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Cannabis Smoking and Vaping: Which is Better, and Can Either be Safe?

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Many customers inquire with us about the safety of smoking and vaping cannabis.  I always start the conversation with the statement that I am not going to tell anyone that inhaling anything other than clean air is 100% safe.  That said, there are circumstances when inhalation may be the best method for ingestion of cannabinoids like CBD and THC.  Inhalation provides the fastest onset and the most bioavailability of any ingestion method.  This means that acute and / or severe conditions may respond best to smoking or vaping.  We have written this article to help explain the difference between the two.  Just like most prescription medications – each comes with some cautions and warning.  However, as with prescriptions, you may decide that the positives outweigh the potential negatives. 


Comparing Cannabis Smoking and Vaping


Despite being one of the most popular methods to use cannabis, inhalation carries a lot of concerns for many consumers. Smoking carries a heavy cancer stigma, as well as concerns for lung issues such as acute bronchitis, or asthma exacerbation.


Cannabis Smoking and Vaping

Many people perceive vaping as cleaner than smoking, but cases of serious lung injury and even death have been reported. These have occurred both in users of nicotine vape products, and cannabis inhalables such as delta-9 THC. So, is it ever safe to inhale cannabis products, and what advice can be those looking to smoke or vape?


These can be difficult questions to answer because cannabis products have been illegal for a long time, making them difficult or impossible to research. And, in the case of vapes and synthetic cannabis derivatives, some of the products in question are too new to have had extensive research done. That said, there is a lot of good information out there on what we do know about these questions.   


CANNABIS SMOKING


Researchers have done more work around cannabis smoking, so we’ll start there. Marijuana smoke contains many of the same irritating and potentially harmful compounds that are found in tobacco smoke. This is because burning the flower involves burning the stems and leaves of the plant. 


However, does this automatically mean that smoking cannabis carries the same health concerns as smoking tobacco?  Patients and doctors alike often have difficulty finding reliable sources of information about these risks.  Bias often influences studies about cannabis because of the long history of illegality and vilification.  (Stacey Kerr, 2018). 


Tobacco smoke contains nicotine and lacks the benefits of cannabinoids.  Whereas, cannabis smoke, while it does contain some of the same carcinogenic compounds as tobacco smoke, also contains cannabinoids.  CBD and THC have both been shown to be cancer fighters.  Therefore, cannabinoids may serve to reduce the potential for cancers.  Robert Melamede wrote a comprehensive summary of these differences.  His conclusion is this:


“In conclusion, while both tobacco and cannabis smoke have similar properties chemically, their pharmacological activities differ greatly. Components of cannabis smoke minimize some carcinogenic pathways whereas tobacco smoke enhances some.” (Melamede, 2005)

 

Obviously, consumers with lung conditions and immune system concerns should approach smoking marijuana with extreme caution.  However, for those with healthy immune systems and lungs, smoking may be the preferred option for occasional or “as needed” consumption. 


ADVANTAGES OF SMOKING

Smokers find many benefits through the burning of the whole flower.  These include:


  1. The cannabis flower is the most natural form of cannabis. It has not been processed, extracted, filtered, etc.  Because it has only been harvested and dried, it still contains the vast majority of its natural compounds

  2. Users can enjoy the whole experience of cannabis. That is, the aroma, the flavor, and the immediate effects.  Many users consider the experience somewhat spiritual and meditative.  

  3. Inhalation provides the fasted absorption and highest bioavailability of any consumption method. Effects are typically felt within 5 minutes. 

  4. Many people find it easier to control dosing with inhalation. The effects occur so quickly that you can consume one puff, wait a few minutes and decide if you want more.  Contrast this to ingestion, which requires anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours to judge the effects. 

  5. Because metabolism of inhaled cannabis is so quick, it is also more rapidly expelled. Rapid in = rapid out.  Most users feel the effects of inhaled cannabis for 2 to 4 hours. Whereas ingested cannabis may last for 10 hours.


DISADVANTAGES OF SMOKING

  1. The aroma is distinctive and potent. It is very difficult to disguise cannabis smoking.

  2. The process can be “high maintenance.” Grinding, rolling, setting up and using a bong, ashes to discard, and the mess of it all can be too much for some users.

  3. Smoking anything can cause lung and throat irritation. Too hard a “hit” may result in coughing, eye watering, and a burning throat.

  4. Smoking results in “second hand” smoke, so should never be done around children or those not wishing to participate.

  5. While cannabis does not seem to contribute to increased cancer risk like tobacco does, there are lung health concerns. According to the American Lunch Association:

 

“Research shows that smoking marijuana causes chronic bronchitis and marijuana smoke has been shown to injure the cell linings of the large airways, which could explain why smoking marijuana leads to symptoms such as chronic cough, phlegm production, wheeze and acute bronchitis.” (American Lung Association , 2022)


CANNABIS VAPING


Cannabis Vaping

THE VAPING CRISIS - WHAT HAPPEND?

