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Marijuana and Vaping: Shadowy Past, Dangerous Present

A technology initially promoted to help cigarette smokers has transformed marijuana use, too. Now, with cases of severe lung illness rising, health investigators are warning people to stop vaping cannabis.

    Published Oct. 21, 2019 Updated Oct. 22, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO — For years, a divisive debate has raged in the United States over the health consequences of nicotine e-cigarettes. During the same time, vaping of a more contentious substance has been swiftly growing, with scant notice from public health officials.

Millions of people now inhale marijuana not from joints or pipes filled with burning leaves but through sleek devices and cartridges filled with flavored cannabis oils. People in the legalized marijuana industry say vaping products now account for 30 percent or more of their business . Teenagers, millennials and baby boomers alike have been drawn to the technology — no ash, a faint smell, easy to hide — and the potentially dangerous consequences are only now becoming evident.

Most of the patients in the outbreak of severe lung illnesses linked to vaping — which has left 1,479 people sick and 33 dead so far — vaped THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes people high. Until more information is known, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned people not to vape cannabis products.

To some scientists, and even industry leaders, warning signs have been apparent for years as vaping cannabis grew in the shadows, propelled by a patchwork of regulations, a wave of state-by-state legalization and a soaring supply of low-cost marijuana.

While the government and researchers poured resources into studying e-cigarettes, federal rules sharply limiting research into the health effects of cannabis — because it is classified as a controlled substance with a high potential for abuse — have left a void in scientific knowledge about what THC vaping does to the lungs.

Last year, Dr. Neal Benowitz, a professor of medicine and a researcher on nicotine and vaping at the University of California, San Francisco, sent a letter to Congress warning of the risks posed by leaving a hugely popular practice unstudied.

“Very little is known about the safety or effects of vaped cannabis oil,” he wrote, cautioning that some ingredients mixed into the oils “could have harmful, toxic effect on users, including the potential for causing and/or promoting cancer and lung disease.”

“It’s disgraceful,” Dr. Benowitz said in a recent interview as reports of hospitalizations and deaths from vaping-related lung illnesses mounted. “I’m not able to take products we think are potentially harmful and do analysis. I can buy a vape device around the corner, but I can’t bring it into the lab and test it.”

Even members of the legalized marijuana industry acknowledge the lack of hard science about the cannabis vaping products they sell.

“There’s a glaring gap in trying to understand this product,” said Jerred Kiloh , president of the board of the United Cannabis Business Association , which represents 165 marijuana dispensaries in California, where marijuana was legalized for recreational use in 2016.

Mr. Kiloh, who owns the Los Angeles dispensary Higher Path, said he believed that the vape pens sold in his stores and in other licensed and regulated stores are likely safe because the ingredients were measured and tested by the state . The Bureau of Cannabis Control did not return calls asking for comment.

Vaping oils typically include other additives, solvents and flavor enhancers, and health investigators believe some such ingredients, including vitamin E acetate, could be responsible for some of the lung illness cases. The problem of unknown and potentially dangerous additives, Mr. Kiloh and others said, is vastly worse in a soaring black market in the nearly 40 states where recreational marijuana is still illegal.

Even in states where the drug is legal, counterfeit cartridges are cheaper than the licensed, tested and taxed products. It is hard for legal players who pay taxes to compete. A regulated vape pen with half a gram of THC costs $55, compared with $25 or less on the street for an untested product.

“We don’t know what the chemical composition is,” Mr. Kiloh said, “and we especially don’t know what the chemical composition is once it’s been combined, heated and inhaled.”

No Ash, No Rolling Papers

In the earliest days of cannabis vaping, a small group of innovators saw the technology as a safer way to help medicinal marijuana patients. They hoped that vaping — which entails heating THC so that it turns to an aerosol — would be less harmful to the lungs than inhaling combusted marijuana.

But that ethos quickly gave way to a different lure: the pure convenience of vaping, which allowed users to avoid rolling joints, spilling ash, giving off a telltale smell — or getting caught. Vape pens brought the sheen of high technology to a drug associated with hippies and grunge, along with the discretion of, say, texting beneath the dinner table.

“You could vape in a police station and no one would even know, not that you’d want to do that ,” said a 35-year-old man outside Harvest, a marijuana dispensary in San Francisco, who declined to give his name because he said he did not want to hurt his job-hunting prospects.

