. Our example smoker is a simple medical patient that smokes roughly $20 worth of cannabis per week to sooth their anxiety and clinical depression. If their vaporizer is a mere 30 percent more efficient than their traditional method of rolling their buds up like a cigarette, they will have essentially saved $6 per week of cannabis from being wasted. This equates to $312 per year in savings, or 50 percent more in savings than the initial cost of the vaporizer in a single year. These models are often built to last as well, and this means that the savings continue year in and year out. They pay for themselves in a mere eight months.
With all of these benefits, it is obvious that a vaporizer is a fantastic choice. As the good name of cannabis is redeemed throughout the world, more and more people will soon discover that the vaporizer is an extremely smart choice.