Vaping… it’s an entirely different world, especially these days. The term has come to refer to so many different styles of cannabis consumption as well as the umpteen number of new products on the market. Add to that the vast availability and popularity of e-cigarettes and the conundrum really becomes a jumble… This short guide to cannabis vaporizing—and in particular vape pens—will hopefully shine some light through all the fog.
Traditionally, vaporizing refers to the use of a convection heat current to warm cannabis flowers to the point of just before they are able to combust. This releases the essential oils from the plant without burning the actual plant material. In so doing, the consumer inhales the active cannabinoids without any of the nasty by-products that are produced from combustion—particularly those volatile carbon compounds and the accompanying nasty free-radicals that are purported to absolutely ruin you.
Vaporizing flowers has become very popular over the last several years for the obvious reason that it has proven health benefits over smoking. It used to be that if you wanted to vaporize your flowers you were pretty much stuck to a desktop. Early vaporizers utilized large heating elements integrated into a tabletop unit. Several iterations are still available, notably the Volcano and the Da Buddha/Silver Surfer brands. They work flawlessly.
Over the last several years, tabletop units have been augmented with hand held flower vaporizers. A ton of brands have hit the market recently. In general, they all work the same way. They contain a small chamber at one end to put your ground cannabis flower into with a simple mouthpiece and an electronic heating element/control also built into the unit. At first, these “hand-held” devices were quite bulky and not very efficient. But recently they’ve slimmed down considerably and the technology within them has advanced as well. Three notable and popular brands include the PAX II, The Black-Out Dry Herb 2.0, and the Magic Flight Launch Box. Handheld flower vapes are generally convenient and inconspicuous. They work well enough, though they can be a bit labor intensive.
These days vaporizing is no longer relegated the realm of flowers. Enter DABS the ultimate in vapor consumption. Most people who refer to “doing dabs” or “smoking dabs” may not realize that they are not actually “smoking” at all. Dabs are composed of cannabis oil. They contain no plant material—that is no cellulose or other constituent plant parts. When you place them on a hot nail they vaporize. The resulting product is vaporized oil—not smoke. That is why you always hear people tell you not to hold in your dabs. The vapor doesn’t absorb into your lungs so much as it coats them with oil. It’ll make you cough for sure. But eventually your body will break the oil down and consume the cannabinoids within. It’s all good….
Without going into a long and boring chemistry lesson, suffice it to say that dabs can be made using a variety of different production techniques. They are mostly made utilizing some form of solvent that is flushed through cannabis plant material under pressure. The various solvents strip the cannabis oils from the plant material without binding to them. The resultant goop is then purged of any residual solvent and finished in various ways to create shatter, wax, budder, crumble, oil, etc.…
A note on water hash. Water IS a solvent. In fact, it’s known as the universal solvent. But most people don’t think of it that way when referring to dabs. Water hash, or bubble hash as it is more commonly known, is not generally good for dabbing. However, some companies have refined their hash making abilities to the point where their products are actually dabable. Essential Extracts and T.H.E. Melts are two companies that immediately come to mind (available in California and Colorado). These companies use incredibly high micron counts when filtering their cannabis through cold water. The resultant product is so clean and clear that it will actually melt rather than combust. These kinds of dabs are usually called “solventless” because they were not made with any kind of hydrocarbon such as butane, hexane, propane, and the like. Solventless dabs tends to require a higher temperature to vaporize. While solventless may make for some smooth dabs on a hot nail, they don’t seem to work so well in any of the vape pens currently available on the market.
The most common and probably the most popular of the solvents utilized to make dabs is butane. Butane Honey/Hash Oil has been around for much longer than people generally give it credit for. Honey Oil was smoked by hippies in the late 60s and throughout the 70s by heating up butter knives on a stove. They would place a small dab of Honey Oil on the end of a butter knife and inhale the vapors resulting from pressing a second heated knife onto the end of it. This was called “doing hot knives.” Honey Oil extractors have been on the market for decades. Most stoners ignored the ads because they had no idea what Honey Oil was…but I digress.
Butane hash oil is extracted under strict controls in most areas where it is commercially available. The commercial operations use heavy duty closed-loop extraction systems and vacuum ovens adapted from the food and cosmetics industries. These machines greatly reduce the risks involved in exploiting such a volatile substance to extract hash while ensuring no residual solvent is left in the finished product.
The extraction process itself is the only thing dangerous about BHO, as it is more commonly referred to. I wrote an article about this very topic a couple of years back for the MMMR—BHO is Not Dangerous and People Should Stop Bitching (http://mmmrmag.blogspot.com/2014/06/bho-is-not-dangerous-people-should-stop.html).
BHO is available in a number of different forms, as I’ve alluded to above. Most of these forms are really nothing more than a matter of physical finishing techniques. For example, if you mechanically manipulate shatter it becomes wax/budder. BHO, and dabs in general, are usually consumed by placing a small amount of the material onto a heated “nail” of either titanium or quartz glass construction. Thus the term, “dabs,” which actually refers to the small amount of material needed for optimum effect. The nail sits on a “rig,” which is essentially just a small, specialized bong. When it comes to vaporizing BHO, as with most solvent-derived hash products, pens have become very popular over the last several years.
