Vaping marijuana grows in popularity, but the effects on health are unclear

Aengus Mulroney / Ryersonian Staff

Aengus Mulroney / Ryersonian Staff

A sleek device made of brushed aluminum, coloured LED lights and an intuitive user experience. This isn’t a description of the latest iPhone, but the PAX by Ploom, one of the many portable vaporizers on the growing vaping market that people are using to smoke marijuana.

The practice of using portable vaporizers and e-cigarettes has grown in the last year, according to Mike Livingston, the social media consultant for 180 Smoke, one of the three stores known to sell these devices on Yonge Street between the Ryerson campus and Bloor Street. A 2015 study based in the U.S. found that 27 per cent of high school students who used both marijuana and e-cigarettes have vaporized the drug on the device.

The increased popularity of vaping marijuana comes at a time when attitudes toward pot are prominent issues in the upcoming federal election. As recently as this past weekend, Conservative leader Stephen Harper said marijuana is “infinitely worse” than tobacco.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair have promised to decriminalize it if elected.   

But Harper’s statement has been criticized for being misleading. Experts and health care officials are still concerned about the long-term effects of marijuana use, with Health Canada deeming it harmful — regardless of whether the consumption method

If you are unfamiliar with the process of vaporizing marijuana, a 2004 study in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics defines it as “a technology designed to deliver inhaled cannabinoids while avoiding the respiratory hazards of smoking.”

This is achieved by placing the marijuana in a chamber of the device that is similar to a small oven. Heat is applied to the chamber and THC, the active chemical that produces the high from pot, melts off of the leaves and is evaporated into an inhalable vapour, hence the term vaporization.

Portable vaporizers and e-cigarettes should not be confused. According to Livingston from 180 Smoke, both can be used to consume marijuana, but vaporizers use loose leaf herbs whereas e-cigarettes use refined oil, which is derived from cannabis plants.

In addition to 180 Smoke, whose interior looks like a sleek combination of an Apple Store and an upscale teashop with various flavours of e-cigarette cartridges, the stores Esmoker Canada, and Blue Vapor Tech also sell similar products. All three are walking distance from campus. The number of these stores in such close proximity to each other is a testament to how popular the products have become.

Mainstream media outlets like The Huffington Post and USA Today have caught wind (or is it smoke?) of this practice and have focused on naughty teens vaping pot under their parents’ and teachers’ noses.

The Ryersonian reached out to Health Canada to see if they have been tracking the rise in popularity of using these devices for marijuana consumption, and if it is concerned about this as a public health issue.

“Health Canada is aware of reports that e-cigarettes and portable vaporizer devices are being used to consume marijuana,” wrote senior media relations officer Sean Upton in a brief email. 
”Health Canada continues to be concerned about the risks associated with youth consuming marijuana in any form.”

Upton closed his message by saying, “Youth are especially susceptible to the negative effects of marijuana use, including harmful effects on mental functioning and mental health.”

Roberta Ferrence is a professor at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and a senior scientific adviser with the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit.

Ferrence said that a lot scientists still do not know about the long-term effects of using e-cigarettes for nicotine, and there are even fewer studies on effects of vaping marijuana.

Alicja Grzadkowska / Ryersonian Staff

Alicja Grzadkowska / Ryersonian Staff

She also believes that while many of these devices are marketed as “food-safe” in their construction, this means that they will not cause food born illness, and are not necessarily safe for inhalation.

“Even though it is an apparently food-safe product, you don’t want to be inhaling it into your lungs,” she said in a telephone interview. “That’s different than (it) going into your digestive system.”

When asked about the argument that vaping may be a harm reduction tool, Ferrence explains that that is a somewhat narrow view of the issue.

“Those of us who look at populations rather than individuals are concerned with what is the effect of introducing a new product on the whole population.”

She says that vaping might be harm reduction to an individual, but the possible outcome may be many new users of marijuana because these devices are seen as cool and trendy, which brings up other health issues tied to marijuana use.

“Marijuana causes impairment which leads to more (car) accidents, and in some people it can cause psychiatric problems,” says Ferrence. “We don’t have enough data on marijuana to really know about all these possible side effects.”

But among the studies available, there is at least one in favour of vaping. The 2004 study in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics concludes that, as an alternative to smoking marijuana, where the plant matter is combusted and creates smoke similar to cigarette smoke, vaping can be an alternative seen as less harmful to one’s body.

As for Livingston, he believes that using portable vaporizers for pot is here to stay. He said that he hopes people will cease burning traditional cigarettes and weed in favour of vaping.

“I think people will one day be blown away by the fact that we used to roll up leaves in paper and then light it on fire, knowing that it gives us cancer,” he said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

16 + 9 =

Read previous post:
Oct 7 cover
Oct. 7, 2015 Issue

Close