Are Cannabis Vape Pens Safe?

by Cedric JacksonSeptember 6, 2019

With the popularity of cannabis vape pens, it is common to wonder whether this method of consuming cannabis is safe. The answer is more complicated than it seems, but they can be relatively safe, provided you use them correctly and choose the proper pen and oil.

You should make sure to educate yourself about the benefits and risks of using a cannabis vape pen before you start to do so. This will help you make an informed decision as to whether this is the right option for you.

Dry Herbs vs. Liquids

Before getting into whether cannabis vape pens are safe to use, keep in mind that there are two main varieties. While most people picture the vape pens that take a cannabis oil or another type of liquid, there are also vape pens that let you place the cannabis flowers inside. When you use that type of vape pen, you vaporize the cannabis herb, giving you a slightly different result. Some refer to these as traditional vaporizers.

Most CBD vape pens that use a liquid function very similarly to an e-cigarette. There will be a mouthpiece, a battery, and a spot to place your e-liquid cartridge. There may also be additional features. The main difference between a cannabis vape pen and the e-cigarettes is the type of liquid you put inside.

Comparing Safety

When you use a traditional vaporizer with dry herbs, you will only inhale the natural components in the cannabis. That does include some harmful elements, such as tar, but you may inhale worse chemicals with newer vape pens that rely on liquids. Those liquid vape pens will bring the concentrated carcinogens and contaminants directly into your bloodstream. The problem here is the level of concentration.

Compared to Smoking

Right off the bat, there is evidence that using cannabis vape pens is safer than smoking a traditional cigarette. In fact, smoking an e-cigarette (instead of a cannabis vape pen) would also be safer. That is because of the lack of combustion. The act of lighting a cigarette on fire and causing it to burn can cause carbon monoxide, tar, and other chemicals to be released. In other words, e-cigarettes are already safer than regular cigarettes, and cannabis vape pens have the same advantages as those e-cigarettes.

From there, the questions become whether cannabis vape pens are safer than e-cigarettes and whether safer is safe enough.

Vaping Offers Similar Benefits for Cannabis, as Well

Early research shows that vaping cannabis instead of smoking it will provide similar benefits to using an e-cigarette instead of smoking a traditional cigarette. That comes down to the fact that all plants will produce many more carcinogens when undergoing combustion than in other circumstances.

Additionally, when you smoke cannabis, small quantities of tar are released into your body. In fact, the American Lung Association found that since marijuana smokers tend to inhale for a longer time than cigarette smokers, each breath of cannabis comes with a higher level of exposure to tar.

Studies Back Up Lung Benefits of Vaping Over Smoking

When comparing vaping cannabis and smoking it, there are already a few studies that back up the benefits of vaping. A 2007 study from the Harm Reduction Journal indicated that vaping marijuana will reduce the respiratory issues associated with smoking marijuana using a combustible method, such as pipes or bongs. However, it is important to note that this research is still minimal, and experts need to complete long-term research.

The Mixing Agents

One of the key factors determining whether a cannabis vape pen is safe is the mixing agent in the oil. You cannot smoke a vape pen without using a mixing agent since this will thin out the cannabis oil. Some of the most common mixing agents that manufacturers use are propylene glycol and e-cigarette liquid. Polyethylene glycol is also very popular.

Why Mixing Agents Are Necessary

Vape oil producers have to include mixing or thinning agents in the oil; otherwise, it would be too viscous. In that state, it would be impossible for the vape pen to turn it into vapor. Instead, it would just damage the pen.

A Closer Look at Propylene Glycol and Polyethylene Glycol

Propylene glycol is complicated in terms of safety. That is because when you heat this chemical, it will create carbonyls. Carbonyls are chemicals that can cause cancer, and they include formaldehyde. For those unfamiliar with it, formaldehyde can cause pregnancy-related issues, including potential spontaneous abortions and low weight at birth. Additionally, experts classify formaldehyde as a carcinogen in group 1.

While that sounds dangerous, there is good news. Specifically, the oral toxicity rate of propylene glycol is very low. In fact, its toxicity rate is low enough that you can commonly find it in food, when breathing it in or heating the item will not happen. You should also know that the FDA classifies propylene glycol as “generally safe” as an additive. There are further complications since various devices will heat the chemical at a different temperature and every user of a vape pen will inhale varying amounts of vapor, changing their risk slightly.

Overall, there is a small risk associated with inhaling or absorbing propylene glycol through the mouth, but it is unlikely to cause an issue for you, and the FDA deems it safe enough to allow its use. Polyethylene glycol has a similar risk.

Other Issues with the Oil

Waxy Plant Materials

There is also a risk that your chosen cannabis vape oil will contain some waxy plant material. This would come from the hemp leaves’ protective outer covering. Manufacturers can get rid of the waxy plant materials, such as cuticle wax, via winterization, but they do not always stake this step since it would add to the production time and cost.