Other Harvest customers said they once embraced vaping but now have doubts. “It’s convenient, neat, easy. No lighter,” said Michael, who, with his wife, Laurie, both in their 70s, declined to give a last name because they didn’t want their teenage granddaughter to know about their habit.

With news of vaping-related hospitalizations and deaths, though, Laurie was growing concerned. So this time she came to Harvest to buy flower, the old-fashioned bud rolled in joints. It was a switch the couple said they would continue while they await more vaping science.

Others were undeterred. Cynthia Valdivia , 34, bought a THC vape cartridge after using one to try marijuana for the first time this summer. She said she was not worried about what she bought from a legal store.

“There’s someone behind the brand and they don’t want to kill people,” she said. “They want their money.”

The Volcano

The market has flourished in the absence of regulation, said Eric N. Lindblom , a former tobacco official at the Food and Drug Administration. The federal government, he said, has been unsure of how to respond to state legalization of marijuana, and the uncertainty has left a void of regulation, research and enforcement.

“Only now that we have this special, extra weird mystery crisis with the disease and deaths is there now interest in doing something,” he said.

Some think it may be too late.

“The market has run amok,” said Carlos de la Torre, the owner of Cornerstone Wellness, a dispensary in Los Angeles.

Mr. de la Torre came to the cannabis business in 2007 after a career in television advertising. That year he opened his shop in a Los Angeles suburb, selling marijuana flower and edibles to customers with medical cards.

“At the time, I don’t think vaping really existed,” he said.

Not commercially, at least. There was a rich and informal history among a narrow band of regular marijuana users who bathed weed in alcohol to extract THC — so-called honey oil or hash oil. That was the domain of the “biker, LSD, hippie crowd,” said David Downs , the California bureau chief of Leafly, a cannabis news and product website.

The first commercial marijuana vaping brand was called the Volcano, and it was the brainchild of a German entrepreneur, Markus Storz , who obtained a patent for it from his native country in 1999.

The Volcano came to the United States in 2003, and it is aptly named. It is built on a sturdy, triangular-shaped base — “the kind of thing that sat on a coffee table and weighed a pound,” Mr. de la Torre said.

It heated marijuana flower until the THC baked off as vapor. A user then inhaled the aerosol from a large plastic bag attached to an inhalation pipe.

Industry insiders thought it might be healthier than smoking a joint because burning marijuana contains carcinogens like tar and carbon monoxide. “If we were really helping cancer patients, then adding carcinogens was not helpful,” said Mr. Kiloh, who in 2003 opened his first medical dispensary, Green Cross, in San Francisco, seven years after California legalized marijuana for medical purposes.

Federal research restrictions allow the study of marijuana under certain conditions, and scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, found that the Volcano produced less carbon monoxide and tar compared with smoking marijuana.

The Volcano was built around inhalation of pure marijuana vapor, created by heating the plant itself. In a few years, the technology would change in a fundamental way.

“What happened was that the oil came next ,” Mr. Kiloh said.

Entrepreneurs began to extract oil by bathing the leaf in ethanol or butane, filtering out the solid material that remained and then evaporating the solvent to leave the concentrated oil. Another method used carbon dioxide, which, when pressurized, creates a fluid that can be used to extract the oil. (There is no “toxicological” research about the relative health effects of the different methods, according to Chris topher Havel, an analytical chemist at U.C.S.F. who works with Dr. Benowitz).

Once extracted, the THC oil could then be heated up using a small battery, kept in a cartridge or penlike case, creating aerosol, which is then inhaled from one end of the device. Consumers fell in love.

As marijuana became legal in a growing number of states, a new area of entrepreneurship burgeoned. Businesspeople found they could use the entire plant to extract oil rather than throw away stems and other parts discarded by smokers, which maximized the value of the crop.

The oil also could be mixed with other additives to give flavor, to create the effect of big puffs of smoke or just to cut the THC to substitute less expensive chemicals.

A technology initially promoted to help cigarette smokers has transformed marijuana use, too. Now, with cases of severe lung illness rising, health investigators are warning people to stop vaping cannabis.

Does Vaping Weed Smell?

Cannabis, most commonly known as Marijuana, is a plant that promotes a sense of euphoria and relaxation when burned or vaped. This powerful drug is believed to treat a number of conditions (e.g. Alzheimer’s Disease) by producing mind-altering hormones that calm down a person.

