Smoking cannabis vs vaporization

Around the world, people administer medicinal cannabis in various ways. Inhalation is one option. While vaporization continues to be a notable mode of consumption, it is smoking cannabis that remains number one. But why smoke cannabis when vaporization is an option?

Why would you smoke cannabis?

Imagine smoking. Inhale… Exhale… Big inhale! Cough, cough, cough! Lungs filled with smoke, tar, toxins.

We have been warned off about smoking for years, mainly from our collective knowledge of the risks of smoking tobacco. But we know smoking cannabis brandishes harms, too. [1]

Looking at Canada, among survey respondents who used cannabis in the past year, the majority used cannabis flower. Despite over half (53%) being exposed to health warnings, increasing their knowledge of the harms related to cannabis use, the majority continued to smoke. Indeed, smoking (84%) was the most common method of consumption in Canada among non-medical users. While not identical, there are similar trends for Canadian medical users (using on average 1.5 gram/day cannabis flower). [2] And, indeed, this use profile is mirrored among respondents in previous ‘use’ surveys. [3]

So, why are people not vaporizing?

Is it the cost? Is accessing and using a vaporizer prohibitive? Is it people not being used to vaporizing technology? Is it faster to roll and smoke a joint? [4]

The benefits of vaporizing cannabis

We know that the use of a high-quality vaporizer device avoids the respiratory disadvantages of smoking. [5]

A vaporizing medical device, compared to smoking cannabis, dramatically lowers concentrations of toxic compounds such as carbon monoxide, ammonia and polyaromatic carbohydrates (PACs). Compared to smoking, higher therapeutic levels of THC and consistent, reproducible THC extraction and delivery is possible. [6] [7]

It has been established that inhalation via a vaporizer is an efficient route of administration. The vapour is quickly absorbed by the lungs, resulting in measurable cannabinoid serum levels rapidly (reaching Tmax within minutes). [8]

The rapid onset of effects of vaporized and inhaled cannabinoids allows easier titration of the dose based upon symptom severity, tolerability and avoidance of side-effects. [9] While fully standardised, pharmaceutical-quality cannabis flos enables the administration of an exact dose – assured dose composition and dose repeatability. It also means it is free of contaminants such as microbes, pesticides, heavy metals and other toxic compounds. From a patient safety perspective, these qualities make the vapour safer for inhalation into the lungs.

Over the past years, more and more patients have vaporized cannabis flos without reports of serious adverse reactions. It is now time to start exploring ways to move patients away from smoking toward less harmful modes of administration.

Given patients seek a reliable, affordable and portable vaporizer for administering cannabis flos, perhaps more attention is required here?

Is adept, well-timed policy the way forward?

Future thinking – policy angles

Given patients indicate a preference for vaporizers, sensible policy and practical education might be the way to usher in positive change.

With regard to administration, the future policy must be clear and obvious. For example, in Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and The Netherlands smoking cannabis flos is not permitted and/or actively discouraged. The clinical guidelines only support cannabis flos for inhalation administered by vaporization. These types of policies need support from the health sector, industry, and must achieve buy-in from patients and their careers.

Some other approaches might include:

  • Setting a positive regulatory environment, focusing on and enabling rapid developments in the vaporizer industry. The aim is to usher in vaporizers which are more affordable, portable, easy to use, environmentally and consumer friendly.
  • Ensuring that a blanket ban on inhalation is not pushed into law. Excluding quality vaporizer devices from the market would be nonsensical. It would:
    • Eliminate their valid use in hospitals and hospices, rest-homes, and home settings.
    • Have implications for administration options; limiting therapeutic options and prescriber-patient choice.
    • Confine administration to oral dosing only (i.e. excluding the inhalation option).

Policy focused to support education is another, including:

  • Educating prescribers, pharmacists and patients to be aware of the differences between ‘vaping cannabinoids’ and ‘vaporising cannabis flos’, and fully understand why smoking should be avoided.
  • Educating the consumer (i.e. patients) on the benefits of using a vaporizer, compared with smoking. This requires really clever social-advertising – getting people to change, often embedded, behaviours and the accepted culture of smoking a joint.
  • Educating the consumer (i.e. patients) on what makes a good vaporizer – what quality aspects to look for.

For more on administration, see the article The risks of vaping cannabis.

References

[1] Tashkin, D. P. (2013). Effects of marijuana smoking on the lung. Annals of the American Thoracic Society, 10(3), 239-247.

Tetrault, J. M., Crothers, K., Moore, B. A., Mehra, R., Concato, J., & Fiellin, D. A. (2007). Effects of marijuana smoking on pulmonary function and respiratory complications: a systematic review. Archives of Internal Medicine, 167(3), 221-228.

[2] Health Canada (2019). The Canadian Cannabis Survey 2019.

[3] Sexton, M., Cuttler, C., Finnell, J., Mischley, L. (2016). A cross-sectional survey of medical cannabis users: Patterns of use and perceived efficacy. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research; 1: 131-138.

Hazekamp, A., Ware, M., Muller-Vahl, K., Abrams, D., Grotenhermen, F. (2013). The medicinal use of cannabis and cannabinoids: An international cross-sectional survey on administration forms. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 45 (3), 199–210.

[4] Aston, E., Scott, B., and Farris, S. (2019). A qualitative analysis of cannabis vaporization among medical users. Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 2019 Aug; 27(4): 301–308.

[5] Loflin, M., and Earleywine, M. (2015). No smoke, no fire: What the initial literature suggests regarding vapourized cannabis and respiratory risk Can J Respir Ther. 2015 Winter; 51(1): 7–9.

Hazekamp, A., Ruhaak, R., Zuurman, L., van Gerven, J., Verpoorte, R. (2006). Evaluation of a vaporizing device (Volcano) for the pulmonary administration of tetrahydrocannabinol. Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. 95(6):1308-17.

[6] When administering pharmaceutical quality cannabis flos.

[7] Abrams, D., Vizoso, H., Shade, S., et al. (2007) Vaporization as a smokeless cannabis delivery system: a pilot study. Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics. 82 (5): 572 – 8.

Gieringer, D., Laurent, J., Goodrich. (2004). Cannabis vaporizer combines efficient delivery of THC with effective suppression of pyrolytic compounds. Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics. 4(1)

Eisenberg, E., Ogintz, M., Almog, S. (2014). The pharmacokinetics, efficacy, safety, and ease of use of a novel portable metered-dose cannabis inhaler in patients with chronic neuropathic pain: A Phase 1a study. Journal of Pain & Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy. 28:216–225.

Vulfsons S, Ognitz M, Bar-Sela G, Raz-Pasteur A, Eisenberg E (2019). Cannabis treatment in hospitalized patients using the SYQE inhaler: Results of a pilot open-label study. Palliative and Supportive Care, 1–6.

[8] Tmax: the time it takes to reach the maximum concentration (Cmax) of an exogenous compound or drug in the plasma or a tissue after a dose is administered.

[9] Van de Donk, T., Niesters, M., Kowal, M., Olofsen, E., Dahan, A., van Velzen, M. (2019). An experimental randomized study on the analgesic effects of pharmaceutical-grade cannabis in chronic pain patients with fibromyalgia. Pain; 160: 860–869.

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