The Pen is Mightier Than the Bong, or Mini Vaporizers Got the Right Stuff

It’s a pen. It’s a vaporizer. It’s the latest way to inhale.


Much like science and technology have fed molecular gastronomy to the point that home cooks can extract not just the flavors of food but the essence of food, advances in medical marijuana paraphernalia help patients extract and enjoy the vaporized essence of cannabis — the cleanest, most effective and least harmful way of “smoking” pot.

Vaporizing is not smoking — it’s vaporizing, extracting pure vapor at a certain temperature range and leaving behind the parts of the plant or plant extract that, when burned, create tar and other toxic compounds. Vaporizing is the preferred method of inhaling cannabis for patients with respiratory issues that prevent them from smoking; for patients who do not want to create detectable smoke when they medicate; and for anyone who wants to get a high percentage of cannabinoids from their cannabis.

Whether the vaporizer is the size of a fountain pen or the size of a kitchen appliance, the principle of vaporization is as easy as A-B-C and produces a substance loaded with THC:

Cannabis — whether in the form of whole or ground flower, or in a concentrated form such as hashish, hashish oil or hashish wax — is vaporized through contact with a heated surface or with forced air, protecting the cannabis from direct flame and releasing the plant’s resinous, essential oils in vapor that’s breathed directly from the vaporizer unit, through a tube connected to the vaporizer or from a balloon filled by the vaporizer.

Organic matter burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. Vaporizers, generally, reach between 360 degrees and 430 degrees Fahrenheit. Higher-priced vaporizers units feature digital heat controls so you can set your own desired temperature.

Vaporizing is the most delivery-effective and cost-effective method of inhaling cannabis. Vaporizers can capture up to 90 percent of THC and other therapeutic cannabinoids. Smoking a joint, though its ignition to its lingering smoke, burns about half the medicine inside the paper; water-pipes or bongs waste even more. With most vaporizers, the nearly-pure vapor stays in the unit (or the balloon that the vaporizer unit fills) until you inhale it.

A little bit of medicine vaporizes a long way. The manufacturers of pen-style vaporizers, for example, say their products contain an amount of hashish oil (300-400 milligrams, depending on manufacturer) that’s equivalent to 4.5 grams, or about an eighth, of cannabis flowers, and price their refills accordingly. Most vaporizer pens on the market contain from 100 to 150 “hits” of vapor per pen.

Vaporizers are stealthy in a couple of ways. First, the portable vaporizers, especially, are easy to carry, easy to use and easy to conceal. But vaporizers are also stealthy in their effectiveness; because vaporizers produce neither smoke nor smoke flavor, their impact, especially to the uninitiated, sneaks under the radar of many people who are accustomed to smoking.

“Some people when they first use a vaporizer think, ‘Hey, I didn’t get anything,’” said one budtender at a Sacramento medical marijuana that sells pen-style vaporizers. “And then it hits them.”

Whether its extracted from the most fragrant marijuana bud or the stickiest hash oil, cannabis vapor should look like steam, clear and translucent, and should smell like almost nothing, or a very hot light bulb at its most odoriferous. Cannabis that’s been heated beyond vaporization — burned, essentially — will look cloudy and brown, and will emit a burning odor not unlike smoldering electric wires or, at its heat-abused worst, like diluted cigarette smoke.

Properly vaporized cannabis still contains THC and other active cannabinoids. While hashish oils and hashish waxes may melt, plant matter will become brittle and brown; vaporized plant matter can be soaked in alcohol or vegetable glycerin to make tincture, or it can be infused into milk or butter for cooking applications.

Ray Bowri, owner of Sunshine Smoke Shop in Sacramento, displays a variety of vaporizers his shop sells.

Sizing up the vaporizers

Vaporizers vary wildly in design and price — from $20 glass pipes that could be mistaken for crack pipes to $500 towers of German engineering that some consider to be the Cadillac of vaporizers.

Here’s a overview of vaporizers on the market. For a detailed guide to vaporizers, including videos of how to use various styles of vaporizers, visit PotAppetit’s Vaporizer Marketplace. (Currently in beta.)

Inexpensive, hand-held vaporizers ($20-$75) are heated by a flame — usually and preferably a mini butane torch — applied to a hot plate that indirectly heats the cannabis. Some look like traditional pipes but contain a metal chamber inside the bowl that prevents the cannabis from burning. The least expensive vaporizers are straight glass pipes with dual chambers; a lighter’s flame is applied to the outer chamber while the inner chamber, containing cannabis, is heated to the point of vaporization.

