Weed vapes: What you need to know about marijuana vaporizers, vape pens and vaping

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Weed vapes come in all different shapes and sizes.


Aaron Robinson

Truth is, smoking isn’t good for you. And I mean any kind of smoking. That’s why vaping is such a popular alternative.

In the three years since “vape” was voted word of the year, the word is now increasingly ubiquitous with marijuana vaporizers, in addition to e-cigarettes. It’s a popularity credited to a flourishing category of portable devices that make consuming marijuana as easily accessible and fashionably demure as checking the time on your phone.

However, e-cigs and weed vapes are not one in the same —  kind of like diesel cars and standard gasoline vehicles.

What’s a marijuana vaporizer?

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A Volcano is a popular type of desktop vaporizer.


Aaron Robinson/CNET

A vaporizer is a device that heats up marijuana (either in dry herb or concentrate form) enough to transmit its active ingredients (THC) without any burning. High-quality devices deliver vapor that accentuates the flower’s natural aroma. 

Though they come in all shapes and sizes, there are mainly two type of vaporizers: desktop vapes and portable vapes.

Desktop vaporizer

A desktop vaporizer is a device that’s meant to stay in one place (not for travel). They’re dependent on a wall outlet, and most allow you to precisely adjust the temperature — an important factor to the vaping equation (more on that later). Some models use a “whip,” a hose-like mouthpiece, or “balloon,” a bag that fills with vapor which you then inhale from — like a Volcano.

Portable vaporizer

If a desktop vape is like a desktop PC, portable vaporizers are like laptops. Many are essentially e-cigarettes that are modified to vaporize marijuana instead of e-juice (ew.) Portable vapes (which are battery-operated) can be slim and sleek like a fancy pen or as  big and bulky as a walkie talkie or water bottle.

How is vaping different from smoking?

Have you ever had to clean a bong, scrape the resin out of a pipe, or vacuum the dusty debris from a knocked over ashtray? It’s disgusting. With vaporizers, clean-up is minimal and usually limited to the tank/chamber and mouthpiece. Though with oil pens that can get a little messy, too. (More on that in a bit.)

Portable vapes are also a hell of alot more discreet to use and carry around. The vapor they emit often isn’t as smelly or visible, in comparison to a joint or pipe. Storage and travel also tends to be easy thanks to compact designs. Also, you never have to worry about finding/forgetting/losing a lighter.

Does it smell?

The vapor from a vaporizer typically doesn’t smell, but that doesn’t mean that the vaporizer itself won’t reek of weed. Marijuana has a very, um, aromatic scent. (There’s a reason it’s called skunk.) The stench is unavoidable when smoking — no matter how many dryer sheets you fill in a cardboard tube — but not when vaping. You’d maybe catch a whiff of weed if someone right next to you was vaping, or if someone near you has a vape with the heat setting on too high, but it’s generally not something with an obvious smell.

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Aaron Robinson/CNET

What kind of vape pens are there?

A vape pen is a popular style of portable vaporizer that is totally having a moment right now. Most require frequent charging, unless it’s of the disposable variety, and some, like the Pax 3 or Firefly 2, can vaporize both concentrates (oils and waxes) and flowers — though their larger dimensions stretch the definition of “vape pen.”

Cartridge pens

  • Streamlined, low-maintenance and affordable
  • Compatible with universal cartridges pre-filled with hash oil
  • Cartridges are made of plastic, metal or glass and can be disposed when empty
  • Battery simply screws onto cartridge for pen-like design

Concentrate pens

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Vape pens that use pre-filled cartridges are popular due to ease of use. 


Aaron Robinson/CNET

  • Functions and designs similar to cartridge pens, except you fill the tank/chamber with extracts
  • If concentrate is too thick you have to buy “juice” (ew) to thin it out
  • More removable parts than cartridge pens
  • Atomizer coils commonly clog up or break down

Herb vaporizers 

  • Can only vaporize dry flower
  • Larger than the pen-style vapes
  • Tend to be more expensive

How do they work?

The main components of a vape pen are a battery, power button, atomizer, tank (also referred to as a chamber, and mouthpiece — just like an e-cigarette.

When activated (usually by pressing a button or inhaling or both at the same time), the battery heats up the atomizer component, which in turn heats up the flower/concentrates inside of the tank to a high enough temp for vaporization to occur — but not high enough for it to light on fire. Users can then inhale pure vapor without the harmful toxins found in smoke.

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How it works


Aaron Robinson/CNET

Temperature is an important factor. Heat affects the harshness of an inhale; the lower the heat, the less the vapor, and vice versa. This is a weak spot for portable vapes. Some high-end models allow you to control the exact temp, but most only offer a handful of heat settings to choose from, if that.

Is it legal?

Marijuana, reefer, broccoli, the devil’s lettuce, etc. — whatever you like to call it, it’s legality depends on where you live. (Shouts out to Canada!)

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Vape Nation, stand up!


Aaron Robinson/CNET

In the US, it can be a little confusing since marijuana (and therefore vaping marijuana) is federally illegal, quasi-legal in some states, and subject to local restrictions or immunity in some places. For more information on marijuana laws, visit Norml.

What are the health concerns?

Smoke itself is the biggest risk when smoking weed the “traditional” way. The smoke from smoking marijuana contains the same harmful carcinogens found in cigarettes. Inhaling smoke can also result in symptoms that are indicative of respiratory issues, like bronchitis and emphysema.

Weed vapes are designed for inhalation without consuming any of those smoke toxins or cancer-causing chemicals. However, we don’t know exactly how much safer it is; there isn’t a lot of research around vaporizers being safer than unfiltered marijuana smoking. 

Some research positively suggests that vaping is less harmful than smoking because it reduces the intake of tar and carcinogens, and that switching to vaping can decrease respiratory symptoms.

To avoid the negative effects of harming their lungs with smoke, many professional athletes and singers, like Willie Nelson (no surprise there), Zayn Malik and The Weeknd, prefer vapes (and other smokeless methods) over smoking.

Vape ’em if you got ’em… or not 

One of the most popular pens in the booming cannabis-centered vaporizer industry is the simple cartridge-based model. It’s an easily accessible, entry-level introduction to the overwhelming, sometimes intimidating world of weed vapes.

While you don’t have to worry about popcorn lung, there are some valid health concerns to note about what chemicals are mixed into those pre-filled oil cartridges. 

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If a desktop vape looks intimidating, try a vape pen instead.


Aaron Robinson/CNET

In addition to concentrates being commonly extracted using potentially harmful solvents like butane and CO2 (causing a chemical-like taste), pre-filled cartridges are often diluted with solvents like propylene glycol in order to achieve the right vaping consistency.

Even if an oil cartridge claims to be solvent-free, it’s not a regulated industry, so there’s no guarantee that it doesn’t have additives inside. Companies like Bloom Farms and AbsoluteXtracts, insist that removing the maximum possible amount of solvents by using equipment in manufacturing facilities operated by trained technicians, as well as thorough testing, make their solvent-extracted concentrates safe for customers to use.

As stated earlier, there isn’t a lot of research around the health effects of vaping weed. With federal legalization of marijuana is still far on the horizon for the US, here’s hoping that critical information about the health effects of weed vapes, positive or negative, is available before they reach the mainstream saturation of fidget spinners.

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