Vaping has gone through the whole spectrum of public perception.  First it was the safer alternative to tobacco smoke, then it was revealed to be creating serious lunch problems and even causing death.  Like most things in life, the truth is that there are safer forms of vaping and some very unsafe forms.  Again, we are not advocating inhaling anything other than clean air as 100% safe. However, clean vapes may be an excellent option for those requiring rapid onset of effects.  They may also be a better alternative to smoking. 


Projectcbd.org has an interesting and more complete article about the vaping crisis if you are interested in the details.  The bottom line is that the health problems caused by vaping were caused by additives in vapes.  Most of the problematic products were unregulated “black market” versions of THC vapes.  The primary culprit was Vitamin E Acetate added to poor quality cannabis oils to thicken it.  (Lee, 2020).  Other additives may be harmful as well, however vitamin E acetate directly damages the lungs and should always be avoided. 


START WITH A CLEAN VAPE

The only thing that should be in a vape cartridge is pure cannabis distillate and plant-based terpenes.  The distillate should be tested for residual solvents, pesticides, and microbial contaminants.  We suggest avoiding vapes that have MCT oil, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin or any other “cutter.”  Also avoid artificial flavorings.  Just because a flavoring is safe to ingest, this does not mean it is safe to inhale. 


Plant based terpenes are the aromatic compounds that give plants their aroma and effects.  For example – linalool is the primary terpene in lavender.  It is also commonly found in Indica versions of cannabis.  Many people enjoy the inhalation of terpenes on a regular basis through diffusing essential oils.


Cannabis Vaping


ADVANTAGES OF VAPING

  1. Absorption and bioavailability are high – Similar to smoking, effects are felt within a few minutes. Vapor metabolizes just like smokable and rapid in = rapid out.  Therefore, vaping may be advantageous for treating acute or sudden onset symptoms.

  2. Vaping is more discreet – Unlike smoking, vaping has very little odor and no residual “smoke.” The only thing that is expelled into the air is the vapor from the oil.  Many people enjoy vaping indoors (where permitted) and not having to announce to the neighbors that they are consuming their cannabis. 

  3. Most people find vaping less harsh on the lungs. Vapor can still be irritating, and small puffs are recommended.  However, the lower temperature and lack of added plant parts generally makes for a smoother inhalation. 

  4. Vaping is generally easier. No special equipment is required (papers, bongs, lighters etc.).  A simple connection to a battery for warming the oil is all that is required. 


DISADVANTAGES OF VAPING

  1. The safety of vapes containing only cannabis distillate also makes the oil much thicker. This can result in the occasional clogging of the device.  A short tutorial on clearing them can help overcome this.

  2. Most cartridges are glass, which is subject to breaking if dropped.

  3. Leaks may occur, which can result in sticky pockets or purse.

  4. Similar to smoking – many restrictions exist on where and when one can use a vape cartridge.  


CONCLUSION


Cannabis inhalation may be the most effective way to treat sudden onset and acute conditions.  If you need relief quickly, inhalation may be best.  When used for the medicinal benefits, cannabis inhalation on an occasional basis is likely safe for most adults with healthy immune systems.  We have many clients who have used CBD vaping as a bridge to quit smoking tobacco. 


Our suggestion for most people is to pick a method of ingestion for regular symptom control.  That is, gummies, capsules, oils etc.  Then only use vaping or smoking when necessary for acute situations.  For example, anxious feelings may be reduced by regular doses of CBD.  But situational anxiety (plane rides, doctor’s visits, in-laws coming to town etc.) may be best addressed with an added dose through inhalation.   


Cannabis flower smoking

WORKS CITED


Lee, M. A. (2020, September 15). The Vaping Crisis: One Year Later. Retrieved from ProjectCBD.org: https://www.projectcbd.org/science/vaping-crisis-one-year-later


Melamede, R. (2005). Cannabis and tobacco smoke are not equally carcingenic. Harm Reduction Journal. doi:https://doi.org/10.1186/1477-7517-2-21


Muthumalage, T., Prinz, M., Ansah, K. O., Gerloff, J., Sundar, I. K., & Rahman, I. (2018). Inflammatory and Oxidative Responses Induced by Exposure to Commonly Used e-Cigarette Flavoring Chemicals and Flavored e-Liquids without Nicotine. Frontiers in Physiology, 8. doi:10.3389/fphys.2017.01130


Ray, C., Bylo, M., Pescaglia, J., Gawenis, J., & Greenlief, M. (2022). Delta-8 Tetrahydrocannabinol Product Impurities. Molecules, 27(20). doi:10.3390/molecules27206924


Stacey Kerr, M. (2018, September). Cannabis Science What to Believe.Retrieved from projectcbd.org: https://www.projectcbd.org/science/cannabis-science-what-believe


Weinberg, B. (2022, December 7). Delta-8, Delta-10, HHC, THCO…a Pandora’s Box of Unregulated Cannabinoids. Retrieved from projectCBD.org: https://www.projectcbd.org/delta-8-delta-10-hhc-thco-pandoras-box-unregulated-cannabinoids






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