Let’s say a certain reader of this article, it doesn’t have to be you, has enjoyed a marijuana vape pen once or twice or several hundred times in the past. This reader might justifiably be scared to death by the controversy around said pens. In the wake of a killer lung disease that can be largely traced back to black-market THC pens, authorities are officially recommending you stop using all cartridge-based vapes. Despite pens bought in their regulated dispensaries testing totally free of dangerous chemical cutting agents, California recommends not using any vape pens whatsoever; Massachusetts has outright banned them.
And let’s say this certain reader, having agreed to do a wait-and-see on the whole pen thing, is still interested in consuming cannabis. Problem is, nothing other than pens seem to hit the spot. Edibles lead to darker effects: dazed, disassociated, too-long-lasting. As for burning it? What is this, the 20th century? Smoke is nasty, it’s indiscreet and offensive to others, it clings to clothes, and worst of all it drastically cuts the number of all-important terpenes you inhale. (Certain reader is probably enough of a weed gourmet to know that.)
Well, good news, certain reader. There is another substance you can still vape that’s a world away from those pens: concentrates. This solid stuff (in the forms of live resin, shatter, or wax) gives you the whole natural plant compressed, terpenes included. Meanwhile cutting agents (which are at the heart of the vape crisis) are never included. You’re getting sweet vapor without burning. And if you do it right, you’re getting the focused, uplifting, maximally creative version of cannabis without the dissociative side effects.
Concentrate is widely seen as the most gourmet level of cannabis consumption. It’s one that will make vape pens, made from mere THC distillate, feel like a hollow, hazy experience by comparison. And yet it can be almost as portable as the pens. In the end, certain reader, the vape pen crisis could be the best thing that happened to your cannabis experience in years.
The first problem is the nickname users have applied to the consumption of concentrates: dabbing. The word gets a bad rap, as I wrote about after my first dabbing experience last year. Newbies tend to focus on the fact that concentrate is stronger, which it is. But that just means you’re supposed to use way less of it, while enjoying the nuance in the taste way more.
This is the only “when” factor in cannabis concentrate: You should only try it when you’re mature and prepared to approach it with respect and a sense of proportion.
Just as you would never think of making so much espresso that you filled a coffee mug, even the most experienced concentrate user would tell you never to use more than one pea-sized dose at a time. You’d be surprised how long that dose lasts.
It’s been called the champagne of cannabis; caviar might be more accurate. (Roger Voldarsky, a Los Angeles CEO who dubs himself the Johnny Appleseed of dabbing, prefers the espresso analogy, praising the uplifting and focusing effects of the cannabinoids and terpenes that remain when they’re shorn of CBN, the sleepy cannabinoid, which the process of dabbing leaves until last. I tend to agree; your mileage may vary.)
How: The Stuff
After trying every style of concentrate California dispensaries offer — not every strain, but every style — live resin is by far my favorite. This is made from freshly-harvested or immediately-frozen cannabis; it hasn’t been dried or cured, two processes that annihilate terpenes. With its tiny crystalline structures, live resin is the only concentrate that actually looks as beautiful as caviar.
The smell and taste is at once subtle and incredibly rich, increasing the sense that you hold the entirety of this particular strain of plant on your fingertip. (Not literally; your dispensary will likely sell it in an adorably teeny glass jar for about $20 to $30 per half-gram, and you’re supposed to only handle it with a tiny metal pick, or tweezers.) One poetic expert wrote that live resin is “like going on a date with the ghost of a plant.”
As for the strains, there are as many to list as there would be with flower. My advice to certain reader would be to go with the favorite strain of your dispensary’s budtenders. They may have a dumb job title, but they know what they’re talking about, and tend to be concentrate gourmets.
Wax is OK too, if they recommend that. I’ve found wax to have enjoyable effects, even if it is more physically and sensually muted, and more likely to send you to sleep. The only concentrate I can’t get along with is shatter; it yields too little and turns too sticky and difficult to clean when vaporized.
How: The Devices
Many devices exist to help you consume concentrates. Unfortunately, in my experience, you get what you pay for. Tons of sub-$100 “concentrate pens” or “wax pens” fill the online marketplaces. In almost all of them, you put concentrate in a tiny chamber that’s in roughly the same place as the THC oil in the vape pens. Online and in-real-life reviews for the pens are mixed, however, and critics don’t seem to have come to any consensus on the best models. Too many seem to use cheap heating coils and battery attachments.
You may find a pen that works consistently; many users have. Others have had a similar experience to mine, which happened to be with the $90 Puffco Plus pen: it worked great, really great, until it didn’t. The battery simply stopped recharging, or rather claimed it was fully charged when it wasn’t. You’re supposed to clean the battery contact point with rubbing alcohol. I did so repeatedly; no dice. I sent it back and got a new battery a month later, which also conked out. Whereupon I banished it to the exile of the Bad Review Units box.
I’ll update this article if and when I find a great slim pen that works for more than a few months at a time. In the meantime, caveat emptor. The only devices I’ve tested that I unreservedly recommend, below, are somewhat larger and more expensive than the pens, most end up in the $250 range including all the parts you’ll need. But they’re also all worth that price tag, and will likely give you years of good service.
1. For all occasions: Pax 3 ($200 plus concentrate insert)
The Pax 3 was the first device I ever put live resin in, and the one to which I find myself returning after going out on quests to try alternatives. The size and solidity of a chunky marker pen covered in metallic sheen, it feels great in your hand, and it plays well in pockets. It’s often used to vaporize flower, so you have that option too. But the concentrate insert, which costs $50 from Pax (or as little as $13 for third-party versions on Amazon), is all I use it for these days.