Unfortunately, marijuana, for a long time, has been looked down upon and has suffered a negative stigma in popular culture. It has had a reputation for being an inferior treatment method even while other substances that promote adverse effects are widely used. To be honest, I also judged it the same way when I was a kid because of how people thought about it. Needless to say I’ve learned from my past stupidity.

Cannabis Regulation

More and more people are gaining access to medical and recreational marijuana as cannabis regulation is slowly starting to gain momentum across the United States. Marijuana has already been legalized in eight states in the US for recreational use. Other countries all over the world are now starting to adopt new laws and push for the legalization of this controversial treatment alternative.

There are still a lot of taboos surrounding cannabis despite the recent pro-legalization momentum. Stereotypes from our less-educated past take a long time to die off.

The Scent of Weed

Because of the restriction and negative stigma surrounding cannabis, people who do a regular scent check often times feel embarrassed about it. Sometimes people make me feel like smoking a harmless joint is something to be ashamed of. One friend even told me that the smell of marijuana makes her “want to punch the wall”. Really?

Due to the stigma, people who smoke weed often turn to vape pens instead of the traditional way of rolling up a joint whenever they want to feel the effects of pot. Vaping weed is much more discreet when compared to smoking it. I can confirm that from personal experience. Before making the drastic change, people oftentimes ask: do vape pens smell? Does vaping weed give off the same smell as rolled joints?

Do Vape Pens Really Smell?

There is a lot of bullshit on the internet about vaping weed. Many have claimed to offer odorless dry herb vaporizers. Don’t fall for it.

Of course vape pens smell! I think it’s safe to assume that any type of weed will produce an aroma. The severity of the odor depends on what type of cannabis you are going to vaporize. The strength of the vapor and the strain and purity of your herb is a big factor as well.

A responsible vaper should know the difference between smoking weed and vaping weed, especially its odor comparison. I have tried both ways and I can say that there really is a huge amount of difference between the scent it produces.

The Scent of Vaping Weed VS Smoking It

Smoking Weed

When you ignite plant material, you combust it to create smoke. This is how smoking marijuana works. You burn the bud which will then produce fumes. These fumes are what you inhale during smoking.

You actually immediately lose 50% of the cannabis plant when you combust it. What’s worse is that it contains a lot of solid particles of what you just burnt. Smoke isn’t actually a gas. It is merely a product of burning and combustion. So the next time someone asks you why smoking weed smells awful? The answer is that what you inhale contains millions of burnt particles that bring the odor.

This is also the reason why it leaves its characteristic smell to the smoker or anything it can cling to. If you smoke all day from the time you get out of bed to the time you get home from work, you become a walking representation of the amount of weed you inhale.

Vaping Weed

Vaping weed on the other hand, by its definition, works by producing vapor. Vaporizers are devices that can adjust to a temperature so low it can heat a cannabis plant and melt its oils without actually burning the plant itself.

This means that the particles produced by vaping weed are much purer than smoking them. Vaporizers still smell, of course. However, there are no smoke fragments present in vape pens, which means you don’t have to worry about the scent mixed with smoke clinging to your clothes.

Vapor is a real gas, unlike what smoking produces. The awful scent brought by the burnt molecules in smoking weed is also absent in this process. This is due to the absence of combustion in the vaping system. As a matter of fact, many vape users (including myself) can testify to the fact that vaping cannabis does not have the same aroma that is developed by igniting your herb.

How strong is the scent produced by vaping weed?

With everything I’ve mentioned so far, you should know by now that there are a lot of reasons why vaping weed is far superior to smoking it. The reduced aroma is one of the most important in this long string of factors. Combustion doesn’t happen in the vaping system. The only scent you will be smelling upon vaping is the vapor and its flavor.

As we’ve mentioned, vaping produces purer molecules than smoking. Now you might think a purer substance is even more detectable. However, a purer one doesn’t equate to a stronger one.

The vapor emitted from what you inhale diffuses very quickly. There’s really not even enough time for the vapor to stick to your clothes.

It is important to consider that there is still a concomitant scent. It basically depends on what vape pen you use. So there are exemptions.

Some devices, especially the older models, produce a much stronger scent than the newer ones. This happens by putting the herb directly in contact with a heated surface. The odor produced is much stronger the longer the heating element is activated. This aroma lingers for a while but also discharges very fast, so there is no need to worry that your wardrobe could be used against you.

Does Vaping Weed Get You Caught?

