Everyone knows that cannabis use can pose health risks for the smoker. However, less well known is the method of use which can greatly mitigate a large part of this potential harm while also affording an enhanced user experience: vaporisation, which is unanimously rated by both users and research as the safest and most efficient strategy for harm reduction and pleasure management associated with cannabis use.
Vaporisation is different from ingestion (via food) which has different effects and risks of its own. Vaporisation is a form of use much like ‘spliffing’ but without the risks associated with burning. Vaporisers are mechanical or electrical devices which make it possible to heat the buds without reaching the point of combustion, thus minimising production of toxic substances and reducing the dosage needed to achieve the desired effect. This post will show you what vaporisation is and its advantages. However, it also points out the potential intrinsic risks and how to prevent them in order to stop (mis)using your cannabis and consuming carcinogenic substances. In short, a chance to start making your usage more efficient and healthier.
Cannabis and pyrolysis
Pyrolysis = combustion
When you smoke a joint, you are not only consuming cannabis: you are also taking in a mixture of rolling paper, cannabis and occasionally tobacco. In a pipe or bong you skip the paper, but the method of consumption is the same: you set fire to the cannabis or the mixture. This generates pyrolysis (or combustion) of the plant material, turning it into an ember that rises to a temperature of between 400°C and 600°C. The plant material begins to pyrolyse, i.e. burn, at about 230°C and above.
Pyrolysis = wasting cannabis
The most important active ingredients in cannabis are phytocannabinoids, which produce the euphoriant or medicinal effects, along with terpenes, which mainly create the flavours and aromas. The active ingredients are released from cannabis at a temperature lower than its burning point.
Among the phytocannabinoids, THC is released when cannabis is heated to 157ºC. The other phytocannabinoids (CBD, CBG, CBN, CBC, THCV, etc.) and terpenes (delta-3-Carene, p-Cymene, terpineol-4-ol, borneol, alpha-terpineol) are released when cannabis is heated to between 160°C and 220°C. In other words, you don’t need to heat the plant material to combustion temperature to enjoy the flavours and effects of the plant!
What is less well known is that a huge part of the phytocannabinoids and terpenes in the plant are destroyed at the point of combustion. Barely half of the cannabinoids remain in the smoke while a fair chunk is trapped in the butt of the joint or drifts away in the form of residual smoke from the other end of the joint.
Pyrolysis = toxic substances
Pyrolysis of any plant matter (mainly the cellulose that makes up plants) releases smoke containing tars, heavy metals, carbon monoxide, benzene, toluene, naphthalene and other toxic substances liable to cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and various kinds of cancer.
If this reminds you of smoking information campaigns, this is because, with the exception of nicotine and phytocannabinoids, both cannabis and tobacco release many similar toxins when burned. A recent study identified at least 110 toxic compounds in smoke from burning cannabis, 69 of which were also found in tobacco smoke.
Smoking joints, pipes, bongs and so on means wasting more than half of the product while also adding carcinogens.
Aside from ingestion through food, which has different effects and risks of its own, vaporisation is a form of use similar to smoking joints but without the risks associated with burning.
Vaporisation is a process used in aromatherapy, whereby a plant material is gently heated to the temperature at which the desired compounds are released (e.g. 157°C). This results in conversion not to smoke but rather to vapour.
How can you do this?
Vaporisers are used for this purpose, which are mechanical or electrical devices that allow the plant material to be heated but without pyrolysis. Vaporisers heat without burning in two ways:
- via contact with a hot surface (conduction),
- or by applying a flow of hot air to the plant material (convection), which is the safest way to avoid combustion and the most practical to use.
There are many types of vaporisers: portable or stationary, working by inflating a bag with steam, suction through a tube, a funnel, etc.
By heating to below 230°C, vaporisers extract the active compounds without generating the chemical pyrolysis reaction that produces the many toxic substances mentioned above. So after vaporising, a cannabis bud does not turn into ash but rather stays intact, just looking dry and darkened in colour. A bit like roasted coffee beans, but not burnt.
Plus, most vaporisers allow you to choose the temperature so that you can get as close as possible to the temperature of the phytocannabinoid you want to consume.
Vaporisation to reduce harm
In vaporisation as in everything else, it is essential to start and experiment with care and moderation (more on this below). Inappropriate use of vaporisation can also harm your health, in particular a risk of respiratory tract irritation in cases of overheating as a result of too much vapour being inhaled at the same time or vapour that is too dense.
However, vapour will always be less harmful than smoke: it is at a much lower temperature – which is appreciated by the throat’s mucous membranes – and loses 95% of the toxic substances generated during pyrolysis of plant matter along the way.
Well-managed vaporisation lessens many health risks associated with combustion smoke, makes it easier to control the dose administered and reduces the dose needed to achieve the desired effect.
For adult use – leisure, recreational, or whatever you prefer to call it – vaporisation is also a great help in decoupling cannabis consumption from smoking. Vaporising additionally reduces social hassles, in particular the negative aspects shared with tobacco use: the annoyance of passive smoking that smoke creates for your surroundings or local residents, the mess left over in joints and ashes, and also the risks associated with using fire. All in all, vaporisation is a way to consume cannabis responsibly while reducing harm to yourself and your surroundings.
With fewer pyrolysis by-products and more aromatics, people who have made the switch to vaporisation often report greater enjoyment of the product with less respiratory discomfort such as coughing. By decoupling from tobacco and being able to handle the dosage much more precisely, it is not uncommon to see people using less cannabis and regaining some control over their usage after investing in a vaporiser.
How can you quit burning and start vaporisation?
However, it can be difficult at first to adjust to the different experience of inhaling vapour, which is lighter than the smoke from joints that people who consume cannabis may be used to. Vaporisation is a slightly distinct experience that takes a while to get used to. During this time it is wise, as with many things, to start by taking small doses and waiting until you feel the effects before vaporising more. You can ease into vaporisation by gradually introducing it into your everyday life.
The price of vaporisation
Vaporisation involves an initial investment in buying a device. However, you save in the long run on the amount of cannabis consumed (as less is needed to obtain the same effect), while for many it is a way to help them quit cigarette smoking which also leads to significant savings.
Cannabis associations can be an asset as they make it possible to try various types of vaporisers and choose the one that is most suitable for each person’s use. However, pandemic or no pandemic, it is essential to keep in mind the safety and cleaning measures for cannabis associations’ vaporiser accessories before use.
Vaping, e-liquids and dabbing
Watch out! When we discuss vaporisation in this post, we mean vaporisation of cannabis buds themselves and not vaping liquids or pens containing cannabis extracts or e-liquids or dabbing concentrates. These products have their own specific features which we will unpack in more detail at RDR cànnabis in the near future.