Cannabis

Is Vaping Weed Really Better Than Smoking It?

Bearded hipster man smoking vaporizer in public
Hrecheniuk Oleksii/Shutterstock

There are really only two basic ways to inhale cannabis: smoking, or vaping. While it might seem like vaping's the obviously superior choice, it's actually a bit more nuanced than that -- which is why we've outlined the pros and cons of both methods, covering everything from flavor and potency, to health and convenience. 

Healthiness

Vaporization's the clear winner in the health department: while burning cannabis plant matter (just like tobacco and any other smoked product) creates a lot of tar and other carcinogens, a proper vaporization releases primarily just the essential oils of the plant because it stays below the point of combustion. These essential oils contain the majority of the cannabinoids and terpenes which give cannabis its effects, so in essence, vaporization gives you all the good stuff and very little of the bad.

Though many studies show that these harmful byproducts of cannabis smoke don’t normally have the same negative effects that they do in tobacco smokers for a variety of reasons, most users (especially those with compromised respiratory or immune systems) would rather play it safe where health is concerned.

However, there may be a dark side to the ostensibly clean vapor produced by portable vaporizers: there tons of these devices on the market, and many of them are made in China with minimal regulation and oversight. It has been argued that some of them contain glue or heavy metals which can be off-gassed at high temperatures and inhaled by the user, although there isn’t a lot of data out on personal pen-style vaporizers in general, as they've only been in existence since 2004.

That said, there are plenty of reputable manufacturers in the marketplace, and the challenge is finding a vaporizer (especially a portable one) made with quality parts. To avoid some common pitfalls, stick to vape pens with ceramic or titanium heating elements which generally are of higher quality than those made of steel, glass, or any kind of fiber wick system.

Discretion

Perhaps the main reason that portable vapes have become so common is because they are much more discreet than smoking. Instead of creating a skunky, thick smoke that hangs on your clothes, hair, and breath, vaporizers create a soft-smelling aerosol-like cloud that dissipates quickly and lingers for far less time -- plus, with the rise of e-cigs, who's to say what you're vaping? For those who need to get high and then go back to Thanksgiving dinner with grandma or go to a dentist appointment, a vaporizer is the weapon of choice.

Despite the discreteness, though, there has been a lot of recent backlash against “vape culture,” so even if you think you’re being sneaky grabbing a toke in the movie theater, you might just end up being source material for a hate-filled internet screed.

Ease of use

Even though pushing a button on a USB-rechargeable vaporizer seems infinitely easier than loading a bowl or rolling a joint, these devices can come with their own unique hassles. Especially in the case of flower vaporizers, the process of loading the tiny chamber can be a headache, as can cleaning out the vaporized plant material when you’re done -- something that seems to take only a couple puffs on many units. Also, a portable vaporizer will eventually run out of battery and have to be recharged, possibly leaving you not-so-high and dry if you forget to plug it in and don’t have a USB port available.

Sure, lighting things on fire can seem primitive at times, but it’s still a reliable and easy way to consume cannabis. If you have a small pipe or rolling papers and a lighter or matches, you can smoke in practically any condition. Plus, smoking basically gives you the same experience every time, whereas a vaporizer with a weak battery may give you a wispy, worthless hit that’ll just waste your weed. 

Many users also complain about the aftertaste vaporizers can have if they’re not kept extremely clean, which brings us to the next point...

Flavor

Vaporization has the aforementioned advantage of not actually burning the plant material, which gives a clean (if rather soft) flavor, free from the at-times harsh and woody finish you get with smoking. While some users prefer this nuanced flavor, most hardcore weed people still tend to prefer smoking, simply because the rest of the vaping experience is much less robust and varies wildly depending upon how clean and powerful the unit is at that moment. The flavor of smoking of course varies depending on the type of strain, grow skill, etc., but in general, the smoke is very thick and apparent, giving the flavor a better chance of hitting its mark for most users.

The largest downside to both smoking and vaporization is the fact that each hit degrades the flavor quality; as you’re working down to the ash (or the brown, desert-like powder you’re left with after vaporizing away all the good stuff), you long for that first green hit again and again.

For the overall best flavor, a lot of this talk goes out the window -- simply put, we recommend vaporizing oils rather than raw flower, as the flavor in a good concentrate will be much more apparent than you will ever see with regular weed, which goes downhill quickly regardless of whether it’s vaped or smoked.

Potency

Despite all the science in favor of vaporizers, it seems as if the effects don't last quite as long, trailing off more quickly than the same amount of smoked cannabis -- anecdotally, at least. Plus, while a well-calibrated vaporizer should theoretically get all of the cannabinoids and terpenes out of the plant material and down your gullet, there's still room for error if the vape's temperature isn’t set correctly. Too low, and you’ll get a wispy, impotent vapor that lacks any kind of punch; too high, and you’ll probably get a fuller effect, but with severely degraded flavor. ​Many users also report a less robust, one-note effect that lacks some of the nuance you get from full combustion (again, likely a function of vaporization temperature).

pretty woman smoking vaporizer in public
Oleg Baliuk/Shutterstock

Verdict: Go with your gut

Ultimately, it comes down to what you're looking to get from your weed experience. If you're health conscious and looking for the cleanest way to consume cannabinoids, or you just want to be sneaky about it, vaping is your go-to. If you're a blunt-smoking party animal who just wants to get blitzed, and you'd rather not worry about batteries or maintenance, stick with the classics. Either way, you now have all the information you need to make your decision.

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Ry Prichard is a freelance cannabis photographer and researcher who doesn't discriminate between smoke and vapor. Dive into the cloud with him on Twitter @cannabisencyclo.