At city council meetings, in movie theaters, even on airplanes, more and more medical marijuana patients — and recreational users — are publicly puffing on their preferred herb with inconspicuous "vape pens": an electronic cigarette adapted for pot that creates no smoke. The size of a Bic pen, e-cigarettes use a battery and a heating element to vaporize tobacco extract held in a tiny reservoir — and cannabis users have adapted them to hold hash.
Over the last two years, about a dozen vape pen brands have come to market in California dispensaries. The sleek 2012 models by Trippy Stix, Omicron, G-2, CannaCig, and IDragon represent the newest in 21st-century vaporizer miniaturization. They're innocuous, ultra-portable, produce no lingering odor, and, ahem, get you amply stoned.
"I know people who have used vape pens in city council meetings and gotten away with it," said Oakland dispensary operator Stephen DeAngelo, "not to mention airplanes, or other situations where it's impossible to smoke."
"I think they're totally cool," added Angel Raich, a Stockton resident and well-known medical pot patient. "It gives you the ability to basically go anywhere and have your meds."
The future of weed as medicine could be sucking on a vape pen, but right now the products are totally unregulated, and even the most basic safety assurances cannot be made. The e-cig concept has been around since the Sixties, but it didn't hit the mainstream until around 2005 when China began exporting the devices. The $100 novelties have since risen to prominence as a cannabis-ingestion tool, though the verdict is out on their efficacy and health risks.
Most e-cigs heat a solution of nicotine suspended in propylene glycol or glycerin, which is the same stuff used in some asthma inhalers. E-cigs produce a flavorful vapor that feels, looks, and tastes a bit like tobacco without the lingering odor, or, theoretically, the health risks of smoking.
Cannabis users — being the MacGyver geniuses they are — have adapted e-cig kits to vaporize concentrated weed. That's part of the problem, said Berkeley physician Frank Lucido. Vape pen concentrates are another unregulated product in a rules-free supply chain that starts with the plant. "Until it's legal enough that there's testing and quality control, I just don't know how you're going to know if that's healthful," he said. "I'm agnostic."
Concentrated cannabis comes from marijuana flowers processed with water or screened to make traditional hash. Nowadays, solvents that strip the essential oils from the plant have come into vogue. Liquid oxygen, nitrogen, or carbon dioxide are thought to be safe weed solvents because they are inert and evaporate.
Most often, though, butane gas is used. Cheaper and more readily available, butane is the stuff in Bic lighters. It's explosive, and those who "blast" for what's called "butane hash oil" sometimes blow themselves up. Assuming they don't, BHO (hash oil, oil, wax, shatter, budder, glass) must be purged of residual butane, and incomplete purging leaves bubbles of the neurotoxic hydrocarbon in the concentrate. Gross.
Some vape pen-makers sell proprietary refill "cartridges," while other companies specialize in making generic cartridges for refilling any pen reservoir. A lot of this stuff appears to be butane-based. "It is not healthful, no," Raich said. High-quality butane is not available for sale in California, she added. "When they make [BHO] they buy less superior butane, which is worse for you," she said.
"There are a lot of people, including myself, who are reluctant to use those extracts produced using butane," DeAngelo added.
Concentrating cannabis can also concentrate contaminants like mold, fungi, or pesticides. People sucking on whatever random, brown goo comes pre-loaded in the pen they buy, or in replacement cartridges of equally mysterious provenance are displaying an unwarranted level of trust, it would seem. "Caveat emptor," said Dr. Lucido.
But Raich noted that patients can practice safe vape-pen use by going to a dispensary that tests its weed and is "halfway professional."
The best clubs, like Harborside Health Center in Oakland, screen their concentrates for safety, but there are "limits to what Harborside or any dispensary can do to really drill down on these products and make sure it's as safe as it should be," noted DeAngelo, Harborside's founder. "People in the cannabis industry are doing their best, but no industry that produces goods intended for human consumption should be operating in an environment free from regulation. The entire cannabis industry should be regulated, including vape pens."
Until that fine day, patients should know the person they're getting hash oils from, and have accurate information on how that extract is made, he said.
That's hard to do with a quasi-legal, besieged industry. Trippy Stix and IDragon did not return emailed requests for comment, and G-Pen did not return calls for comment. "I guess the ultimate reviews come from the patients," said Raich.
Those looking for a safe vape pen experience should probably use something like the Omicron v2 — which allows you to load your own concentrates — with a CO2 concentrate derived from a "clean green"-certified source of medical cannabis, Raich added.
Such responsible vapor pen use looks like something the FDA might even approve one day: a non-smoked, dose-controlled, tamper-resistant delivery mode for a standardized mix of pot's therapeutic ingredients. A bag of grass will always be a tough prescription to write, but next-gen Trippy Stix could become doctor's orders.