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Medical Vape Devices: Patients at Risk Without Regulation

by | Oct 12, 2023

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Written by Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a cannabis writer and B2B content marketer living in British Columbia, Canada. Her focus on cannabis tech, scientific breakthroughs, and extraction has led to bylines with Cannabis & Tech Today, Terpenes and Testing, Analytical Cannabis, and Grow Mag among others. She is the owner and lead-writer of Sea to Sky Content, which provides content and strategy to the industry’s biggest brands.

In the last decade, vaping has reshaped how both medical and recreational cannabis consumers choose to consume the plant. Yet, from a medical perspective, there are still no hard and fast rules about the technology, temperature controls, or materials. 

Even if sold under the guise of the same tech, what differentiates a medical vaporizer from a vape pen or an e-cigarette? Most importantly, how does eac impact the vapor and, thereby, the patient?

Join us in a discussion with Mario Gabriel, director of Nectar Medical Vapes, as we navigate medical vaping technology and patient protections. 

Medical Grade vs. Everything Else

The vaporizer market is awash in options, yet not all are created equal — especially from a patient’s perspective. In medical markets (like Australia’s), when there are rules governing the method of consumption, vaping is typically the only approved method for inhalation. This has meant a growing demand for specifically medical-grade devices.

What qualifies a medical-grade vaporizer? According to Gabriel, the prime differentiators of a medical-grade vaporizer vs. a recreational one are the material grade, precise temperature controls, isolated airflow paths, and an unbroken chain of hygienic handling right from manufacturing all the way to distribution. 

The problem? The cannabis vape market is filled with cheap devices and devices designed more so for recreational consumers. 

“Creating a ‘medical’ grade product under $50 in today’s market, while meeting all essential criteria, is practically impossible,” Mario notes. Yet, cheap vape devices are all too frequently marketed for health and wellness applications but haven’t been designed with medical-grade materials, isolated airflow paths, or hygienic handling practices. 

The Temperature Narrative: Terpenes, Cannabinoids, and VOCs

Temperature is the linchpin in the cannabis consumption equation, shaping the behavior of cannabinoids and terpenes and their value (or lack thereof) within a therapeutic environment.

For starters, decarboxylation transforms THCa into THC, only when initiated at temperatures between 220 to 240°C. Decarboxylation is necessary for unlocking any of the known recreational and therapeutic effects of cannabis.

Terpenes, of which there are more than 150 found in cannabis, each have a distinct boiling point. Targeting terpenes requires precise temperature control. Go too high and they may degrade into respiratory irritants.

Gabriel summarized the dilemma: “When vaping cannabis or cannabis extracts at very high temperatures, there is a risk of producing harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particularly when using a device which doesn’t have accurately calibrated precision temperature. This is particularly true if the temperatures are so high that they lead to the combustion of plant material or the breakdown of terpenes into less desirable compounds.” 

The 2021 study by Meehan-Atrash et al., titled “The influence of terpenes on the release of volatile organic compounds and active ingredients to cannabis vaping aerosols,” investigated the impact of lower aerosolization temperatures. The authors discovered lower temperatures helped mitigate chemical degradation — essentially lower vaping temperatures protecting the quality of the cannabis.

Although untested in a clinical trial, the parallels from this study to the realities of medical cannabis consumption are clear. So, then why wouldn’t lower and controlled temperatures in a medical vaporizer protect against the active ingredients’ degradation while protecting the therapeutic properties of the terpenes in question?

Cheap Vaping Devices: A Risk for VOCs

Nectar Medical Vape disruptive pattern
Nectar Medical Vapes is one of the few companies in the world use medical-grade materials and follow hygenic handling processes for the production of vaporizers.

Cheap vaporizers with inadequate temperature control increase the risk of harmful VOCs. Any combustion of plant material degrades terpenes and other compounds into undesirable VOCs, which can quickly evolve into more of a hazard than a healing property. 

But VOCs are complicated. In today’s cannabis market, hundreds of devices are filled with thousands of different strains and extractions. It’s impossible to draw scientific conclusions about how temperatures, device mechanics, and phytochemical profiles produce harmful VOCs. 

As Gaberial described, “Inadequate temperature control, whether excessively high or low, can result in the loss or degradation of specific compounds, compromising the final product’s quality and therapeutic efficacy.” This means patients and practitioners should work with medical vape devices that have proven and precise thermal management “to target specific compounds for extraction, while leaving others untouched.”

Based on our current understanding of cannabis VOCs, careful temperature control is one of the only tools we have available to reduce the risk of transforming therapeutic ones into potentially harmful irritants.

Medical Vapes Protect the Plant and Patient

Gabriel is in favor of more regulation of vaporizers as medical devices, saying, “Without regulating vaporizers and categorizing them properly and separately from e-cigarettes then we won’t be able to mitigate the risks and manufacturers will continue to get away with selling substandard products which are likely to cause more harm than good by releasing plastics, heavy metals and other harmful substances.”

If the device markets itself as a tool for health and wellness, yet the price seems too good to be true, as Gabriel warns, this is a major red flag.

Gabriel advises patients and healthcare professionals to seek devices from reputable brands. He encourages everyone to look into the manufacturer to determine if they use medical-grade materials and ensure the tech features calibrated temperature control. If you have any doubts, he recommends emailing the manufacturer directly.  

The Missing Piece for Patient Safety: Medical Vape Regulations

With access to medical cannabis increasingly opening up around the world, regulators in many jurisdictions are also attempting to control the method of consumption to protect the patient. Vaporizers often make the list of approved consumption methods, yet there are few, if any, guidelines for their manufacture.

In Gabriel’s view, this is contradictory. There is an urgent need to categorize vaporizers separately from recreational vapes to curtail risks to the patient. From temperature controls to airflow design to hygienic manufacturing processes, medical vaporizers, like other medical-grade equipment, need regulation. 

Until then, it’s up to the healthcare professional and the consumer to choose a safe, medical-grade device at a time when there is more noise than ever. Like elsewhere in the sector, the burden falls on the patient to make the right choice.

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