Safe alternatives to smoking?
Reprinted from "Cannabis" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (4), p. 28
We’re regularly exposed to anti-smoking campaigns. Ads on TV, on websites and on buses warn us about the health risks linked to smoking cigarettes. Tobacco smoke contains many harmful substances that can lead to cancer, heart disease, stroke and lung disease.1 Furthermore, people who inhale second-hand smoke are also exposed to toxins that can cause breathing problems and irritate the eyes, lungs and throat.2 “Butt out,” the ads warn, before your health and the health of those you love is compromised.
Cigarettes aren’t the only culprits we’re warned to avoid. The effects of smoking taboo substances such as cannabis aren’t any better. Cannabis smoke also contains a range of harmful chemicals.3
Cannabis users generally smoke the plant form of the drug. They inhale the smoke and hold it in their lungs for long periods of time. This may increase the risk of cancer, lung damage, respiratory problems and poor pregnancy outcomes.4
A recent study shows that when both tobacco and marijuana are smoked they work together to further increase the risk of respiratory symptoms and lung disease.5
What if the negative health risks related to smoking were removed? What if one could simply inhale without absorbing most of the harmful toxins of cannabis, tobacco or other plants?
Vaporization: a not-so-new ‘technology’
A technique called vaporization is considered a relatively safe alternative to smoking. Herbs and plants aren’t heated to where they burn and release combustion toxins. They’re heated just enough to release their active compounds into vapour for inhalation. The vapour is then drawn through a mouth piece attached to a hose or pipe, a section of which may run through a water bowl for cooling before inhaling or storing for later use.
The vaporizer principle is based on a device commonly known as a hookah, which has been used for hundreds of years. Its origins are in India, but it is widely used in the Middle East for tobacco smoking and is gaining popularity in other countries.
In recent years (1990s) the technique of vaporization has been extended to the use of cannabis and together with that many different types of devices have been developed. Canada was at the forefront of this development with the first electric vaporizer prototypes in 1994.6 However, a device that has received considerable attention is the Volcano® vaporizer.
The Volcano Vaporizer: a high-tech ‘hookah’
In the late 1990s, a German named Marcus Storz invented what is known as the Volcano vaporization system.7 This device has been formally validated by researchers as a “safe and effective cannabinoid delivery system” for clinical trials.8
The Volcano is made up of a few easy-to-assemble parts. There is a plug-in cone-shaped base (the ‘volcano’) that has a heating element and temperature regulator. Herbs such as cannabis are put into the conical filling chamber and vaporized. At temperatures between 180oC and 200oC, cannabinoids are released in a gaseous form, before they reach a burning point. The cannabinoids are thus extracted without creating smoke toxins.
The herb is put in a heating chamber that sits at the top of the ‘volcano.’ A valve connects a heatproof bag or balloon to the top of the cone. When the expandable bag is filled with rising vapour, it’s removed from the cone. A mouth piece is inserted so the vapour can be inhaled from the bag.
In 2006, Dr. Donald Abrams, a cancer specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, studied how inhaling Cannabis sativa (the most widespread variety of cannabis) through the Volcano Vaporizer differs from smoking a standard joint of marijuana. Abrams and his fellow researchers found that vaporization reduced the amount of carbon monoxide and tar that was generated compared to smoking, possibly reducing exposure to gaseous combustion toxins.9
Other researchers found that electric vaporizers can completely suppress the formation of harmful compounds such as benzene.10 Exposure to benzene has been reported to have major long-term health effects.11
What does this mean for cannabis users? It may open the door to using cannabis while promising to lessen the negative health effects normally linked to smoking. It may also give hope for an emerging safe use of cannabis for medicinal and therapeutic purposes. This would be good news for those who use cannabis to manage chronic health conditions.
Are vaporizers an answer to the smoking dilemma?
The Volcano vaporizer Internet sites and blogs market the Volcano Vaporizer as a device that helps people to “quit smoking.” One can be weaned off the toxins and simply “inhale the benefits.” This is designed to dispel the common mantra that “smoking is bad for you.” In fact, smokers are made to believe that they can indulge, without experiencing the negatives connected with smoking.12
The evidence around safe use of vaporizers is not yet conclusive. Much research is necessary to scientifically resolve the issue of medical marijuana use, yet research itself seems to be controversial. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) sponsored solid scientific research from 1993 to 2002. However, the association claims that the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has discouraged further vaporizer research by enforcing a tight monopoly on the supply of marijuana that can be used in research. This has been interpreted as an unwelcome triumph of Drug War politics over science.13-14
Finally, access to, or compliance with, using vaporizers may also be an issue. There are dozens of models of cannabis vaporizers on the market and some are not cheap. They run anywhere from around $50 to upwards of $550 for the Volcano vaporizer. For many people, a vaporizer may be a luxury item. For many others, a vaporizer may be simply unaffordable. Why invest in a vaporizer when you can simply light up for much cheaper?
Debate surrounding the use of substances such as cannabis and tobacco, with or without a vaporizer, continues. Smokers continue to indulge in cigarettes and cannabis users toke their joints. The use of vaporizers is relatively new and still under scrutiny but hopefully further research will prove them to be effective, safe and affordable tools for smokers.
About the author
Mridula is a Vancouver writer and researcher. She is currently a Program Coordinator at Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division
US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General. (2004). The health consequences of smoking: A report of the Surgeon General. www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/smokingconsequences.
US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General. (2006). The health consequences of involuntary exposure to tobacco smoke: A report of the Surgeon General. www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/secondhandsmoke.
Sparacino, C.M., Hyldburg, P.A. & Hughes, T.J. (1990). Chemical and biological analysis of marijuana smoke condensate [research monograph]. National Institute on Drug Abuse, 99, 121-140. www.nida.nih.gov/pdf/monographs/99.pdf.
Institute of Medicine. (1999). Marijuana and medicine: Assessing the science base. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Tan, W.C., Lo, C., Jong, A. et al. (2009). Marijuana and chronic obstructive lung disease: A population-based study. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 180(8). www.cmaj.ca/cgi/content/full/180/8/814.
Vaporizer Info: www.vaporizer-info.com/what-is/.
Storz & Bickel America, Inc.: www.storz-bickel.com/vaporizer/vaporizer.html.
Hazekamp, A., Ruhaak, R., Zuurman, L. et al. (2006). Evaluation of a vaporizing device (Volcano) for the pulmonary administration of tetrahydrocannabinol. Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, 95(6), 1308-1317.
Abrams, D.I., Vizoso, H.P., Shade, S.B. et al. (2007). Vaporization as a smokeless cannabis delivery system: A pilot study. Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 82(5), 572-578.
Gieringer, D. (2001). Cannabis vaporization: A promising strategy for smoke harm reduction. Journal of Cannabis Therapy, 1(3-4),153-170.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Emergency Preparedness and Response. (2005). Facts about benzene. www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/benzene/basics/facts.asp.
Smoking vs. vaporizing.
Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies: www.maps.org/mmj/vaporizer.html.
Gieringer, D. (2003). Vaporizer research: An update. MAPS, 13(1),11. www.maps.org/news-letters/v13n1/13111gie.html.