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Which Is More Potent, Vaping Cannabis or Smoking a Joint?

January 28, 2019
Researchers compared the effects of vaped cannabis against those delivered by combusting a joint.
Cannabis vaporizers and pre-packaged cartridges continue to grow in popularity, with sales estimated to grow nearly 50% from 2017 to 2018. Vaping delivers a different experience than smoking a joint, but it’s not easy to quantify that difference. Recently, though, scientists have looked into the question and found that vaping actually packs a more powerful punch than the traditional joint.

Vaping 'can produce drastically different' experiences than smoking joints.
Tory Spindle, postdoctoral fellow, John Hopkins University

According to a recent JAMA study that examined cannabis consumption in infrequent consumers, people who vaporized cannabis flower experienced more pronounced effects than those who smoked the same dose. Effects increased along with the dose administered, suggesting that vaporized flower should be approached with a more conservative dosing strategy than smoked flower, especially for infrequent consumers.

While the lead author acknowledged that the study has some limitations,  he echoed its conclusions in an interview with Leafly: “It was surprising, the magnitude of difference between equal doses of smoking versus vaping,” said Tory Spindle, a postdoctoral fellow with John Hopkins University’s Bayview Medical Center. Vaping “can produce drastically different impairment” for all consumers, he said.

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More Efficient THC Delivery

Previous studies have shown that vaping is a more efficient THC delivery method than smoking, so researchers sought to examine its impacts on several outcomes at two doses and to compare these results with both smoking the same doses and consuming placebo doses of a THC-free substance. Researchers conducted the study between June 2016-January 2017 at Hopkins’ Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit.

The population studied was made up of nine men and eight women with a mean age of 27.3 who were prescreened for cannabis and other drug use beforehand to confirm they all had gone an average of 13 months without consuming cannabis before the study.

Additionally, researchers assessed the participants before they consumed cannabis and then at 10 points afterwards up to 8 hours after they had consumed each of the six study doses (three vaping and three smoking) and each dose was measured to ensure consistency and with participants blinded to the amount they were using.

“We were able to control dosing better across the two conditions,” Spindle said, noting that this was likely why the study yielded different results. This research method allowing for titrated doses, or more carefully-calculated individual doses, which has been difficult to achieve in much of the past research on this subject.

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Measuring Vaporized Flower’s Effects

When it came to measuring the cannabis affects, researchers applied the Drug Effect Questionnaire and three computerized tasks, The Digit Symbol Substitution Task, Divided Attention Task and Paced Auditory Serial Addition Task. These tasks were chosen because they “previously demonstrated to be acutely influenced by cannabis self-administration and representative of workplace performance and/or operation of a motor vehicle.”

Researchers tested subjects vaping flower, not cannabis oil. So there's more work to be done.

Comparing 17 participants’ outcomes across vaping and smoking, researchers found statistically significant differences at a 25-mg THC dose. With vaping, consumers experienced more adverse effects, or “pronounced impairment of cognitive and psychomotor ability,” determined by their performances on the computer tests. Consumers that vaped also experienced more paranoia and anxiety than their smoking peers.

The results were similar at a lower dose as well. At 10 mg THC, vaporized cannabis flower “modestly” harmed cognitive functioning and yielded significant differences with smoking, as measured by mean drug effect scores.

“For both inhalation methods, mean peak changes for ratings of drug effect at the 10-mg and 25-mg doses were significantly greater than placebo,” the researchers also found. “Significant, sometimes adverse, drug effects can occur at relatively low THC doses in infrequent cannabis users,” they wrote, “and accordingly, these data should be considered with regard to regulation of retail cannabis products and education for individuals initiating cannabis use.”

What This Means for Consumers

The cannabis administered in the study contained 13% THC (as well as 0.03% CBD and 0.8% cannabinol), according to Spindle, which says a lot about how infrequent users and especially new medical cannabis patients should dose themselves if they choose to vape. Keeping in mind too that cannabis products available at dispensaries are usually more THC-rich than these research doses.

As for regular cannabis consumers with a high tolerance to THC, the results cannot be extrapolated, one of a few limitations in the study. Other limitations included using a range of only three doses and one strain of cannabis (which was low in CBD, Spindle noted), and using only flower and a single vaporizer type (the Volcano Medic) for the vaping portion, and a small pipe for the smoking research. Researchers did not examine the effects of vaping liquid cannabis or using other vaping instruments.

“This is one vaporizer and we need to do more research,” Spindle said. “Definitely more studies are needed to see if these effects are applicable across other types of variables.”

