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What’s in that vape? Cannabis & vaping

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.
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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.

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Interested in learning more? Check out these resources on vaping and cannabis:

Vaping and Marijuana: What You Need to Know

The practice of using vaping devices to consume marijuana or cannabis products is becoming increasingly widespread. Recent data shows that more than one-fifth of high school seniors have reported vaping marijuana in the past year. [1] At the same time, one of the ingredients present in many marijuana vapes has been linked to a wave of illnesses and deaths impacting people of all ages across the U.S.

Unfortunately, these vaping-related injuries and mortalities are not the only reason parents and caregivers should be concerned about the risks teenagers and young adults face when they vape marijuana.

How it works

Just like nicotine vaping devices, marijuana vapes work by heating a liquid or oil that becomes a vapor the user inhales. Marijuana vaping devices often resemble vaping devices used for nicotine or other e-liquids. For example, PAX is a brand of marijuana vaporizers that closely resemble the popular JUUL devices. Those seeking to vape marijuana can also learn how to “hack” nicotine vapes to work with marijuana from countless YouTube videos and other online resources.

The risks

When teens vape marijuana they’re putting two vital organs at risk: their brains and their lungs. The brain of an adolescent or young adult continues to grow and develop well into early adulthood, and is busy developing critical skills related to problem-solving, impulse control, anticipating consequences and more. Marijuana can get in the way of this crucial development.

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It’s important for parents and caregivers to note that marijuana may impact the brains of young people differently than it impacts the brains of fully mature adults. Long-lasting or permanent effects on the developing adolescent brain due to marijuana use may include:

  • Difficulty with critical thinking skills like attention, problem solving and memory
  • Impaired reaction time and coordination, especially as it relates to driving
  • Decline in school performance
  • Increased risk of mental health issues including depression or anxiety and, in some cases, psychosis where there is a family history of it

Research also shows that teens who use marijuana are twice as likely as adults to become addicted to it.

Several thousand lung injuries and deaths have also been associated with an illness linked to vaping devices containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and Vitamin E Acetate, a thickening agent sometimes added to the e-liquid. [2] Although the majority of marijuana vaping devices containing Vitamin E Acetate were bought through illegal channels, there have been several cases where the additive was identified in vaping products purchased from regulated marijuana dispensaries.

Symptoms of this vaping-related lung illness, also known as EVALI ( E -cigarette, or V aping, product use A ssociated L ung I njury), include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss
  • Night sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Low oxygen levels
  • Lung failure and death (in severe cases)

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A Vaping Guide for Parents: What you need to know & how to talk to your kids about vaping.