By Meghan King, Public Health – Seattle & King County
You’ve probably seen a lot in the news lately about the youth vaping epidemic sweeping the country – we’ve also covered it in a series of posts from our Tobacco team.
What you may be less familiar with, however, is that vaping applies to more than just tobacco: people (including kids) also vape cannabis, which comes with many of its own health and social implications.
Vape pens (also called “e-cigarettes,” “vapes,” or “vapor products”) are the battery-powered devices used for vaping. Although they are typically associated with nicotine or tobacco, some vape pens can also vaporize dried cannabis leaves, buds, or oils and waxes made with THC (the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis) and CBD (another compound in cannabis). Vape pens heat contents until they aerosolize, which a person then inhales.
The aerosol of a cannabis vape pen is more than just “water vapor:” it can contain residual solvents, pesticides, and other toxic by-products, depending on the vaping device and the form of cannabis vaporized.
- Many vape pens have poor temperature control, meaning they heat cannabis to combustion, or beyond the point of aerosol. This means that users inhale cannabis smoke, which can contain carbon-monoxide, tar, ammonia, and other by-products that are harmful for lung and respiratory health.
- Vaping cannabis oils and waxes (e.g., cannabis concentrates) carries additional concerns. To create concentrates, THC and CBD are extracted from cannabis plant material. It’s possible that “safe” levels of pesticides in a cannabis plant exponentially increase when the product is concentrated. Plus, extraction requires solvents, most frequently butane. It’s not currently known how much of these pesticides and solvents remain in cannabis concentrates, or whether those quantities are risky for users to inhale.
- Finally, it’s possible that vaping may expose users to heavy metals. Studies show that in vaping devices used with nicotine, metals can leech from the device’s metal coils, filaments, solder joints, etc. As the line between nicotine and cannabis vaping devices becomes increasingly blurred (cannabis is now being offered in vapor cartridges or in solutions that can be used in the vaping devices more commonly used with nicotine), there are concerns that heavy metal exposure may occur regardless of whether it nicotine or cannabis is vaped.
The concentrated cannabis inhaled during vaping can deliver a highly potent dose. Some concentrated products (like oils and waxes) are 50-80% THC, compared to 10-15% in dried cannabis plant. This can trigger anxiety or paranoia in some people, or increase their frequency of use, quantity used, and/or risk for addiction and cannabis use disorders. New cannabis users, in particular, are at higher risk of these negative health effects from high potency products.
Vaping cannabis involves more than just health risks. Although vaping may seem more discreet than smoking, it is still illegal to use cannabis in public places like parks, bars, on sidewalks, or any other place visible by the general public. It’s also illegal to vape cannabis while driving or as a passenger in a moving vehicle. You can brush up on this and other important cannabis laws in our post on the 10 laws to know.
Kids can experience additional health and social risks.Our knowledge about vaping cannabis is still growing, but we know that kids are using cannabis in vaping devices: according to the 2016 National Youth Tobacco Survey, nearly 1 in 3 high school students and 1 in 4 middle school students who reported e-cigarette use additionally reported using cannabis in their e-cigarettes.
Because their brains are still developing, kids can experience unique risks from cannabis use, including problems with memory, attention, mental health issues, addiction, and poorer school performance. Plus, purchasing, possessing and using cannabis is only legal in Washington for adults ages 21 and older—youth who vape cannabis can face legal consequences. Learn more about the health and social effects of youth cannabis use here.
Interested in learning more? Check out these resources on vaping and cannabis:
- CDC: Quick facts on the risks of e-cigarettes for kids, teens, and young adults
- Surgeon General’s Report on E-cigarette Use Among Youth and Young Adults (Fact Sheet)
- Learn About Marijuana WA: Vaping Marijuana Fact Sheet
- Tashkin: How beneficial is vaping cannabis to respiratory health compared to smoking?
- Budney: Vaping cannabis (marijuana): parallel concerns to e‐cigs?
- Know this about Cannabis
- Science News: Here’s how many U.S. kids are vaping marijuana