Harm Reduction in the Cannabis Community
Vaping is quickly becoming the most popular form of cannabis consumption in the US, in some states cartridge sales are surpassing flower as the #1 product sold in dispensaries. This market shift has come as a surprise to many, especially since the electronic vaping associated lung injury (EVALI) crisis of 2020 heavily criticized the vaping industry as a whole. EVALI was a tragic event caused by black market cartridges that were tainted with vitamin E acetate - a compound that bears striking similarities to cannabis oil and vape juice due to its color and viscosity profile. This event prompted federal and local governments to fund research for both cannabis and nicotine vaping devices to determine the hazards associated with these products. One of the biggest topics up for debate is the harm reduction that vaping provides as opposed to classic cannabis smoking conventions.
I have seen nothing but heavy criticisms coming from the mainstream media as it relates to the dangers of vaping and the epidemic it has caused towards the youth. The cannabis industry often gets condemned for the problems caused by blackmarket cartridges and industry giants like JUUL who were the main contributors of vaping/nicotine addiction amongst adolescents. These criticisms, along with EVALI, caused researchers to challenge the claims from the e-cigarette industry that their products were a beneficial option to reduce harm as opposed to conventional smoking methods via combustion (cigarettes, joints, anything with direct contact to fire). Results indicated that harm was reduced in terms of the amount of carcinogens found in vapor as opposed to cigarette smoke. However, it was also determined that e-cigarettes were more addictive than traditional cigarettes - defeating the purpose of their creation as a smoking cessation device. These findings posed the same questions to the cannabis community of harm reduction and addiction; traditional flower vs cartridges, is there a safer option?
While cannabis isn’t known to be addictive like nicotine, there is still a risk associated - particularly those with a family history of substance abuse. Dr. Fong, a cannabis researcher from UCLA has said “with nicotine, there is about a 30% chance you get addicted. With cannabis, there is about a 9% chance”. There are clear differences between cannabis and nicotine that we won’t get into in this article. We will now take a comprehensive approach in analyzing the differences between cannabis vaping and smoking.
Smoking cannabis involves a direct flame to ignite the flower and activate the THC molecule, generally pipes, bongs, and joints are used in this manner. This is technically the equivalent to tobacco being smoked as a cigarette. When looking at the risks associated with cigarettes, most of the issues stem from the carcinogens created in the combustion process. These concerns are also relevant to cannabis as the combustion process also poses a risk by creating unwanted products such as carcinogens (benzene, toluene, hydrocarbons, etc) and harmful or potentially harmful constituents (HPHCs). The National Library of Medicine published an article in 2017 that described steps for cannabis users to reduce harm. One of these steps was to “avoid combusted cannabis inhalation…regular inhalation of combusted cannabis adversely affects respiratory health outcomes”. The researchers conducting this study recommended people to use vaporizers or edibles for an alternative cannabis consumption method. While these methods come with their own downsides, there’s substantial evidence that it’s a safer alternative to conventional cannabis smoke.
Vaping cannabis has gained a lot of popularity for its convenience, discretion, rapid onset of effects, and ability to deliver high concentrations of THC. These characteristics make vaporizers an ideal choice for medicinal relief, it is reported that 52% of medical card holders prefer vaporization over any other method of consumption. Patients stated that preferences stemmed from dosing/administration capabilities, physical health advantages, and general use advantages. The biggest complaints from this group were technology barriers, device cost, and reduced effect of THC. The reduced effect from cannabis through cartridges is a common complaint, many people say that they build a tolerance quickly which causes them to go through products at a rapid rate. Scientists have found that cannabis vapor is more bioavailable to our lungs - meaning it is absorbed almost immediately and in higher concentrations as opposed to cannabis smoke. Faster delivery means our body uses the THC at a faster rate which has negative and positive outcomes. For medical patients, the rapid onset of THC is a powerful tool as many people use this drug for chronic pain relief. Smoking cannabis has a delayed effect, anywhere from 20-30 minutes to reach the peak of the high, whereas vaping cannabis cuts that time nearly in half to about 10-15 minutes. This information makes it easy to understand why medical patients prefer vaping over any other medium of consumption.