Cannabis vape pens are popular, but are they healthier?

By Clint Sharples

Vape pens are one of the most popular ways to consume cannabis. They’re affordable and convenient, effective and efficient. But are they safe? Or at least safer than smoking unprocessed cannabis? Nicotine-based vaping has long attempted to position itself as a healthier alternative to cigarettes, and it’s easy to extrapolate this same approach to vaping THC or CBD distillate. There’s no smoke, so it sure seems like the healthier choice.

But it isn’t that easy. While vaping doesn’t introduce the lungs to tar and other particulates associated with smoking, you’d be hard pressed to find medical experts classify inhaling any sort of foreign substance as “healthy.” And the truth is that there simply hasn’t been enough research into the health impacts of vaping — particularly studies into any long-term effects. Part of the reason for this is that vaping is a comparatively new method of consumption, but another part of the puzzle is the wide variety in what is actually being consumed.

What exactly goes into a vape cartridge?

This question rose to prominence in 2019, when an outbreak of serious lung injuries and illnesses was traced back to the level of Vitamin E acetate in certain vaping products. This is a key example of just how little is known about the potential dangers of vaping. Vitamin E acetate is generally considered safe as a supplement, and yet it was downright deadly when used as an ingredient in vape juice.

So, exactly what goes into one of those convenient little vape cartridges?

It starts with an active ingredient, which will be some kind of extracted cannabinoid — THC, CBD, or some combination of the two. Next are the terpenes, which can be extracted from cannabis or other plants. Terpenes are the aromatic compounds that determine flavor profile and may contribute to the therapeutic qualities of cannabis.

From a medical perspective, perhaps the perfect vape cartridge would end right there. This would certainly minimize the amount of unwanted or excess chemicals involved in the final product. Unfortunately, it would be nearly impossible to actually vape, and so further steps must be taken in order to create the proper consistency and consumability. This includes the introduction of artificial flavors, hydrosols (essential oils which are a byproduct of distillation), and various cutting agents or thinners like coconut oil or glycerin.

While necessary, each element added here is also another chance to introduce unwanted contaminants to the final product. Every producer will have their own unique recipes, which is one of the reasons it’s so difficult to make blanket statements about the safety of vaping. Consumers may want to look for brands that can verify their products are full spectrum and contain no potentially harmful additives or back added terpenes so they can have confidence that the products are safe.

One other wrinkle to all this is the actual vaping cartridge itself. Low-quality cartridges made of plastic can both leach terpenes from the vape liquid and release chemicals into it. Higher quality cartridges are made of glass to avoid this.

While a glass cartridge is a good sign that a product is generally higher quality, the only reliable way to evaluate a vape cartridge is to do your research. Any trustworthy producer will conduct thorough testing throughout the production process, and these test results will let you see exactly what is going into the finished product.

Despite all the variables that go into evaluating the safety of vaping, the general medical consensus is that it is a healthier alternative to smoking. However, this comes with the caveat that the long-term effects of vaping are yet to be fully understood. You can help protect yourself further by choosing a product from a trusted and reliable source, one that has been thoroughly tested and vetted for quality.

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