Even at a small pharmacy, the cannabis vape shelves can get overwhelming. Pens come in all sizes, shapes and voltages, and packaging is full of a menagerie of confusing terms like “single origin” or “terpene rich” that many consumers may not understand. Many customers buy a product at random or on the recommendation of their budtender.
For a while this satisfied us – when I got high, my vape did the job, right? But after 2019 vapor crisis, many consumers became irrationally afraid of a product that is usually safe when regulated. For others, a lack of knowledge makes vaping cartridges look the same and the prices arbitrary, turning them away from products they might love if they knew what to pick. Even worse, most budtenders meet customers every week who want to return their vape because they don’t even know how to use it.
It’s time we learned what we actually smoke. Luckily, local budtender and industry insider, Blue Reyes, was able to help us decipher the shelves so you know what to buy the next time you want to get away from it all.
“Distillate is becoming the option for beginners,” Reyes says. That’s because distillate gives producers the most consistent control over the potency of the final product. Distilled cartridges, unlike other types of vape cartridges, can contain many cannabinoids other than THC, such as CBD and THCV, and can range in potency from micro-dose varieties to products with a fairly strong buzz. Distillate cartridges are also generally the most cost effective, ranging from $20-$50 for a half gram in the Bay Area. If you’re new to cannabis, distillate is a good place to start.
However, distillate disappoints most avid consumers because of the way terpenes are processed. Terpenes, or “terps” are the chemicals in the cannabis plant that give it its unique, pungent scent, and are also responsible for the unique characteristics of each strain. They occur in all plants: for example, the terpene limonene is found in real lemons and in species such as sour lemon haze.
However, when distillate is made, THC is chemically removed from the plant – without the terpenes. Storing these terpenes separately is costly, so most distillate brands are reintroducing botanical terpenes from plants other than pot, trying to mimic the effect of a particular strain. Users continue to vape a hodgepodge of plant extracts rather than pure cannabis, which, while not necessarily a dangerous cocktail, can lead to a volatile, uncomfortable and sometimes headache-inducing high. “I don’t agree with that side of the industry, using plant-based ingredients for a plant that already has its own terpenes,” Reyes says. For many in the industry, this practice goes against the plant-loving ethos of the cannabis community as a whole.
Words like ‘full spectrum’ or ‘single origin’ are meant to indicate that the product is made with only cannabis terpenes. East Bay Companies Chemistry and Eden making great, non-botanical products.
Resin is a full plant extraction, meaning the terpenes, THC and thousands of other cannabinoids are extracted from the cannabis plant in a single process. The extraction is done with a solvent, often butane or CO2, although cartridges cannot be legally sold at all if there is still solvent in the final product. A resin extract is more potent and has a longer high than distillate, and often has a slightly higher price. They come in “live” and “hardened” varieties, referring to whether the extraction was done on fresh cannabis flowers or laboriously dried and cured.
“Most companies split 30-70 percent of distillate into living resin to maintain the viscosity of the oil so it hits and burns precisely for the technology,” says Blue. However, the San Francisco company Connected Cannabis Co. is one of the few to sell pure resin vapes packed in disposable technology made specifically for vaporizing resin.
“Sauce is like a terpy-er, more viscous live resin,” Reyes says. Sauce and resin are made with two different chemical extraction processes that would fascinate a chemist – but for the consumer, they accomplish similar goals. While sauce may be more flavorful, resin is said to be slightly more potent, according to some users. Really, the difference is the consistency, and experts like Reyes resist saying either one is definitively better. “It’s like comparing syrup to applesauce,” he says.
Sauce cartridges are also often mixed with distillate to create the right consistency. However, Blue says there is normally less distillate used in sauce vape cartridges than resin cartridges. NorCal Company Beezle, he says, makes one of the best sauce cartridges on the market — despite using distillate.
Rosin is the only solvent-free extract you can get in a vape cartridge, as the process of making it is completely manual. “You can squeeze fresh or frozen flowers in a resin press and squeeze oil out that way, or you can take ice water hash, squeeze that, and that’s hash resin,” explains Reyes. Rosin captures an almost as full spectrum of cannabinoids as smoking a joint, so the high is almost identical – only significantly more potent.
Because most resin has a thick, sap-like consistency and is expensive to make, cartridge resins are rare and usually the most expensive option. They are also some of the most potent and flavorful products available. Two Californian brands make excellent resin products: Farm and Lowell Herb Co.
Batteries are the reusable technology where you screw or plug a vape cartridge full of oil. They often come in a long, cylindrical “pen” shape, but are sold in many different shapes and sizes. Disposable vape cartridges have a battery attached to the oil barrel so you can dispose of them after use. Batteries should never be an afterthought, although they are often treated as such.
“Batteries are like football: the lowest man always wins,” Reyes jokes. What he means is that users should look for batteries that burn at the lowest possible temperature. Cannabis terpenes vaporize at a lower temperature than THC and depending on the extraction, the oil can become very volatile at high temperatures. Using 5 volt or higher batteries, such as those used for vaporizing nicotine, can even cause lung injury or burn the throat when used with cannabis oil. In addition, most “pen” batteries burn at 3.5V or higher, which, while it won’t hurt you, will burn most of the terpenes in a product before they hit your lungs. If a user burns a large full gram cartridge at this temperature, it will be largely devoid of terpenes by the time they have the last few puffs.
Purchasing a low voltage battery is essential for vaporizing resin and even some sauces and resins, otherwise the user will burn most of the terpenes they pay for. These low temperature batteries can be found at your local smoke shop, or often in a “kit” sold with a resin, sauce, or resin cartridge. A foolproof battery option is the Pax Era Pro, which automatically adjusts to the ideal temperature setting when you plug in one of their proprietary vape extract pods.
Vaping can be a confusing business. However, the benefits are clear: not only are vape cartridges one of the fastest ways to use drugs, but they are also mess-free and fairly discreet. Plus, with a little information and a good budtender, finding the right product can be a lot of fun.