This post is part of our High-tech High series, which explores weed innovations, and our cultural relationship with cannabis, as legalization in several U.S. states, Canada, and Uruguay moves the market further out of the shadows.
For many, the days of palming eighths from a seedy dealer are over — as states scramble to legalize recreational and medical marijuana, consuming weed has become sleeker, cleaner, and more complicated.
With the influx of cannabis-related products in legal states, shopping for weed is all the more confusing. How much THC should you look for in your vape pods? What the hell is a terpene? Should your vapes produce massive mango-scented clouds?
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of flavors to try, much less the kind of high you’re trying to achieve.
“There’s a unique synergy that goes on with those molecules,” Jeffrey Raber said over a phone call. Raber has a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Southern California and founded The Werc Shop, one of the first research laboratories testing cannabis.
According to Raber, recreational users aren’t just looking to get high, but are seeking specific effects “based on these molecules being present.”
Here’s the rundown on what you should look for in a good cannabis oil vape, often just referred to as a pen.
Sativa or Indica?
If you’ve ever passed around a joint, you’ve probably asked the seminal question for all stoners: Is this a sativa or indica?
While indica-dominant strains are known for the most stereotypical, clouded “couch lock” high, sativas claim to promote creativity with a clear mind. Raber says that’s mostly bullshit.
“The potential for these effects is absolutely real,” he said. “Do they come from those plants labeled or designated as those types of botany definitions? That’s very mixed up.”
Here’s the thing: Labeling something as a sativa or indica doesn’t tell you much except what the plant looks like. Cultivators still categorize strains by indica and sativa labels to denote growth patterns and physical traits. As Weedmaps puts it, “Botanists use these terms to classify plants on the basis of shared characteristics, not on their effects on the human body.”
“It’s unfair to tell an insomniac an ‘indica-like’ plant is going to give you a sedative effect and you’ll be able to sleep better, when in fact it may not,” Raber said.
According to Raber, most strains are pretty hybridized at this point. If you’re looking for a specific kind of high, you should keep an eye out for terpenes.
What the heck is a terpene?
Terpenes are oils found in all plant life — Raber calls them the “fundamental building blocks” for flora to communicate with the world around it, from attracting insects to releasing scents.
“Different terpene mixtures will define what makes different cultivar strains of cannabis,” Raber said. If you remove the THC and CBD from a strain, the defining factors differentiating each strain are the terpenes present.
Lavender oil, for example contains linalool, a terpene found to induce relaxation and reduce anxiety. When combined with CBD, it can produce a sedative-like high.
Researchers have found that terpenes work along with cannabinoids like CBD and THC to have an “ensemble” or “entourage” effect.
“Cannabinoids are important for turning it on,” Raber explained. “But which direction is goes is gonna be determined by which terpenes and other minor cannabinoids are around them.”
So if a cannabinoid — like THC, for example — is your acceleration, then terpenes are your steering wheel. Instead of falling for what Raber calls the “name game” of increasingly bizarre labels for new strains, the chemist suggest “trusting your nose.”
“In the absence of test data, try and smell it!” he said.
Is more THC a good thing?
There’s no doubt that weed is way stronger than it used to be. But a higher THC content doesn’t necessarily yield a better high. Although some brands boast pods that clock in at 90 percent THC, Raber warns against consuming products like that.
“It’s either bad testing or devoid of terpenes,” he said. Raber reasons that a pod with 80 percent THC that includes 10 percent terpenes will be “much stronger” than anything that measures 90 percent or more THC.
“They really add to the effect,” he said. “It’s important that you’ve got a well-rounded composition with many components as opposed to just THC.”
Cutting agents? Fillers?
If you create massive vape clouds every time you take a hit, it’s probably not a good sign. Although juuls and other nicotine pens are known for producing fruity cumulus-like puffs, cannabis vapes shouldn’t.
Raber says there are “much better” alternatives to the fillers used in nicotine pens.
“This is a much different set of molecules that you can deliver in different ways,” he insisted. While nicotine is more water soluble, Raber says, cannabinoids and terpenes are oil soluble.
But you can’t just put extracted oil in a cartridge and expect it to have the same effect as lighting the bud and inhaling its smoke. To get around the complicated hassle of figuring out a well-rounded compound, companies “cut” the viscous oil with additives to sell cheaper, lower quality products.
There are four widely used cutting agents: Polyethylene glycol (PEG), Propylene glycol (PG), Vegetable glycerin, and coconut oil. Since vegetable glycerin is “more like water,” according to Raber, it’s unlikely you’d find it in a weed vape. And while coconut oil and other fatty acids blend beautifully for tinctures, they’re not ideal for vaping because they tend to dry out more quickly.
PEG and PG aren’t great for you either; As Rolling Stone pointed out in an investigation on vape pen safety, “A study from 2010 showed inhaling propylene glycol can exacerbate asthma and allergies, and multiple studies have shown that propylene glycol and polyethylene glycol break down into carcinogens formaldehyde and acetaldehyde — especially when vaped at high temperatures.”
Just avoid cutting agents at all costs — Raber suggest looking for cartridges that use terpene-based fillers, both for a better high and healthier lungs.
Personalization and predictability
As recreational users figure out what kind of high they want, vaping has become more personalized, and more predictable.
Dosist, formerly branded as hmbldt, manufactures impossibly aesthetic weed pens that administer a precise 2.25 mg dose of vaporized cannabis with every hit. A review in the Atlantic compared the little pens to “if Muji made a tampon.” The pens come in six different categories, including “sleep” and “arouse,” defined by desired mood instead of by flavor or strain.
“Dose is critical to any therapeutic tool and it’s no different with cannabis,” dosist CEO Gunner Winston said in a emailed statement. “If you don’t know how much or what formulation you’re ingesting, you can’t effectively manage or predict the benefits.”
The PAX vape battery has a similar philosophy; the powerful little PAX Era allows the user to adjust the temperature, potency, and flavor via an app. An app!! According to its product description, wants users to “achieve session predictability.”
Look for the same high every time
Predictability is something that Raber wants to see more in the cannabis industry — sure, you may be able to finally get the precise kind of high you were looking for, but can you recreate that? Are your reactions consistent? There are few regulations that require growers to continually produce plants and compounds with consistent results.
“As a consumer, am I getting the same thing every time?” he asked. “And then I can start to count on it and fine-tune what compositions I like and my desired effects.” “
In California, where The Werc Shop is based, Raber wants to see stricter statewide regulations that would require companies to include not only the THC and CBD percentage of their products, but the terpenes and cutting agents included as well. He believes that greater transparency will allow people to have more control of the high they’re seeking. Brands and manufacturers are already pushing for it.
“The people have spoken, all over the place, that we want to know more about this plant, we want access to this plant,” Raber said, referencing the push for nationwide legalization. “Now the question has become, ‘Which version of the plant?'”