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The Past, Present, and Future of Cannabis Oil Vaporizer Cartridges

February 21, 2018
(Julia Sumpter/Leafly)
Cannabis oil cartridges have undergone significant changes since their debut in legal cannabis markets. These small tankers sniped some of the technology and form factor from e-cigs/e-juice vapes and tailored their design and heat distribution to better suit cannabis oils. Early cartridge iterations can still be found in dispensaries alongside new technologies looking to disrupt the classic cartridge mold.

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Over the years, I’ve gone through of dozens of different cartridges, each with wildly different compositions and constructions. I’ve seen firsthand the evolution of this segment of the cannabis industry dedicated to potency and convenience. So where did cannabis oil cartridges begin, and what will the future bring?

Browse Cannabis Oil Cartridges

As we journey through the timeline of cartridge history, keep in mind that the quality of cartridge material and construction is not indicative of oil quality. Finding the perfect synthesis of oil quality and cartridge construction is the sweet spot producers and processors reach for—some just get a little closer to the bullseye than others.

Plastic Wick Cartridges

(Julia Sumpter/Leafly)

The first type of vape cartridge I encountered was a plastic vessel with a plastic wick (c. 2013). This cartridge, made by O.pen, came with a little octagonal magnet with the strain name on it. The product was aesthetically alluring, but internally it had some flaws. At the time, the extracts were cut with PG (propylene glycol), a vaporizing agent used to improve viscosity and create bigger clouds. However, this oil would usually give me a headache after the first few rips. Quality of oil aside, the plastic cartridge and wick contributed to a less-than-enjoyable vaporizing experience.

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Plastic cartridges are still being utilized by companies throughout adult-use cannabis markets, likely for their lower per-unit cost. These cartridges tend to impart the flavor of their materials to the vapor, especially after several long pulls and when the cartridge’s volume dwindles close to empty. The wick system was a logical option to stem the flow of oil while using technology that already existed, but the times are changing, and consumers are wising up to the value of glass and metal cartridges as they deliver better flavor.

Note: Some manufacturers will hide the wick behind or under a metal wrap around the cartridge. If it doesn’t have a vertical pipe at the center of the cartridge, chances are it’s using a wick.

Metal, Glass, and In-Line Pipe Cartridges

(Julia Sumpter/Leafly)

Glass and metal cartridges are quickly becoming the gold standard of cartridge design. These usually incorporate a standard atomizer, but materials can vary from cartridge to cartridge. Flavor clarity is the primary reason cannabis consumers prefer metal and glass cartridges over the plastic alternative. There’s also the risk of heating up less-than-inert substances like plastic, which we would rather not inhale.

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Again, just because a cartridge is made out of metal and glass doesn’t necessarily mean the oil is better. A cartridge is a melding of biological and material sciences. Find a brand that makes quality oil and spends the extra scratch to package it in a higher-quality cartridge. These cartridges might be a little pricier, but as the use-case of metal and glass is backed by consumer dollars, the overall volume should go up and price per unit should go down. While this is partially conjecture, the empirical evidence in Washington has shown that several top-shelf brands have reduced the cost of full-gram glass and metal cartridges by $15-20 over the last couple of years.

Pax Pods

(Julia Sumpter/Leafly)

Pax Pods break away from the traditional tubular cartridge form factor, but they still use similar materials like plastic and metal. The atomizer is often metal (or another inert material), which helps preserve flavor even near the end of the cartridge, but it’s not perfect yet. I still struggle to get the last slicks of oil to vaporize, and while temperature control is great (through the Pax app), I’m still leery when it comes to using less-than-inert materials like plastic at such high temperatures.

If Pax were to make a 1-gram metal and glass cartridge, I will personally buy those things ’til the cows come home (and between you and me, those cows ain’t coming back).

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The Future of Cannabis Oil Cartridges

The struggle for a perfect cartridge continues to revolve around finding the perfect balance of quality cartridge materials, the viscosity and composition of oil, and ideal temperature. Some companies get closer to the mark than others, but just as Pax pushed cartridge design forward by changing it, it’s clear that the future of cartridges is still being invented.