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Need to Test More Variables

That idea was echoed in the research, which stated that more controlled studies of a variety of vaporizing and smoking methods are “vital” and “may inform dosing guidelines, cannabis policy and regulation, and procedures for detecting acute cannabis intoxication.”

In addition, the corresponding author for this study, Ryan Vandrey, said, “We still don’t have a full look at the long-term effects of vaping, such as whether there is a risk for chronic bronchitis, and more work needs to be done on that front,” according to a news release issued by the Hopkins School of Medicine (where Vandrey is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences).

On the other hand, some results from previous studies were echoed in this John Hopkins study, like, for instance, researchers did not find strong correlations between results and THC blood concentration.

“THC doesn’t stay in the blood that long,” Spindle said, cautioning: Blood concentration levels “can go back to baseline before you’re done feeling the effects.”

Collectively, the findings from this study and others indicate yet again that blood THC concentrations are not a valid indicator of a cannabis consumer’s intoxication and/or impairment, and that it’s a much more complex issue than once assumed.

As the study concluded: “It highlights the need to explore other biological and behavioral means of detecting acute cannabis impairment.”

Ryan Basen's Bio Image

Ryan Basen

A writer living in Washington, DC, Ryan Basen covered medical cannabis, sports medicine and health policy for MedPage Today. He has also written for the Charlotte Observer, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

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  • Deniel Madson

    Frankly speaking, I don’t think that vaping is more poisonous than smoking. It helped me to quit this terrible habbit and now I don’t smoke for a couple of month. There’s one awesome vaping related website where you can check all the info concerning this question. Its called VapingDaily. You can check it and find out some useful information about how people can quit smoking with the help of vaping.

    • Dom B. Lemcke

      Same here. I’ve quit smoking cigarettes using an e-cig. It helped wonderfully!
      Then, “medicinal cannabnis” has been introdced in Germany – I suffer from MS and am on OPIOIDS, so I tr ied to get cannabis…
      Which is a nightmare in Germany! Doctors wont prescribe it, insurances don’t want to pay for it. 1g was over 0€ in the pharmacy, so basically, nobody could afford it.

      When I finally got some, I as an old former BONG smoker,have not been satisfied by vaping.
      Until I’ve found the “HERRBORIZER TI”, a vaporizer for use with a bong. I’ve filmed a review and made one in English language as well, it is on YT – I am “Der Cannabist”and that vape is called “Herborizer Ti” – it’s only the best vaporizer ever made!

    • Doris “Dorrie” Land

      Did you read the article at all? It is about vaping marijuana vs smoking it and which is more potent!

  • Gregg Symonds

    I started smoking cannabis in the pre roll fashion Nov. 1-2018. It was harsh, coughing etc. but I did get use to it in a couple weeks. Through reading and educating myself, I purchased a APX vape. Its a very different method via transporting cannabis to your body. I doubt I would resort back to the previous method. I find you can control the “stone” or “high” much better. Although, I do find you are almost “drunk like” but there is no coughing because the delivery method is very “smooth”. The chamber of a APX holds 1/8th of a gram which is pretty “light” so sometimes I will refill for a 2nd go around but not always. I do believe with all the medical evidence out there “vaping” dry pot is much safer in all areas. Oh, and how about not having to deal with that “odor” …

  • While this article begins by discussing the rise of disposable cannabis pens/cartridges, it is only much later into the piece that it is mentioned that this study *did not* look at those devices, and instead used a real vaporizer, the Volcano Medic. This issue with cannabis ecigarettes is that, just like tobacco ecigarettes, they don’t actually vaporize the material (combustion still occurs around the coil, which creates contaminates and carcinogens).

    If cannabis users want the best experience they can get buy a real vape, like a Volcano, Firefly, VapeXhale, PAX, etc. Ideally, look for one that uses convection rather than conduction heating, as those have a lower chance of smoldering/burning the cannabis material.

    It isn’t just about what is best for the individual using a device, it is also about the environmental impacts, and pre-filled one-use throwaway cartridges are never going to be as sustainable as putting some flower into a vape you can refill.

    • Xam Mortsdinl

      Agreed. Vape carts are the keurig of cannabis.

  • 360dunk

    I’ve taken a 10 mg THC edible dose every night for the last decade and smoked about half a joint regularly since the 1970s. That’s nearly 50 years of consuming with no apparent side effects. That’s not to say the next person won’t have adverse reactions but it seems to have been harmless in my case. Vape, smoke, dab, water-pipe…whatever your choice is, just relax and don’t worry. Consider yourselves lucky your generation doesn’t have to sneak around for a few puffs and hide it from the police.

