The following piece comes from our San Francisco-based sister publication, SFEvergreen.com, and is written from an American point of view.
Even at a small dispensary, the cannabis vape shelves can get overwhelming. Pens come in all sizes, shapes, and voltages, and packages, are loaded with a menagerie of confusing terms like “single origin” or “terpene-rich” that many consumers may not understand. Many customers just buy a product at random, or based upon their budtender’s recommendation.
For a while, this satisfied us — if I get high, my vape did the job, right? But after 2019’s vaping crisis, many consumers became irrationally frightened of a product that is mostly safe when regulated. For others, a lack of knowledge makes vaping cartridges look the same and prices arbitrary, turning them away from products they might love if they knew what to choose. Even worse, most budtenders meet customers every week who want to return their vape because they can’t even figure out how to use it.
It’s time we learned what we’re actually smoking. Luckily, local budtender and industry insider Blue Reyes was able to help us decode the shelves, so you know what to buy next time you need to take the edge off.
“Distillate is going to be your beginner’s option,” says Reyes. That’s because distillate gives producers the most consistent control over the potency of the final product. Distillate cartridges, unlike other kinds of vape cartridges, can be high in cannabinoids other than THC, like CBD and THCV, and can range in potency from microdose varieties to products with a fairly strong buzz. Distillate cartridges are generally the most cost-effective, too, 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.
Distillate, however, disappoints most avid consumers because of the way terpenes are processed. Terpenes, or “terps” are the chemicals in the cannabis plant that give it it’s unique, pungent smell, and are also responsible for each strain’s unique characteristics. They exist in all plants: for example, the terpene limonene is found in actual lemons as well as strains like sour lemon haze.
However, when distillate is made, THC is chemically stripped from the plant — without the terpenes. Preserving these terpenes separately is costly, so most distillate brands reintroduce botanical terpenes from plants other than pot, and try to recreate a given strain’s effect. Users are left vaping a medley of plant extracts rather than pure cannabis which, while not necessarily a dangerous cocktail, can lead to a fleeting, uncomfortable, and sometimes headache-inducing high. “I don’t agree with that side of the industry, using botanicals for a plant that already has its own terpenes” says Reyes. 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 signal that the product is made with only cannabis terpenes. East Bay companies Chemistry and Eden make great, non-botanical products.
Resin is a full-plant extraction, meaning that the terpenes, THC, and thousands of other cannabinoids are extracted from the cannabis plant in a singular process. The extraction is performed with a solvent, often Butane or CO2, though cartridges can’t be legally sold at all if there is any remaining solvent present in the final product. A resin extract is more potent and has a longer-lasting high than distillate, and often comes at a slightly higher price point. They come in “live,” and “cured,” varieties, referring to whether the extraction was performed on fresh cannabis flowers or those which have been laboriously dried and cured.
“Most companies do a 30-70 percent split of distillate to live resin to preserve the viscosity of the oil so it hits and burns right for the technology,” Blue says. However, San Francisco company Connected Cannabis Co. is one of a few selling pure-resin vapes, packaged in disposable technology specifically made for vaporizing resin.
“Sauce is like a terpy-er, more viscous live resin,” says Reyes. Sauce and Resin are made with two different chemical extraction processes which would fascinate a chemist — but for the consumer, they reach similar ends. While sauce might be more flavorful, resin is a little more immediately potent according to some users. Really, the difference is the consistency, and experts like Reyes resist saying either is definitively better. “It’s like comparing syrup to applesauce,” he says.
Sauce cartridges are also often mixed with distillate to create the proper consistency. However, Blue says that normally less distillate is used in sauce vape cartridges than with resin cartridges. NorCal company Beezle, he says, makes one of the best sauce cartridges on the market — despite using distillate.
Rosin is the only solventless extract you can get in a vape cartridge, as the process of making it is entirely manual. “You can either press fresh or frozen flower in a rosin press and squeeze oil out of it that way, or you can take ice water hash, press that, and then that’s hash rosin,” Reyes explains. Rosin captures almost as full a spectrum of cannabinoids as smoking a joint, so the high is almost identical — just significantly more potent.
Because most rosin has a thick, sap-like consistency and is expensive to make, rosin cartridges are rare and tend to be the most expensive option. They are also some of the most potent and flavorful products available. Two California brands are making excellent rosin products: Farm and Lowell Herb Co.
Batteries are the reusable technology you screw or plug a vape cartridge full of oil into. 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 vessel, so you can throw them out after use. Batteries should never be an afterthought — though often they’re treated as such.
“Batteries are like football: the lowest man always wins,” Reyes jokes. What he means is that users should search for batteries that burn at the lowest temperature possible. Cannabis terpenes vaporize at a lower temperature than THC, and depending on the extraction, the oil can become very volatile at high temperatures. Using batteries at 5 volts or higher, like those which are used for nicotine vaping, can actually cause lung injury or burn the throat when used with cannabis oil. Additionally, most “pen” style batteries burn at 3.5 V or higher, which, though it won’t hurt you, burns off most of the terpenes in a product before they hit your lungs. If a user is burning a large, full-gram cartridge at this temperature, it will be mostly devoid of terpenes by the time they get to the last few puffs.
Getting a low-voltage battery is essential for vaping rosin and even some sauces and resins, because otherwise the user will burn off most of the terpenes they’re paying for. These low-temperature batteries can be found at your local smoke shop, or often, in a “kit” sold with a rosin, sauce, or resin cartridge. A fool-proof battery option is the Pax Era Pro, which automatically adjusts to the ideal temperature setting when you plug-in one of their patented vape extract pods.
Vaping can be a confusing endeavor. However, the benefits are obvious: not only are vape cartridges one of the fastest ways to medicate, but also they are also mess-free and fairly discreet. Plus, with a little bit of information and a good budtender, finding the right product can be a whole lot of fun.
Veronica Irwin, SFEvergreen.com