There are several pens on the market that mimic the function of a rig. These provide a small crucible with an inserted heating element and a removable dome—sometimes integrating water. Pens like this have become very popular and are available in a large number of iterations. Essentially, you place your material directly onto the heating element in the crucible, cover it with the dome, and a battery heats the element vaporizing your dabs at the push of a button.
These pens are designed to consume shatter and wax in their more “solid” forms, if you will. They also work well with propane extractions, or PHO, which is another more “solid” form of cannabis concentrate utilizing a similar hydrocarbon extraction technique. While convenient, pens like these tend to get dirty quickly, which can adversely affect the taste of your dabs over time. A good pen of this type will come with an extra replaceable heating element or at least make them available. This way you can replace the element when the goop within becomes too much to bear.… Cloud and Apex are two manufacturers that make good examples of these types of pens.
If you are going to vape oil in its more “solid” form (e.g., budder, wax, shatter, etc.) these types of traditional set ups are what you’re going to need. But not all oil is made with butane or propane. Carbon dioxide is the second most popular solvent used to extract cannabis to make dabs. CO2 oil has some notable differences when compared with BHO. Most notably its viscosity. Unlike BHO or PHO, it is very difficult to get CO2 oil to maintain a stable shape. It’s naturally runny like honey. For this reason, CO2 oil is usually sold in a syringe or in capsule form. If it’s in a capsule, it’s meant to be eaten. If it’s in a syringe, however, it can be used in a variety of ways.
Most CO2 oil that comes in a syringe will be inactivated, that is, it has not been decarboxylated. You can dab it just like any other “solid” extracted concentrate on any of the contraptions I mentioned above, though it will be messier. Several pens are available to consume CO2 oil. Mostly, they use a generic form of cartridge that you can fill yourself—the original ATMOS pen comes to mind. It can be a bit tricky to get your CO2 oil into the cartridge, but once it’s in there it works very simply by heating an internal element that vaporizes your oils.
The Eclipse H2O Vape is another product that was specifically designed for consuming CO2 oil through a rig. They also make a handheld pipe version. This contraption uses a borosilicate dram vial that you can fill with a bit of CO2 oil and then heat externally with a small torch lighter to vaporize the contents within.
My favorite way to use CO2 oil is to put it in my coffee. I love the taste and use only a small drop—enough for flavor, not to “medicate.” I liken it to what I image the spice “mélange” from Frank Herbert’s DUNE should taste like…allowing one to fold space and time, travelling without moving.
CO2 oil pens have hit the market hard across the country with brands like O-pen Vape leading the way in several states. These pens come with a prepackaged removable CO2 cartridge already affixed. The cartridges are replaceable and come in a variety of dosages and even strains.
There is a fundamental difference between purchasing a CO2 oil pen with a preloaded cartridge and filling your own cartridge from a syringe. Specifically, those prepackaged cartridges are usually also mixed with some form of thinning agent— typically propylene glycol. This organic compound, with the chemical formula C₃H8O₂, is a viscous colorless liquid that is nearly odorless but possesses a faintly sweet taste and is commonly used in the food industry. This is mixed with the CO2 oil to make it easier to handle and package at the manufacturing stage. It’s a common practice borrowed from nicotine e-cig technology. Many people mistakenly misidentify the additive in these pens as polypropylene glycol, which is a completely different thing altogether and not so much with the good-for-you.
Prepackaged CO2 pens are perfect for novice cannabis consumers and/or those who consume lightly. More experienced (i.e., tolerant) consumers may find these pens lacking in the oomph factor. In addition, CO2 has a particular taste of its own and this can be imparted to your dabs.
Most concentrate connoisseurs are looking for flavor over anything else. They often speak of “terps,” referring to the terpine profile of a particular strain. Terpines are the organic compounds that impart flavor and smell to plant oils. The general rule is the “terpier” your hash is the better it’s going to be… But since CO2 has its own flavor profile it tends to come through, sometimes overpoweringly so.
The analogy I often use to explain this involves my Soda Stream at home. Have you ever noticed the “taste” of club soda or soda water (seltzer)? It’s consistent. That’s the CO2. At home we drink our tap water. When my wife and I moved into our home 15 years ago we had the water tested and it tested great. Our water tastes like mountain freshness right from the tap. But put it through the Soda Stream and BAM! Tastes just like seltzer out of a bottle from the store…CO2. That same flavor tends to impart itself on dabs made from CO2 so that after a while anyway, they all start to taste the same.
So there you have it. A simple guide to vape pens. There’s a lot out there to choose from. Just try to remember these few simple things. Flower vapes can be handheld these days and they work great. But flower vaping and concentrate vaping are very different. If you’re a novice cannabis consumer, stick to vaping flowers. When you advance to dabbing, the prepackaged CO2 oil pens are perfect to start. If you’re a heavy hitter skip the prepackaged CO2 pens for the fill it yourself vapes. These will allow you to refill them with your choice of CO2 product without any fillers like propylene glycol. Or skip the CO2 altogether and go with a pen that has a crucible and dome and try some BHO or PHO. Remember to keep it clean and replace the crucible often for best taste. Whichever method you try always remember to keep on tokin’!