At the next step up in price ($100-$300), self-contained hand-held vaporizers feature built-in, refillable butane heating components or digital heating components that that can be powered and charged by plugging into a wall socket or a computer’s USB port. Some of these vaporizers resemble cell phones, some resemble sex toys, and most offer portable and discrete use.

Table-top vaporizers differ wildly in design and price. At the lower end ($150-$250) some vaporizers look like wooden boxes built in high school shop class. Others look like hot-air popcorn poppers and toasters. At the high end ($500) is a model considered to be the Mercedes of vaporizers — the German-made Volcano, a conically shaped, brushed aluminum unit that uses digitally controlled convection heat to fill a turkey-bag balloon with vapor that’s inhaled from a valve-controlled mouthpiece that keeps vapor fresh in the bag for up to two hours.

Some types of vaporizers, while highly effective, appeal primarily to a certain type of medicater — the MacGyver kind of marijuana user who’s comfortable handling small blow torches and heat guns on glass plates and titanium “nails” that are designed to fit into a variety of water pipes or bongs. Small amounts of hashish oil or hash wax are dabbed, using dentist implements, on intensely hot surfaces, creating vapor that’s breathed in like a standard bong hit. Another style employs a heat gun held to the bowl of a bong containing containing cannabis. For the true do-it-yourselfer.

Omicron vaporizer pen.

The pen is mightier than the pipe

The latest popular vaporizer is the vaporizer pen — similar in concept to the electronic cigarettes that deliver nicotine without any of tobacco’s toxic properties but these deliver THC vapor, not cigarette smoke.

They’re available from a few different manufacturers, retailers and medical marijuana dispensaries from about $40 to $200.

Pen-style vaporizers use cartridges filled with concentrated cannabis oil. They’re heated with a digital element and offer doses in 5-10 second “puffs.” One style, the Bic-sized One Love Vape Pen, is battery-powered, and with two models priced at $40 and $60 apiece and refills reportedly hard to come by, they are virtually disposable after the 333-366 milligrams of cannabis per pen (about 100 hits) is depleted.

Others are the size of fountain pens, designed to use over and over again. They can be charged via electric sockets or a computer’s USB port. They can be refilled.

While vaporizer pens may be purchased online or at local smoke shops, cartridges containing the cannabis oil mixture can only be obtained at medical marijuana dispensaries. Two popular models sold at Sacramento medical marijuana dispensaries feature cartridges pre-loaded with the manufacturers’ proprietary blends of cannabis oil and vegetable glycerin, $40-$50 per cartridge (sativa, indica or hybrid blend), or what manufacturers say is the equivalent of 4.5 grams of cannabis.

Anecdotal reports vary on the quality of the medicine in the pre-loaded pen cartridges. Some reports I’ve seen online and heard first-hand question whether the vegetable glycerin that manufacturers put in their pens’ cartridges do not dilute the contents’ efficacy.

As one budtender told me, “That’s why you see people sucking on those
pens all day. Puff, puff, puff, puff, puff.”

Some dispensaries sell one model of pen vaporizer, the Omicron, with empty cartridges that patients can fill themselves with hashish oils and hashish waxes purchased at dispensaries, giving patients a wider variety of medicine to vaporize. (Omicron sells its vaporizer pens in pairs, giving you a back-up or allowing you to dedicate one vaporizer pen to one cartridge/strain.)

Many dispensaries say replacement cartridges are on back order, and some dispensaries say they are working on methods of filling cartridges with their own cannabis products.

Here are medical marijuana dispensaries in the Sacramento area that sell vaporizer pens and cartridges:

Florin Health and Wellness
Atmos pen-style vaporizer, $100. Cartridges filled with indica, sativa
and hybrid cannabis oil blends $50 each.

The Green Door
iVapor vaporizer pen, $160. Cartridge of indica, sativa and hybrid
cannabis oils, $40.

MediZen Collective
Atmos vaporizer pen, $125. Cartridges filled with indica, sativa and hybrid
cannabis oil blends $40 each. One Love Vape Pens starting at $40.

Millennium Health and Wellness
Omicron vaporizer pen, $150. Cartridge filled with sativa cannabis oil, $50.

Northstar Hollistic Collective
Atmos vaporizer pen, $120. Cartridge filled with indica cannabis oil, $60.

Unity Non Profit Collective
Omicron vaporizer pen, $189, with 5 empty cartridges.


This article published in the Sacramento Bee’s special section on medical cannabis. 

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