If the manufacturer does not winterize the product, the cuticle wax will remain. This is still the case even when the oil heats since the vape pen will do so at low temperatures to avoid burning the e-liquid. Since the cuticle wax is still there, it will be in the liquid and make its way to your body. The waxy parts can join as a clump before settling in your lungs. Experts still need to conduct more research with this, but it is a risk to be aware of.

You can avoid this problem by choosing your vaping oil carefully and opting for one without waxy plant materials.

Carrier Oils

The cannabis oil you use in your vape pen will always include a carrier oil that makes it easier to consume the cannabis and its cannabinoids. Common carrier oils include hemp seed oil and MCT or coconut. The problem is that the oil itself is not great for the body. These oil globules could get stuck in the airways and cause health complications, such as lipoid pneumonia.

Potentially Leaking Metals

One study from 2018 from Johns Hopkins discovered that metals can leak from the heating coils in certain types of e-cigarettes. Given the similar construction of many vape pens, it is logical to assume that this would be a concern for cannabis vape pens, as well.

Concentration Is Still an Issue

Experts also express concern about the concentration of carcinogens and chemicals found in vape pen oils. You will be exposed to anything the plant was during its growing cycle, including heavy metals, fertilizers, and pesticides. While this would also be the case if you smoked cannabis with a pipe or another similar method, these chemicals will be more concentrated with a vape pen.

There is also the issue that some extraction methods to turn cannabis into the extract involve harsh solvents. Manufacturers try to get rid of any remaining solvent, but it some remains, it will be in a high concentration when you inhale.

Safety in Terms of Dosage Control

When considering the safety of a cannabis vape pen, you must also consider the dosage. Using small quantities of THC and CBD is perfectly safe, but you do not want to risk consuming too much of either, regardless of your intake method. That could lead to a stronger reaction to the cannabis than you intended. It may also increase your risk of side effects. Of course, the most likely effect of consuming too much THC is simply getting higher than you want and not being able to drive or do anything important right away.

The need to control dosing can be somewhat of a safety concern with cannabis vape pens, although most people will still be fine. Naturally, some people will inhale more of the vape oil than others do, leading to stronger effect. Unfortunately, there is no good method of determining how much of the oil vapor you inhale and how much dissipates.

The best way to overcome this challenge is to just take it slow and cautiously until you become familiar with your vape pen and the vape oils you use. Start by trying the vape pen in a safe environment, such as your home, when you do not have any commitment for the rest of the day. That way, if you accidentally inhale more THC than you think, you can just wait for the edge to come off.

You May Get Higher if You Use Infrequently

While everyone should be aware of the dosage difficulties with cannabis vape pens, this is particularly important for those who user marijuana infrequently. A 2018 study that Johns Hopkins Medicine conducted found that those who use cannabis infrequently may experience a greater higher when they vape weed than if they smoke it. This may be good or bad depending on your outlook, but it is definitely something to be aware of. A similar small study in 2018 from JAMA had similar findings.

That second study also found something else that those who rarely vape should consider. If you vape infrequently, you may be more likely to have increased vomiting, nausea, anxiety, and hallucinations when you do vape cannabis, compared with smoking it with a bong or pipe.

Benefits of Vaping Cannabis or CBD

Many people choose to take the small risks associated with vaping with a cannabis pen due to the overwhelming benefits. Cannabidiol (CBD) is a key substance in cannabis and will be in nearly every vape pen oil you find. It interacts with the endocannabinoid system to provide a range of health benefits, from pain relief to relaxation to overcoming insomnia.

While there are other methods of taking CBD, such as sublingually, in edibles, or in capsules, vaping is growing in popularity due to its efficiency. Vaped CBD has improved bioavailability, which means that your body can use it more efficiently. Vape manufacturers regularly claim that vaping CBD will increase the potency of the cannabidiol fourfold due to its improved efficiency.

How to Safely Use a Cannabis Vape Pen

If you decide that the benefits of using a cannabis vape pen outweigh the minor potential risks, then you should take a few steps to stay safe while vaping. Start by doing your research on the products you plan to use, both for the vape pen itself and for the liquid. Opt for manufacturers that are reputable with positive reviews. Since you cannot avoid mixing agents, like propylene glycol, just try to find a vape oil that has it in lower quantities.

You should also make it a point to start slowly with vaping, just like you would with any other cannabis product. Starting with smaller quantities gives you the chance to see how you react to the given dose, so you can make adjustments. This way, you will not find yourself with a commitment you cannot attend due to using a higher dose than you thought.

The Bottom Line

There are some minor risks associated with using cannabis vape pens, such as exposure to small quantities of potential carcinogens. The FDA considers the materials that give off these chemicals to be safe in small doses, so you are unlikely to experience those side effects. Even so, you should be aware of the potential side effects of vaping cannabis before doing so. 

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