Are Vaporizers the Safest Way to Smoke Weed?

Vaporizers vs. Joints, Bongs and Pipes

vaporizers
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People smoke pot a lot of different ways: joints, pipes, bongs and blunts. Heck, if you're in a pinch, you can core out an apple and stuff it with weed. But if you want to smoke weed in a "harm-reduced" way, your best choice may be a vaporizer.

A vaporizer or "vape" is an electric device that uses heat to vaporize weed, tobacco, herbal smoke or liquid which is then inhaled in aerosolized form packed with active ingredients like THC and cannabinoids.

If you've ever seen an electronic cigarette or e-cigarette, then you know what I'm talking about. Vaporizers can get pretty pricey and typically range in price from one to several hundred dollars.

Before we begin, I should bring up what many of us know or can guess: Little research has been done on the health risks associated with either marijuana or vaporizer use. Nevertheless, the research that has been done on the subject suggests that using a vaporizer may be easier on your lungs than other methods of smoking marijuana.

In one study where marijuana smokers were solicited via the Internet and asked a short list of questions, researchers found that those participants who used vaporizers reported less cough, phlegm and chest tightness. Of note, decreased self-reported pulmonary symptoms and vaporizer use are merely associated measures; no causality can be inferred from these results.

Some experts hypothesize that the reason why vaporizers may result in decreased lung irritation is because the vapor contains THC and cannabinoids and no other "junk" (products of combustion).

On a related note, other research suggests that many people who use vaporizers to smoke pot believe that the vaporizers are healthier, too. (This study also suggests that people who use vaporizers like them more because vapor is odorless and tastes better than smoke from pipes, joints and so forth.)

One risk that's hard to pin on marijuana use is lung cancer. Specifically, in an article titled "Cannabis smoking and lung cancer risk: Pooled analysis in the International Lung Cancer Consortium" and published in the Journal of Cancer, researchers pooled data from six case-control trials done in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand. The researchers controlled for sociodemographic factors, smoking status and pack years and found no increase in lung cancer prevalence among habitual or long-term marijuana users as compared to risk for lung cancer in people who don't toke. 

Another study examining nearly 50,000 Swedish men found that after adjusting for cigarette use, participants who smoked weed were twice as likely to develop lung cancer. (For those of you who like statistics the hazard ratio equaled 2.1 with a 95% confidence interval between 1.08 and 4.14.)

Whatever risk of lung cancer that smoking marijuana poses, however, is likely much less than cigarettes.  

Please keep in mind that despite a smidgen of evidence that suggests people who smoke vaporizers report less cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, mucus production and so forth, current research is by no means conclusive and rife with confounding variables.

For instance, it's unclear whether people who choose to use vaporizers are more health conscious and athletic.  Furthermore, (subconscious) cognitive dissonance may play a role in perception. In other words, people may report fewer lung problems because they use vaporizers for perceived safety.

Although it makes sense that pot vaporizers are cleaner and healthier than other routes of administration, more research needs to be done before we can truly suss out this hypothesis. In particular, we would need results from a prospective study that examined people who smoked weed in vaporizers as compared with those who didn't.

Just because smoking a vaporizer may reduce pulmonary symptoms, however, doesn't mean that smoking weed is free of adverse effects.  For example, between 9 percent and 12 percent of marijuana users are dependent on the stuff. Moreover, marijuana use has been linked to impaired driving and structural brain changes in adolescents.

On a final note, should the use of inhaled medical marijuana ever become an institutional practice in the United States, it probably only makes sense that vaporizers would be used. First, vaporizers can be dosed and administered in a more standardized way. Second, no hospital would like people to smoke joints in the hallway.

Selected Sources

Article titled "Marijuana use and risk of lung cancer: a 40-year cohort study" by RC Callaghan and co-authors published in Cancer Causes & Control in 2013.  Accessed on 5/31/2015.

Article titled "Decreased respiratory symptoms in cannabis users who vaporize" by Mitch Earleywine and Sara Smucker published in Harm Reduction Journal in 2007.  Accessed on 5/29/2015.

Abstract titled "Experiences of marijuana-vaporizer users" by JM Malouff and co-authors published in Substance Abuse in 2013.  Accessed on 5/29/2015.

Letter titled "Vaporizer legalization" by IV Mitchell published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2014.  Accessed on 5/29/2015.

Article titled "Cannabis smoking and lung cancer risk: Pooled analysis in the international Lung Cancer Consortium" by LR Zhang and co-authors published in the International Journal of Cancer in 2015.  Accessed on 5/29/2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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