Hotdog Water: What's In Your Vape?


Photo & Words: Zach Moldof

*Note: We originally ran this story in November 2018. In less than a year an epidemic is now coming to light. We hope that you’ll take a few minutes to read this article, and consider the potential impacts of something that nobody seems to want to question.

There is no proof that vape pens are unsafe, but there is also no proof that vape pens are safe. Even though pre-filled vape cartridges are not regulated by any type of government agency we consume them without question. We have no insight on the long term effects of vaping, as well as no significant insight on the ways that high temperature vaporization affects the compounds in cannabis. A test performed by scientists at the Portland State University chemistry department shows that myrcene degrades and turns into benzene when vaporized. Benzene poisoning causes drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, and prolonged exposure to toxic levels of benzene can cause cancer. When I spoke with a source at one of the nation’s most reputable cannabis labs he told me that he has stopped using pens altogether because there is no proof that they’re safe. He couldn’t speak on record, but if he’s a scientist dealing with the back end of the mystery sticks that everyone is sucking on, and he isn’t willing to use one? I’d say it’s cause for concern.

Of course we are exposed to all sorts of harmful substances in our daily lives, and it’s impossible to escape them. But there is something distinctly alarming about habitually inhaling super-heated compounds through a device manufactured in China—a nation where manufacturing is not subjected to rigorous health and safety regulations. What’s inside the actual vaporizer itself, and what kind of compounds are released when it’s heated to vaporization temperatures? And how dangerous is it really? We don’t know. But when it comes to substances and products that present so many possible avenues of contamination do we really want to be experimenting on ourselves? And in a society where nearly every option presented before us is the result of heavily regulated government safety protocols what are we really saying about ourselves by choosing to huff and puff on these devices?

Is it that we don’t care? Are people aware of the potential dangers, and convinced they’ll be safe, or do folks choose to use vaporizers without regard for their health? Or is it more nuanced? Are people conditioned to believe that all consumer products are safe, and the acceptance of vape pens is the reflection of an absence of critical thinking? I think this is the most likely answer. In our society we are conditioned to accept the standards, rather than investigate the circumstances. It’s very easy and convenient to buy a disposable vape pen, hit it 100 times, and never deal with “the hassle” of rolling joints. For many people the vaporizer, and its effects, is less important than being identified as someone who has a vape. For many people a vaporizer is not any different than a gucci belt, or a baja blast. It’s a status symbol. But according to California hash innovator, and extract expert, Matt Rize, it’s not the kind of status that anyone should be flaunting. 

Through my firsthand experiences with the California cannabis industry I can confirm that many growers produce material that is unfit for consumption through the use of harmful pesticides or other chemicals–such as paclobutrazol–that have no place in a smokable flower. A startling amount of cannabis is also contaminated by mold, mildew, and other harmful microbes. This variously-contaminated material is then processed using chemical compounds and extraction techniques that introduce further contaminants. The consistency of the resulting extraction can vary from solid and chalky at room temperature (crumble) to tacky and pliable at room temperature (shatter), to totally viscose liquid (CO2 extraction). With the exception of CO2 extractions, these concentrates are then cut with other substances to increase their viscosity, and further diluted with terpenes to doctor the flavor. The result is a concoction not unlike store bought pasteurized fruit juice. When you buy grape juice at Wal-mart it’s not juice from grapes in a bottle. It’s juice from grapes and other fruits, industrially-processed, and bottled. The resulting drink is radically different from juicing grapes and drinking the liquids. And similarly, the product–and resulting high–in most pre-filled vape pens is radically different from smoking a joint of quality flowers. Most cartridges are filled with a mix of subpar, or even contaminated, cannabis, and questionable additives, the sum of which Matt Rize refers to as “hotdog water”. And the cartridges themselves are manufactured from unknown components with absolutely no material safety information. If they can’t show you the science that proves it’s safe, then it’s probably because it’s unsafe.  As Matt tells it: “Distillate carts are made from material that has been historically considered low grade, or garbage. Like a hot dog, distillate is made from otherwise unusable parts.”

Pre-filled vape cartridges contain added terpenes that are not sourced from cannabis. These terpenes–which are produced by all sorts of plants, hence pine sap rich in pinene, and lemons rich in limonene–impart the distinctive flavor and aroma of cannabis. But their role goes beyond flavor and smell. Terpenes are active compounds that influence the effects of cannabis. In addition to terpenes there are a range of other naturally-occurring compounds in cannabis, and extraction removes a great deal of these compounds. The result is a substance that is lacking many of the active compounds found in cannabis, and this substance produces an inferior high, the same way that drinking Welch’s grape juice produces an inferior experience if you’re craving a glass of fresh-squeezed liquid from grapes. Vape pens may have the power to get you buzzed, but don’t be surprised if you’re not getting high no matter how many times you hit the pen. When you remove a broad range of active compounds you alter the resulting experience significantly. 

Again, it’s not that vape pens are unsafe. For instance, Harvest Moon Gardens produces pre-filled cartridges that contain premium grade full spectrum extractions of expertly-grown cannabis. I can’t speak to the safety of the materials they use for their cartridges, but I would imagine they’re not throwing caringly-grown cannabis into toxic pens. But, if a vape company isn’t advertising the quality of their ingredients, the purity of their extracts, and the safety of their material components, they probably have something to hide. You should trust your vape pen as much as you have proof that it’s trustworthy. It’s up to you to decide what is worth it. If you’re willing to take the risks, then no one can judge you for your decision to use a cheap disposable vape pen. But if it turns out that people are getting cancer from added terps, paclobutrazol poisoning from contaminated source material, benzene poisoning from super-heated terpenes, or lead poisoning from cartridges manufactured in China, will the risks be worth it? It all comes down to transparency and accountability. Is your vape pen made by people you trust? Or is it the product of a nameless corporation? Ask questions, get answers, and be an informed consumer always, but especially when it comes to inhaling super-heated compounds. Vape pens aren’t necessarily unsafe, but you shouldn’t assume that they are safe either. Get the scoop on what you’re inhaling, choose smart, and enjoy your life.

Zach MoldofComment