    • Roc

      I live on the East Coast, we still have to sneak around but hopefully that will change soon

  • German Rivera

    Little has been said in this article about the true results of the tests. It only mentions more “pronounced impairment” among those subjects using vaping as their form of THC delivery. I was expecting more details (i.e., more vital parameters and emotional responses). I hope Leafly revisit this study soon, including more complete details.

  • Brad Branan

    This isn’t surprising at all. It’s always been clear that you need less cannabis to get high from a vaporizer than in a joint. Especially if you’re using a Volcano.

  • Penny Newell

    That is one of the many questions I have…what the hell is going on, our state ,MI, just legalized recreational cannabis and we’ve had legal medical pot for 10 yrs . I just got my medical card a few weeks ago and at first I was ecstatic, but I had no idea the govt BS that I would be facing. We’ve had frickin 10 yrs to dispel and identify the problems with the legalization of marijuana and to also sing the praises of this plant that is helping so many users to enhance, and in many cases to heal themselves, but to my dismay and amazement there are not any dispensaries in my area! I had to go back to the place, a private “compassion club” where I saw the dr that issued my card and I was then sneaked, yes sneaked, out the back door and then brought around where I saw what looked like a closed storefront with the windows covered and a heavy duty lock on it. I was ushered in and closely watched as I perused their very limited products…some small jars with approximately 10 different strains of cannabis which was only sold in grams and a few prefilled concentrates used as vapes, which is what I was interested in. I thought I had done my homework regarding vaping cannabis and that any other questions would be handled by their “knowledgeable” sellers. I’m certainly not knocking the staff at this establishment…how can I expect them to know what the govt should be researching as to any harmful substances that cannabis users are putting in their bodies as well as the positive attributes of pot. Why in the hell are states even legalizing pot when the feds are closing any dispensaries that somehow managed to get licensed? It became clear as to why storefront dispensaries were flying under the radar and also it explains why new dispensaries are only advertised as delivery services without a residence to close down. I didn’t mean to go on and on, but something is terribly wrong. There is finally a way that people can actually be more in control of their medical issues and different choices to make themselves feel better and not having to rely on ridiculously high priced pharmaceutical drugs…aha! I think I may have answered my own question…big pharma, and insurance companies get their noses out of joint if anyone attempts to get out from under their big fat thumbs. On a personal note, I have MS and marijuana has changed my life, I am able to control the pain that wouldn’t even allow me to sleep the night through…I did notice on my new card that I am able to possess plants, I better get my overalls ready, I may just take up farming…

    • Alan479 Martin

      Farming is not only a rewarding noble occupation but the produce can be very therapeutic and extremely enjoyable.

  • Greenleaf910

    There are freaks everywhere! What’s your beef with vapes?

  • Alan479 Martin

    In a way vapeing may end up being stronger because its hard to stop a session when the inhale taste is delicious and the exhale is out of this world.

  • Roc

    And I would rather walk in a public place not smelling like Cheech and Chong, so I prefer to smoke at home and vape if I travel.

  • Roc

    You can tell the person that did the research did not partake in the study. If anyone is truly interested in telling the difference, here ya go. Smoking flower gives more of a cerebral, and euphoric high while vaping will produce more of a body type high. There are exceptions of course, some sativa carts will give a decent head buzz but nowhere close to smoking flower.

  • Xam Mortsdinl

    This happened to myself as well only using dabs instead of cartridges. Admittedly it has happened with flower in my youth as well. The good news is it will resolve.

    As far as dosing totally agree. If I overdue it the pain I experience from lyme disease actually gets far worse. It can induce pain.

    That said low dose THC+low dose opiod medication has found to be much safer and incredibly effective.

  • breh

    Imagine thinking you’re “too cool” to consume weed in an (objectively) superior way. Only people concerned with that are posers, not real cannabis enthusiasts.

  • Ed Jones

    Good article..interesting results. Vaping gives me a much nicer high than smoking it. The taste is much better and I get buzzed for longer. Lots smoother w/almost no crash.
    I fit in the “frequent users with a higher tolerence”so this really peaks my interest. I’m almost 70 and have used our wonderful herb since the 60’s. Smoked cigs too..stopped those 25yrs ago cuz it was ruining my high. Consumed it every way you can think of.. and then some!.. gave up combusting a few yrs ago and only vap. I dont like bags but use the other s&b devices.
    Now thinking of retiring my lungs and making tea and eating it. My mtn biking & hiking have been letting me know. Very curious what they might or might not discover about us long time chronics.
    You guys these days really do have it easier consuming the herb!! Just enjoy it. 😃
    Peace ✌

  • Ed Jones

    Pervert!!