Ancient Egyptians heated herbs and oils on hot stones to create potent vapors they could inhale. Today, the fastest-growing segment in cannabis is the old-fashioned vaporizer, but the high-tech 21st-century version is vastly different from those humble hot rocks — and it’s helping create new markets for cannabis.
As the legal cannabis market matures, it’s driving advances in how users consume it. In fact, the quickly evolving market is forcing producers to adapt to changing expectations and consumers’ increasingly developed palates. Many producers are turning to technology to meet those demands, as well as to expand their customer bases.
“Vaping” takes its name from the aerosol produced by heating oil until a vapor is released. Today’s vapes include e-cigarettes, vape pens and advanced personal vaporizers (known as “mods”). In the cannabis world, vape cartridges are filled with cannabis oil — with varying levels of THC and/or CBD — extracted from the plant.
A report by BDS Analytics and Arcview Market Research projects that nearly 60% of extract (or concentrate) spending in 2018 will be for prefilled vaporizers. In Colorado, the number is as high as 86%, while in California, 71% of all concentrate sales are vape. Spending on vape is expected to equal or perhaps surpass spending on flower by 2022.
That exploding growth means the industry is investing a lot of money into improving the vape delivery system. The technology is moving so quickly that vape technology is evolving roughly every 18 to 24 months. At the same time, the oil inside the devices also is becoming more sophisticated as science catches up with the plant and as producers work to create a variety of oils with wide-ranging THC levels as well as different flavors and effects.
Originally, cannabis producers used vaping devices created for the e-cigarette market. But nicotine vapes are fundamentally different from cannabis vapes. THC oil — the type that produces a psychotropic response — is very viscous.
In fact, the higher the THC levels, the thicker the oil. E-cigarettes are designed for a much more fluid substance that is usually diluted with propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin. Think of it as using ketchup or honey versus canola oil. Plus, cannabis tanks need a variety of apertures, or drip holes, for the oil, since viscosity varies greatly.
Unlike liquid nicotine, one size doesn’t fit all, and it was obvious nearly from the get-go that e-cigarette devices would have to be significantly adapted for the more demanding cannabis market.
The industry experimented with various plastics and glass, but now most high-tech cannabis vapes use CCELL ceramic cartridges, which can withstand the heat required to activate the cannabis oil, and do it quickly, without distorting its flavor.
Cannabis users, like wine or bourbon drinkers, tend to develop a liking for specific varietals. So it’s important that the unique flavor of each oil is not contaminated by an off taste, such as that from terpene leaching into plastic, or from burnt coils, which change the taste of the cartridge.
Cannabis oil also tastes better when burned slowly and steadily, rather than going up in flames like pre-rolled flower. Vapes are designed to heat the oil enough to release the THC, but not enough to burn it.
Another difference between cartridges is capacity. A “large” e-cigarette cartridge may hold as much as five milliliters of liquid, while a large cannabis cartridge holds just a milliliter of oil.
The “average” cannabis cartridge holds half of that (0.5 milliliters). Since cannabis is considerably more expensive than liquid nicotine, producers make smaller cartridges to enable users to more easily afford purchasing a variety of different oils, depending on the taste, potency and recreational use the user desires.
Because vape devices work by low-heating the liquid, a little goes a long way, making them more cost-effective than many other forms of cannabis consumption. Cannabis vapes also are designed to last longer and leak less than e-cigarettes. Again, that comes down to price, and the need to protect consumers’ investment in the product.
The major advances being done to the cannabis devices is within the battery. Adjustable voltage batteries in cannabis devices allow users to control the burn of their oil. The higher the voltage, the faster the burn and the bigger the cloud of vapor, while a lower voltage generally means more flavor and a slightly smaller vapor cloud.
Creating a smaller cloud also makes the devices more discreet. Different flavors vaporize at different temperatures, so adjustable voltage makes the vapes more versatile.
Experienced cannabis users say they notice a real difference between the original vapes and the new ones. The flavor, functionality and cost have all been improved since the “olden” days of 2012 or 2013. As the market for extracts continues to expand, you can expect that vape technology will evolve along with it.