Fortunately for vapers, vaping weed has been observed to be less detectable than the traditional way of smoking. This is because unlike the latter, the former doesn’t involve combustion, which is responsible for producing that burnt aroma you smell whenever you pass by smokers. And no matter how much we deny it, the smell of flavored vape is so good you just want the aroma to stay in your nose all day. This scent, together with its accompanying massive, puffy white “smoke” has been common anywhere.

We can’t deny that vaping is more acceptable than smoking. When people see a person lighting up a cigarette, they are automatically disapproved and frowned upon. Vaping, on the other hand, gets a free pass (well, sometimes). People who are worried about acquiring second-hand smoke tend to like vapor that smells like bubblegum or strawberry than an overcooked barbecue.

With this, it has become almost normal to see people with e-cigarettes inside parties or bars, on the streets, and anywhere a smoker won’t be able to indulge in his or her habit.

Tobacco users who use vapes started to look at this as an advantage. And not long after, they started to feel the same freedom they felt before several states started to make laws that prohibit people from smoking in public. As a matter of fact, 37 percent of smokers switch to vaping every week.

And of course, people who smoke weed saw this as the perfect instrument to mask their herb habit. I know I did!

We’ve known so far that vaping produces an odor that is less pungent than smoking, which burns the joint itself (thus, the smell). But now, people who smoke weed can just easily blend in with smokers and get away with it quickly if the police show up.

How Do I Beat The Weed Smell Dilemma?

As I’ve said earlier, there are two methods of inhaling weed. One involves combustion, and one is done through vapes. While the latter is considered to be producing the most tolerable smell, it still smells! No smoking or vaping device is absolutely smell-proof. This is a factor to consider especially when people around you are not used to it.

Older models are the ones more likely to emit a noticeable odor. However, just because your vape is an obsolete device does not mean it automatically exudes that extreme smell. Strong odors only come out when your mod is not used properly.

If you really are concerned about getting rid of the strong odor, there are ways to make this happen. By experience, here are some pro tips I can recommend that can help you decrease chances of an unwanted smell.

  • Clean your vape! This is a no brainer. Of course the dirtier your vaporizer, the more chances it won’t function properly. Always keep your bad boy clean especially if it handles conduction heating, which is the most common equipment in the market. Even the smallest of dirt can stop your vape from working properly when it gets in, preventing the whole device from running smoothly.
  • Keep it sealed in a jar. Since cannabis costs a lot, sometimes people don’t actually smoke the whole joint. Once in a while, I don’t finish the whole thing as well. If you want to save some of your weed, search for a properly tight container in your kitchen and keep it sealed. Consuming it all in one sitting is kind of a waste of your money, especially if it’s a good weed. So save some for later!
  • Make a faux spoofer. This requires some resourcefulness and a visit to your local supermarket. Buy some fabric softener sheets. At home, find used paper towel rolls in your bathroom. Fill the rolls with the fabric softener sheets you bought. Use this artificial spoofer and blow your vapor through it whenever you smoke. You will now smell more like a laundry machine. But it’s better than smelling like weed, right?
  • Install window fans. If you’re willing to spend some cash, search for window fans at the nearest hardware store. After all, it is not that expensive. This can help diffuse the strong aroma of your weed if you install it in your room. If you want to be extra cautious, you can also stick some fabric softener sheets on it.
  • Buy popcorn! I’m definitely not a chemist and have no idea why this works, but this method can be confirmed by some weed vapers, including myself! Opening a bag of popcorn is definitely an inexpensive and effortless way of hiding the smell of your herb. The strong smell of popcorn seems to dominate every smell in the air, including the smell of your weed, in a closed room. It may be hard to resist, but it is not for eating!
  • Put a towel under the door. People still debate over the effectiveness of this method but it doesn’t hurt to try, especially if you really are eager to mask the unwanted aroma of your herb. Place a moist towel tightly under the gap of your door from the floor during your vape time to reduce the smell.

When someone tells you they offer an odorless dry cannabis vaporizer, walk away. There’s just no way a plant as strong as weed is not gonna smell. These are just gimmicks to make you buy their products. Don’t fall for their misinformation. Always be aware.

Vaping weed is ultimately one of the safest options whenever you want to get high but don’t want to be detected, even when there are people around. An untrained eye will have a hard time differentiating cigarettes from marijuana, especially e-cigarettes specifically designed for this herb. Try to look for some vaping devices fit for inhaling weed and adapt to them on this purpose.

A lot of people believe in the myth that vaping weed doesn't produce an odor. The fact is that it does. Here are some solutions to help prevent smells.