Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Author: Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer
Published: Monday, June 20, 2005 - Page A - 1
Copyright: 2005 San Francisco Chronicle
Contact: [email protected]
California -- The future of medicinal marijuana is floating in a
plastic, 2-foot-long turkey roasting bag, being sucked into the lungs of
grandmas and AIDS patients at cannabis dispensaries and homes across the
The allure to the sick -- and the health-conscious looking for a cleaner
high -- is that the toke is nearly smokeless.
The device that generates the smokeless drag is called a marijuana
vaporizer. Medical cannabis advocates hope these devices -- which stand
slightly larger than a blender and can cost close to $500 -- will help
legitimize marijuana's medicinal use and take a swipe at its reputation
as the devil's weed.
By heating cannabis to a point where vapors are formed but before the
herb combusts, a vaporizer creates a clear substance that, advocates
say, is practically free of many of the toxins found in marijuana smoke.
Becoming smoke-free, they hope, will make marijuana more palatable as a
medicine to federal officials, scientists and regulators who are dubious
about the health value of a smoked drug.
"The smoke aspect is a real problem in making the case for medicinal
marijuana," said Dale Gieringer, a Berkeley resident who is executive
director of the California branch of the National Organization for the
Reform of Marijuana Laws and one of the early evangelists of vaporizing
The Bay Area has become the intellectual hub of vaporization -- from a
just-completed UCSF study on the technology's effectiveness to Alameda
County health officials' plans to allow the devices in new cannabis
In the past two years, more than a dozen manufacturers have sprung up as
vaporizers have wafted to the surface of the culture. Which explains the
bumper sticker in an Oakland cannabis cooperative: "Got vape?"
But federal officials and scientists involved in cannabis research
aren't ready to OK firing up the devices.
"It's clear that smoked marijuana has not passed the health and safety
standards of the (Food and Drug Administration)," said Jennifer
Devallance, spokeswoman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy,
home of the White House drug czar.
"Until an application comes out that changes that and is approved by the
FDA, marijuana will continue to be classified as a Schedule I drug,"
Devallance said, meaning that federal law considers it to have a high
potential for abuse and that there is "no currently accepted medical use
in treatment in the United States."
Medical cannabis advocates rallied behind the vaporizer technology after
Stanley Watson, co-principal investigator of a 1999 National Academy of
Science's Institute of Medicine study on medicinal cannabis, concluded:
"Marijuana has potential as medicine, but it is undermined by the fact
that patients must inhale harmful smoke."
Steven Childers, an investigator with the study, said in a recent
interview that he was intrigued by the "concept of an improved delivery
system for medical marijuana. And vaporization sounds like a significant
upgrade from smoking."
But until there are significant scientific studies on pot ingestion via
vaporizers, too many questions remain about everything from its health
effects to how well it delivers the drug, said Childers, a pharmacology
professor at Wake Forest University school of medicine in Winston-Salem,
Courts and federal politicians continue to rebuff medical marijuana. The
Supreme Court ruled this month that the federal government could
prosecute medical cannabis patients, and on Thursday the House rejected
a measure to protect users from federal arrests.
Jane Weirick, who has consulted with several cannabis clubs in
California, said federal actions "won't change anything to people who
need medical cannabis." Weirick, who suffers from neurological disorders
and back injuries and uses a wheelchair to get around, offered her
analysis to reporters at a South of Market cannabis club and punctuated
it with a theatrical act of defiance for the cameras: She sucked a giant
hit of medicinal pot out of a vapor-filled turkey roasting bag.
Not only have the chronically ill embraced vaporization devices, so have
younger, recreational pot smokers raised on anti-smoking campaigns. Both
groups say vaporizers eliminate the initial rush that's common after
inhaling a hit of pot, and the post-hit hacking cough is less severe.
"You don't have the harshness you get from smoking, no next-morning
cough, no shortness of breath," said Kathy Gagne, a 56-year-old Oakland
resident who began vaporizing medicinal cannabis five years ago to treat
her depression. "I could run around Lake Merritt the morning after I
Plus, many users say, vaporizers use less marijuana than other smoking
devices, so they are saving money in the long run.
As various companies and advocates refine the technology, the Bay Area
is becoming the center of the smokeless revolution.
The nation's first clinical human study on vaporization was just
completed by a professor of medicine at UCSF, Donald Abrams, a longtime
AIDS and cancer researcher.
The two-year study, the results of which are still being compiled,
compared the level of cannabis absorbed using a vaporizer with that of
smoking a marijuana cigarette. Abrams hopes that the study of 18
healthy, regular marijuana smokers will shed light on how well
vaporization delivers the palliative goodies found in cannabis.
Though he was mum on the results, Abrams made one casual observation: A
couple of study participants missed the communal joy of passing around a
joint. "Handling a turkey roasting bag with a stopper on the end just
didn't do it for them," he said.
While the science trickles in, the vaporizer market is steaming ahead.
In early July, a West Oakland loft will become home to the only U.S.
office of Storz and Bickel America, a German company that makes a
popular high-end vaporizer. Its metallic, cone-shaped "Volcano" is a
5-pound device that is roughly the size of a blender.
The reason the company opened in Oakland: Roughly a third of the firm's
U.S. sales are in the Bay Area, said Jürgen Bickel, the firm's chief
executive officer in this country.
The $535 Volcanoes are flying out of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers'
Cooperative, said cooperative executive director Jeff Jones.
"It's the Mercedes-Benz of vaporizers," he said.
Alameda County supervisors are expected to give final approval to an
ordinance Tuesday that will permit vaporization in cannabis clubs,
making the county the first government body in the nation to recognize
the delivery system.
"It is basically about harm reduction," said county health officer Tony
Iton, who will be responsible for approving vaporization devices in
dispensaries after developing a set of protocols in the next few months.
Iton said the county is trying to educate pot users in pain about the
new technology, even if only limited research has been done on its
"Ruling out vaporization wouldn't be prudent at this point," he said.
While the Volcano is at the top end of the price scale, smaller,
soda-can-size vaporizers can be purchased for as little as $22 and
plugged into an automobile cigarette lighter.
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