That insert, the little gray metallic box on the left in the photo, is labelled HOT on one side for good reason; do not try to open it immediately after a session. But if it’s just warm, you’ll have no problem teasing off the tiny lid and inserting a pea-sized grain of concentrate. Cleaning (which you should do with all of these devices, when the concentrate has gone dark and sticky, when still warm, using Q-Tips) is a breeze, even with two little odd-shaped nubbins inside the box.
The Pax 3 takes a minute or so to heat up, but it’s worth the wait once you’re there. You set the precise temperature via the Pax app — I recommend the “flavor” setting — and inhale at leisure until you turn it off (or it will auto shut-off in 3 minutes, whichever comes first). Inhales from the Pax are consistently smooth, rich, subtle, effective, and, in my experience, less likely to make you cough than any other device.
The Pax 3 loses points for having a proprietary USB charger. Its cartridge-based cousin the Pax Era charges via any micro USB cable. At least the Pax 3 charger is as thin and light as a regular USB cable.
2. Most professional: G Pen Connect ($150 alone, more with ‘rig’)
The G Pen Connect is the newest kid on the high-end concentrate block; it was released this week by Grenco, the company that makes the G Pen THC oil cartridge vaporizers. It’s at once smaller than the Pax 3, and also designed to be used with something much larger.
You’ll probably hear experienced concentrate users talking about their “rig.” That’s a fancy word for a roughly $100 piece of glassware that looks a bit like a bong, if bongs had angled mouthpieces that were easier to reach. You put water in them, as with bongs and smoke, to make the vapor cooler and smoother. You’re supposed to add something else called a “nail” to hold the concentrate, and a “torch” to vaporize it, but forget that noise. The G Pen Connect, with a glass attachment that fits most rigs, does both jobs in one, electronically.
Bonus points: The battery, a box that snaps on magnetically, is chargeable via micro-USB, and lasts for much longer than the Pax 3. Click one side of it twice, and you’ll have all the energy you need to produce 10 seconds of delicious vapor at a time on three heat settings. One or two sessions on the lowest, blue, is all most new users will need.
In my testing, the Connect was also capable of being used as a pen without the rig, by inhaling through the small glass attachment. But Grenco was clear that it doesn’t officially recommend that, as the glass attachment can get hot. (For me, using it 10 seconds at a time, that never happened.)
3. Most futuristic: Firefly 2+ ($250)
The latest iteration of the award-winning Firefly vaporizer, the harmonica-sized, brushed gold metallic 2+ looks like the kind of gadget that people will use to get high in the year 2420. The way its magnetic top layer snaps on, like the closing of a German car door, is a thing of beauty.
Another advantage over the Pax 3: The concentrate attachment is included. It’s much more simple, too — just a wire mesh disk that can be easily pulled out and cleaned by soaking for a few minutes in a thimble’s worth of rubbing alcohol. (As with the Pax 3, without the disk in, the Firefly can also vaporize flower.)
On the downside, the mesh disk is so small and light that it’s easy to lose. (Replacements cost $9, but Firefly outrageously charges at least $10 for shipping.) With months of use, the disk will start to lose its shape and be harder to stuff into its receptacle.
Perhaps because of improper disk alignment, I and my testing associates had quite a few moments where we had to angle the Firefly up or down (there was no apparent rhyme or reason as to which worked) to get any vapor. The touch-sensitive heating switches on either side were too easy to touch without knowing it, wasting battery life.
Which meant extra time on the dumbest, clunkiest proprietary charger of the lot. Ironically, the charger itself is powered by micro USB. Come on, Firefly! It can’t be that hard to cut out the charging middleman on a 25th century device, surely?
4. Honorable mention: Puffco Peak ($380)
At first, I loved the Puffco Peak — another highly futuristic device, an all-in-one palm-sized concentrate bong that politely brings its own quiver of cleaning Q-Tips to the party. It has micro-USB charging, and does the G Pen Connect one better with four temperature settings and produces consistently large vapor clouds. At Grasslands in August — America’s first official marijuana festival within a major music festival, San Francisco’s Outside Lands — the Peak was the device of choice for many vendors.
But after a few months using the Peak on and off, it was getting harder to notice that those prodigious vapor clouds were making me cough after sessions, even on the lowest heat setting. When I accidentally dropped and smashed the glass attachment, it was telling that I had no desire to replace it — even though there is a booming third-party market of beautiful Peak glass attachments, many of which would not disgrace an art museum.
Your experience with the Peak may vary, of course. Experts still seem to love it. But to my mind and lungs, especially at that price tag, it’s hard to recommend for the concentrate beginner any more.
5. Total overkill: Volcano Hybrid ($699)
Speaking of price tags that might make even the most enthusiastic concentrate gourmet think “come on now, aren’t we just getting high?”, we should talk about the Volcano Hybrid. This is the just-released version of the Volcano, a plug-in vaporizer and feat of German engineering that has consistently won praise — and consistently hovered above the $500 mark — since it was first released in 2000.
Until now, Volcano users had to fill a large crinkly space-age balloon, where the vapor was cleverly held in place until you needed it. It could in theory be passed around the party at leisure, but something about that crinkly balloon seemed to demand guests finish it at a faster rate than they might otherwise choose. The Hybrid solves this problem by adding a hose for optional sipping.
Like the Firefly, the Volcano handles concentrates with a mesh disk. (Not the same size, because God forbid there be universal standards in this industry.) I haven’t tried the Hybrid yet, but I suspect that the hose and disk combo will be the smoothest and richest way to consume concentrates yet.
Then again, dear certain reader, you could just buy a Pax 3 for a third of the price, and have enough money left over to sample every kind of live resin under the sun.