As the medical cannabis market matures, more options are being presented to patients for how they might consume their medication, from oils to dried flower, capsules, lozenges, creams and, more recently, THC vapes or vape cartridges.
A THC vape is a device that converts THC concentrate (a special type of THC oil) into an inhalable vapour, reproducing the rapid onset of smoking cannabis without the damaging toxins and cannabinoid waste. In this post, we’ll explore what vaping THC oil does and its effects, benefits, risk factors and more.
How Does Vaping THC Work?
Vaping THC requires a vape pen (or “weed pen” as it is often referred to in recreational markets). This consists of a battery and a vape cart (vape cartridge), which contains an atomiser and is prefilled with THC oil.
When you activate the device, the vape pen powers the atomiser in the cartridge, which heats the oil until it begins to evaporate. This creates the vapour a patient inhales and delivers THC and other cannabinoids to the lungs where it rapidly enters the bloodstream and travels to your brain and other organs.
The most important distinction between vaping and smoking is that the cannabis extract isn’t actually burned, so you aren’t consuming the carcinogenic and damaging byproducts of smoke, such as tar and benzene. As you’re only heating the oil to the level required for evaporation (160-200C v 400-800C for smoking), you also maximise the therapeutic benefit as you’re not losing cannabinoids to heat damage or sidestream smoke.
There are many different types of vape pens and THC oil cartridges, and they each have slight variations in function. But no matter what type of pen or cartridge a patient is prescribed, they’re designed to deliver a precise dose of THC with fast-acting effects. This makes vaping an option for patients who need quick, controlled relief from symptoms.
Vaping and the Endocannabinoid System
Your endocannabinoid system is made up of internally produced endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors. Two of the major endocannabinoids that our bodies produce are Anandamide and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (or 2-AG). Anandamide is Sanskrit for bliss and is also known as the bliss molecule.
Phytocannabinoids are plant based, and include THC and CBD (alongside many minor phytocannabinoids). Phytocannabinoids such as THC have a similar chemical structure and can interact with the receptors in your endocannabinoid system in a similar way to Anandamide and 2-AG.
When vapour is inhaled through a vape pen it delivers the THC/CBD vapour to your lung, where it rapidly passes into your bloodstream and is distributed to your brain and other organs.
When the inhaled vapour reaches your brain, the THC interacts with your internal cannabinoid receptors and starts producing a psychoactive effect. Inhaled THC is fast acting and typically users will feel the effect 30-90 seconds after use. Effects will generally peak within 10-30 minutes and last for 4-6 hours. Effects may last longer in some people and are dependent on the quantity used, your metabolism and your previous experience with THC.
It’s important to note that you may still test positive for THC days to weeks after use, despite not being intoxicated.
Benefits Of THC Vapes
Vaping is currently the only prescribed way to inhale medical cannabis in Australia. Doctors advise against smoking cannabis due to the increased risk of inhaling byproducts like smoke, tar and carcinogenic compounds like benzene.
Dried flower vaporisers (like the Mighty Medic or the Volcano Medic, the only vaporisers approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration) allow patients to select a precise temperature suitable for the strain and desired effect, meaning the dose is controlled and more of the THC remains intact.
However, dried flower vaporisers can be prohibitively expensive, so there’s a growing demand for high-quality, medical-grade THC vape pens, which can be a quarter of the price.
THC vapes also offer patients a convenient method of taking their prescriptions, as they are discreet, extremely portable and can be used in public spaces where smoking is allowed. Since cartridges come prefilled with concentrate, there is no confusion around dosing.
For patients who need quick relief from symptoms that flare up, like intermittent pain or migraines, vaping THC may be a preferred method because of its quick onset. And a short onset doesn’t always mean short duration – the effects of THC can last up to six hours.
Risk Factors For Using THC Vape Oil
Using vape pens is associated with a rare, but potentially serious condition known as EVALI – E-cigarette or Vaping Lung Injury. While rates of EVALI are on the decline, it’s thought to be associated with Vitamin E acetate, a chemical added to some low quality THC vape carts.
Excessive use of THC may also have negative side effects, including nausea, dry mouth and impaired memory or cognition. To minimise the risk of these effects, it’s important to always follow your prescribing doctor’s instructions and start low and go slow.
Patients who use THC regularly may start to build up a tolerance, leading to a decrease in sensitivity. To avoid continuously increasing dosage, it may be necessary to take a T-break or tolerance reset, where a patient takes a break from using THC altogether for a period of time to reset their sensitivity.
There are some circumstances where THC is not recommended or is contraindicated. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) advises that medical cannabis is not appropriate for people with a history of psychosis or schizophrenia, persons under 18, people who are pregnant or lactating and people with unstable cardiovascular disease. Prescribing is at the discretion of your doctor and it’s always best to have an in depth discussion with them about your health history when looking into a THC prescription.
How Do You Use A Pre-Filled THC Cartridge?
A pre-filled THC concentrate cartridge is a mini vape tank that contains cannabis concentrate and a small coil that is powered by a vape pen battery. They are generally user-friendly, even for first-time users. When the button is pressed, the vape pen heats the plant extract in the cart, delivering an exact dose – for example, 5mg per three second inhalation – for the patient to inhale.
Some vapes are rechargeable and use a standard micro-USB cable to charge. Others require the batteries to be changed, and how often you do so will depend on the kind of vape you have and how often you use it. Most patients using a prescription vape will need to change the battery every four to six months, but some models have batteries that last over a year. No matter what kind of vape you have, it’s important to monitor batteries for signs of wear, and replace them as required.
What Are The Different Types of Cannabis Vaporiser?
There are two primary types of cannabis vape: vape pens and dried flower vapes.
Vape pens use a pre-filled vape cartridge that contains cannabis concentrate. When you press the button, the concentrate is heated until the therapeutic cannabinoids and terpenes begin to evaporate, producing the vapour you inhale.
Dried flower vapes work in a similar way, except they extract the cannabinoids and terpenes directly from the dried flower of the cannabis plant. Dried flower vapes also come as desktop devices, which are larger and need to be plugged into a power outlet.
In Australia, only three vaporisers – all dried flower vapes – have been fully approved as medical vape devices by the TGA. All three devices are from the Storz + Bickel brand. The TGA has yet to formally approve a vape pen for use in Australia.
If you choose to use a vape pen, make sure you’re using a specific cannabis vape pen. Nicotine vape pens will heat the cannabis too much and can produce toxic byproducts. When using any vaporiser, always follow the manufacturer instructions and use only as prescribed.
Accessing Medical THC Vapes In Australia
Like any cannabis product, THC vape oil needs to be prescribed by a doctor. During your consultation, a doctor will assess your symptoms and goals and prescribe a product, ingestion method and dosage that is right for you.