If I had my druthers, I’d invent a standardized tanker that would attach to a mouthpiece and battery combo. The stem (mouthpiece) of this vape pen could be customized and maintained like traditional tobacco pipe stems, but it would connect to a battery that was as acute as the Pax Era’s own temperature control. Leakage and gunked-up mouthpieces are a problem that almost every cartridge suffers from, no matter the price range, and this would encourage consumers to clean and maintain their vaping kit while reducing the waste of disposable cartridges.

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A standardized tanker would also empower concentrate manufactures to focus on creating great oil without fussing over whether or not it will work with the cartridge design or materials. Uniform tanker designs and power source parameters (outside of the variable voltage model of many current generation batteries) should help standardize tanker oil viscosity while still giving consumers the opportunity to customize the aesthetic of their vape pen.

This might be a pipe dream, but what I do know is that cartridges are improving, and that’s good news for everyone.

Jeremiah Wilhelm's Bio Image

Jeremiah Wilhelm

Jeremiah Wilhelm is a former strain researcher at Leafly.

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  • Christopher Pratt

    “Pipe dream” I see what you did there. Very phunny.

  • LuxoCamper

    Your – as usual – enlightened take on the subject has clearly highlighted the goods and bads (so far) of these
    gadgets in real use. It might be noted that the mind-boggling array of ‘batteries’ available for these standard-mount
    cartridges leaves much to be desired, too. As more and more of [us] Old Folks come out of our closets,
    we’ll find ourselves much less enamoured with the whole ritual thing of joints/bongs/dabs/knives, etc. So, carts
    are a part of our future. It seems though – at least what I’m seeing in Canada – the availability of a wide range of
    strains in cartridges is sadly lacking. Needs fixing.

  • The Resistance

    Great topic, Jeremiah. I’ve been waiting for a post covering the endless abyss of oil cartridges for some time now. How about a follow up going a bit deeper? For example, what are your current top five brands and why? This article gives good general advice but if someone wants to go to a store now, what specifically do they look for? Thanks!

    • Trevor Hennings

      Should be an article published soon

  • DonR

    Excellent review. From what I have experienced you have addressed the pros and cons completely and accurately (until the next “innovation” comes along. Thanks for this review and your outstanding video review of the Rokin MiniTank (which is the battery I have tried out the different cartridges on).

  • BSTV

    Ó.pen was bad, almost turned me against carts. Mellow (a local delivery service) hepped me to the fact that batteries with a power button worked better with viscous oils, and they were spot on. I got a Rove battery and now get a cloud instead if a little puff.

    • Morgan

      I’m a fan of S6xth Sense batteries for the same reason.

  • Kathy Clesen Thomas

    Should disposable pens need to be clean at all?? Thanks

  • ChrisG33

    Pax in metal/glass, YES please.

  • Jyl Ferris

    I’m with you!

  • Morgan

    I wish there were a way to recycle the metal and glass in the cartridges. I hate throwing them away.

    • CannaNPorium

      I feel the same way especially with DVP (Disposable Vape Pens) b/c its a complete vaping unit.

  • Dave Kübler

    VapeDynamics Cora.

  • Stephen Menstell

    The convenience of the battery/cartridge set up is in several ways, cleanliness and ease of use being chief among them, driving the market for this vector. Yet, initially both the quality of the the cartridges and the oil was in a word poor. And the cheap batteries even now can’t be counted on to keep their center contacts unless constantly swabbed with alcohol.
    This is a great article on the hardware, but the quality of the oil, while having improved fairly dramatically still has a long way to go. One line of the oil available in Europe smoked on a Winston by four or five of us (seasoned black/blond hash smokers all, Traffic concert circa 1972) got us all virtually catatonic. I drove a huge triangle back to the Base, the last two legs of which were on the way home, of course! I realize this is a high bar and the folks that brewed that oil have been doing it for eons, but that is just what makes it a worthwhile goal.

  • Matthew Schickler

    Some good info… what I really want to hear more about are the specs required for these little tanks. In my business I have to explain the differences in power and how their tanks are burning out due to overpowering. Any info, explanations or specs for the little batteries would be great!!

  • Adam Seth Temkin

    We manufacture a tanker just like the one you are looking for. We actually call it the tanker.

  • Mark

    is offwhite carts real? Do y’all make them