“Vaping”—The Transformation of Marijuana
Author: Robert L. DuPont, MD
The health dangers of tobacco are well known. Not only is the tobacco use harmful to the smoker but it is unhealthy for those around the smoker. These known dangers are crucial to prevention messages and the resulting dramatic reductions in cigarette smoking. Cigarette use in the United States is now the lowest in recent history.
Today e-cigarettes, which vaporize nicotine rather than burn tobacco, are revitalizing the tobacco industry by eliminating smoke and with it the carcinogens and lung irritants. E-cigarettes, which are becoming increasingly popular, deliver nicotine effectively and thus cause or sustain nicotine addiction. E-cigarettes may be safer than smoking tobacco but they are far from safe.
Now vaporizing is transforming the marijuana industry by delivering tetrahydocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, without smoke. The term used for this type of marijuana use is “vaping.” The term “e-cigarette” still carries some of the negative associations with tobacco cigarettes, while “vaping” carries no similar stigma. The word “vape” is new and chic and was crowned as the word of the year in 2014 by the Oxford Dictionary. Vape pens are now the preferred e-cigarette for marijuana.
When water is heated, it vaporizes as steam. Marijuana vaporization involves breathing vapor from marijuana that is heated to about 350–400°F; the vapor is inhaled into the lungs.
Three decades ago, THC concentrations were about 2%. Smoked marijuana is commonly around 10% THC. Vaping is attractive because it allows the user to experience the effects of marijuana at far higher potency when marijuana extracts are used, some with 90% THC. When THC enters the body, as either smoke or vapor, or when it is eaten, the THC enters the blood and is carried throughout the body including to the brain, the target organ for the high sought by drug users. The effects of THC on the brain are the same for smoked and vaped marijuana. The effects of THC in the brain are strongly affected by the rapidity of the intake (making smoking and vaping more effective at producing a high than eating) and by the dose. The drug use is much less detectable when the THC is vaped than when it is smoked because it lacks the characteristic smoke and odor.
Because virtually everyone is aware of the harmful effects of smoking cigarettes, and more people are becoming aware of the hazards of smoking marijuana, the switch to vaping has been celebrated as less harmful and, with the potential for the potency of THC to be higher, more rewarding. This has led to a dramatic increase in vaping and the emergence of higher dose vaping to create escalating highs and escalating risks from marijuana intoxication.
While vaping may appear to be a “safer” delivery for marijuana than smoking, the impairing effects of THC as well as the potential for addiction are significant. Marijuana vaping is not safe.