Vaping Marijuana: Is It Safer Than Smoking?

Considering making the switch to vaping? Here's what you need to know first

Vaping marijuana is often touted as safer than smoking it. That's because vaporizers heat—but don't burn—herb, oil, or wax forms of marijuana inhaled through the device. However, vaping marijuana isn't safe in general, and in some ways, it may be more dangerous than smoking weed. e juice capacity 3 6ml

Both smoking and vaping marijuana generally have been considered safer than smoking cigarettes (or vaping with nicotine products, which may introduce new health hazards rather than reducing all harm). When it comes to vaping marijuana, "safer" may not be true, either.

This article looks at the potential harms of vaping marijuana, how to identify them, and how vaping marijuana compares to vaping nicotine.

Marijuana vaporizers are typically pen-like devices with an opening to inhale the vapor from tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) oils, or to use marijuana concentrates made from parts of the cannabis plant that contain high THC levels.

The vape heats up the product but keeps it below the threshold of combustion. People inhale the vapor or aerosol, but the lack of smoke doesn't necessarily make CBD vape pens safe.

There are different types of marijuana vaporizers a person can use:

In addition to marijuana flower and cannabis oil, there are synthetic cannabinoids made in the lab that you can use in vaping cartridges or mix with dried flower.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says vaping of any kind can cause or contribute to lung disease. Serious cases of EVALI (electronic cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury) have been linked to vaping cannabidiol (CBD) oil.

CBD products are largely unregulated, so it's possible that the oils contain dangerous substances.

Some people prefer to vape marijuana due to the milder smell, ease of use, affordability, and dose consistency. Some studies suggest that in some ways (lower carbon monoxide risk, for example) it may be safer than smoking. With what's known about it right now, though, experts say it isn't safe—or even safer— to vape marijuana.

The risk of damage increases significantly if your vape product contains a chemical called vitamin E acetate. In 2019, an outbreak of severe lung disease from vaping was largely blamed on this vitamin.

In the first few months, more than 2,500 people were hospitalized or killed by EVALI. Among those people:

The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommend against all vaping, but especially recommend not vaping THC oil.

The risk is greater from illegally manufactured or modified vape products, which are more common in states where marijuana remains illegal. However, even with legal products, vaping THC oil just one time can significantly harm your lungs.

Some experts say chest X-rays of people with EVALI show signs of lung irritation by oily chemicals, which could include both vitamin E acetate and THC oil itself.

Much remains for researchers to learn about EVALI. What's clear so far is that vaping is involved and vitamin E acetate is not the only culprit.

If you notice these symptoms after vaping, get emergency medical attention.

Vaporizer products purchased from a dispensary may be safer than black market vape products. In terms of the EVALI outbreak in the United States, studies show there were:

The numbers suggest recreational users who don't have access to a dispensary are more at risk of developing EVALI than those who have access to a dispensary.

Even where cannabis is legal for medical use, you should still make sure the products you choose are legal and fully tested. Dispensaries should be able to provide a full report of the product's lab results. Beware of those that don't charge a sales tax or evade other regulations, which may increase your risk of illness or injury.

Marijuana-containing vape products contain concentrated forms of the plant, which means THC levels are many times higher than in the highest-quality marijuana. That makes vaping them especially likely to cause negative side effects or long-term health problems.

Vaping THC oil is linked to an additional set of side effects, especially in frequent users. They include dry eyes and mouth, increased hunger, and feeling sick, drowsy, or restless.

While inhaling marijuana can harm your lungs, it's used in other forms to help treat the symptoms of cancer and cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy. The FDA has approved two drugs that are synthetic forms of cannabis for this purpose. They also can be used to treat anorexia in people with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

In addition to vitamin E acetate, several non-marijuana-based ingredients you inhale can harm your lungs.  

The FDA hasn't regulated vaping cartridges as tightly as other products. Ingredient lists don't always disclose everything in the product, so you don’t always know what’s in vaping fluids. 

Some harmful ingredients used in vaping products include: 

Flavors and other ingredients may combine to form harmful chemicals when heated.

Smoking anything—be it tobacco or marijuana leaves—is inarguably dangerous to your health. When you smoke, you inhale very hot pieces of debris that irritate the sensitive tissue in your lungs.

Burning leaves can also cause chemical reactions that lead you to inhale potentially toxic compounds, some of which are linked to cancer. 

Vaporizers don’t burn anything. Instead, they heat substances until they’re hot enough to create an aerosol—but not so hot that they combust.

Compared to the hot, harsh smoke of burning leaves, the aerosol made by vaporizers can feel much smoother on the lungs. But that doesn't mean they're safer.

When it comes to the question of whether it's safer to vape or smoke, it's a matter of degrees of danger. It's not safe to smoke or vape anything.

With nicotine-containing products, vaping may be safer than smoking. It involves fewer hazardous chemicals and results in less lung damage. Still, it's far from safe and can lead to nicotine addiction and potentially fatal lung disease.

With marijuana products, though, that doesn't appear to be the case.

After conducting a study published in 2021, researchers said they were surprised to find that vaping marijuana was even worse than using e-cigarettes. Among adolescents, marijuana vaping was significantly more likely to cause symptoms of lung injury.

If you or someone you know has a marijuana or other substance use disorder (addiction), you have several options for getting help. This includes resources from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). You can:

You can use marijuana without either smoking or vaping. Where cannabis is legal, you can buy it in many different forms that are considered significantly safer.

To make edibles, cannabis extract oils or butter can be used to cook or bake any number of sweets, savory foods, or even beverages. No smoke means no risk to your lungs.

However, dosing can be tricky. It can take about two hours to notice an edible's effects. It's common for people to think the product isn't working and take more. That can lead to dangerous side effects.

So if you're using edibles, be patient and don't eat more while you're waiting.

Medical cannabis is used to treat multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and many other conditions.

Several forms of cannabis products are used sublingually (under the tongue.)

Tinctures are alcohol-based cannabis extracts that are often cut with hemp oil or CBD (cannabidiol) oil. They can be just as potent as edibles but kick in faster.

You just put a few drops under your tongue and generally feel the effects within 20 minutes. Tinctures should come with a dropper that makes it easier to keep doses consistent.

Suppositories are products designed to be inserted into the rectum or vagina, where they release the drug as they dissolve.

Rectal cannabis suppositories are sometimes used to treat:

Vaginal suppositories can also be used to treat:

A benefit of suppositories is that they don't get you high.

Keep in mind that the FDA has approved only four cannabis-related drugs, available by prescription. They are Epidiolex (cannabidiol) and three synthetic drugs:

While other products are touted for specific health conditions and available on the market, that does not mean they are regulated or their health benefits proven for a certain diagnosis.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) warns that vaping is an emerging public health threat where American teens are concerned. The DEA research numbers reported in 2018 show:

Most teens report using vape devices for nicotine, or flavored products only. But the DEA urges teens (and the adults who care about them) to understand the potential health consequences.

Resources are available to schools and families to help them identify vape devices, how they're used, and the safety and health risks they present.

Research and the EVALI outbreak suggest that vaping marijuana is dangerous in general and may actually be more dangerous than vaping nicotine products or even smoking cigarettes.

This may, at least in part, be due to ingredients of vape products, including vitamin E acetate, flavorings, and other additives.

Safer ways to consume marijuana include edibles, sublingual products, and suppositories.

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By Robyn Correll, MPH Robyn Correll, MPH holds a master of public health degree and has over a decade of experience working in the prevention of infectious diseases.

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