WeEdu 203: Dry-Herb Vaporizers

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.

So far in our 200-level WeEdu classes, we’ve talked about smoking cannabis flower and the tools you’ll need to smoke flower. However, as we noted in those lessons, smoking any plant matter can cause respiratory problems and may irritate your airways. That’s where a vaporizer could help.

You’ve probably heard the term “vaping” to describe vape pens (the vape pens that contain cannabis oil as well as e-cigarettes that contain nicotine). But if you’re new to cannabis, you may not know that flower vaporizers are an option as well.

What’s A Vaporizer?

You already know that smoking cannabis relies on combustion - the burning of dried cannabis plant matter. When you light a joint or a bowl with a flame, you’re heating that cannabis to approximately 1,472 degrees Fahrenheit. This transforms the plant’s non-psychoactive THC-A into the very potent compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is what makes you feel the euphoric, relaxing, and pain-relieving properties of cannabis.

Vaporizing is different. A vaporizer will rapidly heat cannabis flower without combustion, meaning you’re able to activate the psychoactive compounds in cannabis without burning any of it. While further research is needed, studies suggest that this consumption method may be better for your respiratory health than smoking flower.

How Does It Work?

Before you use a dry-herb vaporizer, you’ll need to grind up your cannabis. You may be able to get away with crumbling a bud by hand when packing a bowl, but vaporizers work best when your cannabis is finely ground. This increases the surface area of your cannabis and also makes it easier for hot air to travel through the rest of the plant matter with each inhalation.

The way you use your vaporizer will depend on whether it’s a portable vaporizer or a desktop vaporizer.

When vaporizers first came out, they were primarily available as stationary desktop units. The Volcano style of vaporizers has consistently been a very popular option - it’s composed of a heating element in the base and a “balloon”/bag that fills up with cannabis vapor. To use this type of vaporizer, you’ll gently pack your ground cannabis into the bowl chamber, activate the heating element in the base, and wait for the bag to fill up. Once the bag is full, you simply detach it from the base and inhale the vapor through a mouthpiece on the bag.

Another popular desktop product is the whip-style vaporizer. This type of vaporizer uses a long tube instead of an inflatable bag, but the tube is still attached to the base (which contains the heating element). To use a whip-style vape, you simply draw on the tube’s mouthpiece like you would with a hookah. The advantage to a whip-style vape over a balloon vape is that you can take individual hits through the tube while your cannabis is heating up; with a balloon vape, you’ll need to wait for the whole cannabis chamber to heat up and fill the bag.

In recent years, portable vaporizers have become increasingly popular. These devices are fairly compact - about the size of a smartphone or even smaller. They’re designed for use on the go, making dry herb vaporizing an easy way to consume cannabis without creating a lot of noticeable odors or smoke when you’re out in public. To use a portable vaporizer, you gently pack ground cannabis into the bowl chamber, activate the heating element, and draw through the mouthpiece.

Each vape design has its own advantages. Portable vaporizers need to be recharged, which can be inconvenient. But they can be used both at home and while out with friends or running errands. Desktop vaporizers need to be plugged into an electrical outlet, so there’s never any need to worry about battery life, but you’re also somewhat tethered to the wall.

How Does A Vaporizer Heat Cannabis Without Combustion?

Cannabis doesn’t necessarily need the extreme four-digit temperatures that are created when you ignite it with a flame, but cannabis does need heat. Inactive THCA will activate, or convert into THC, only when heated through a process called decarboxylation. You need to decarboxylate cannabis whether you’re cooking with it, vaping it, or just plain smoking it.

There are two different types of dry herb vaporizers, and they’re distinguished by how each vaporizer heats up your cannabis. First there’s the conduction vaporizer model, which relies on direct contact between the internal heating element and your ground cannabis flower. If you don’t stir your flower inside a conduction vaporizer, it could start to burn - which defeats the whole purpose of using a vaporizer!

The alternative is a convection vaporizer model. This type of vaporizer pushes heat through your ground cannabis without requiring direct contact against the heating element, meaning it’s less likely to burn. That lack of combustion is why many professionals recommend the use of dry herb vaporizers as an alternative to smoking.

Both vaporizer models operate within the same basic temperature range, though some allow you to customize the temperature and others rely on pre-set temperatures that you choose from. THC-A has a boiling point of 220 degrees Fahrenheit. CBD-A decarboxylates at slightly higher temperatures, around 248 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Activated THC has a boiling point of 315 degrees Fahrenheit. Given these activation temperatures, experts recommend setting your vaporizer’s temperature somewhere between 347 and 392 degrees Fahrenheit. That range allows you to effectively heat up the cannabinoids and terpenoids in your flower without cooking the cannabis. However, you can use higher temperatures - just remember that higher temperatures (around 550 degrees Fahrenheit, by some measures) may cause ignition.

Are There Any Risks To Using A Vaporizer?

There’s conflicting research on the safety and efficacy of vaporizers. Some studies have found that vaporizing cannabis instead of burning it reduces the quantity of toxins as well as the incidence of irritation due to smoke. User-reported research seems to back up those findings, with one study reporting that 73% of regular cannabis smokers experienced a reduction in respiratory symptoms.

However, other researchers offer different results. One study reported that vaporizers still produced ammonia at relatively high levels (almost 200 parts per million), along with lower concentrations of other chemicals like acetone, acetaldehyde, and methanol.

In other words, avoiding smoke and combustion will likely reduce irritation in your lungs and throat, but this consumption method requires further clinical studies when it comes to the reduction of chemicals compared to smoking.

Anything Else I Should Know About Vaporizers?

A few final tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your vaporizer: It’s worth repeating: always grind your cannabis before consuming it with a vaporizer! Don’t overpack your bowl chamber. Likewise, don’t pack the ground flower down too much. Most vaporizers depend on air being able to pass through the cannabis. If you’re used to smoking cannabis, you may have a hard time determining whether or not you got a hit from your vaporizer. You won’t produce a huge, dense cloud of vapor when vaporizing cannabis flower, so don’t expect to see much come out on the exhale. Take your time between hits. If you’re new to using a vaporizer, you may feel compelled to “power” your way through (especially since you don’t see any visible smoke when you exhale), but you’ll get a better understanding of the effects you feel if you go slow.

Questions about cannabis? Comments or feedback? Just want to chat? Email us at [email protected] or [email protected].

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