Sacha is a 32-year-old teacher from England, whereas Lucian is a 53-year-old commercial driver from Western Australia. They lead very different lives. But they both have a lengthy history of smoking weed to ease health issues. And they've both recently switched to vaping it. Lucian first smoked a joint when he was 23, and the blissful high blew his mind. After 13 years of occasional social blazing, the excruciating pain of a prolapsed disc in his lower back warranted an OxyContin prescription. But after experiencing severe nausea, he found that his body didn't really get along with opiates. In fact, he discovered that he needed further medication to counter his prescribed medication. "I started to smoke cannabis more and more," Lucian says. "I was using the bong all day and not using the OxyContin anywhere near the prescribed rate. I resorted to the OxyContin only when I couldn't function." After years of using marijuana to ease symptoms, Lucian started to grow his own supply in the Australian bush. As his habit grew towards four grams per day, he decided to carry out a more discrete hydroponics operation at home. Then in 2007, Lucian was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). He thought this might have something to do with smoking cigarettes and chronic, so Lucian did his best to kick the cigarette habit. However, he still wanted the marijuana to manage his back issues. Unfortunately for Lucian, his habitual bong hits culminated in recurring chest infections and a diagnosis of emphysema around two years ago. He decided to switch definitively to vaping and hasn't turned back since. "The experience with the vape was unbelievable, it changes the whole ballgame," he says. "I have only vaped nicotine e-cigs and dry herb cannabis ever since."
Lucian's experience of reduced symptoms is certainly supported by research suggesting that vaping weed "reduces the ingestion of smoke-related toxins and carcinogens such as carbon monoxide, tar, ammonia and hydrogen cyanide." Donald P. Tashkin, professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles—with 30 years of cannabis research under his belt—has even suggested that vaping weed has benefits specifically for those managing COPD or using medicinal marijuana for other non-respiratory health concerns.
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Sacha's route into cannabis vaping was slightly different. When he was 13, his mom showed him a documentary about heroin and scared him into believing that all drugs have the same destructive consequences. But a year later, a friend shared a joint with him and—after realizing that his life was still intact—he found a new hobby. "I loved it straight away, went into daily use and used to smoke approximately seven grams per day," he says. After settling down with a wife and kids, Sacha realized his former habit was no longer sustainable. He cut his usage to a strict three grams per day and stopped rolling spliffs with tobacco.
Regrettably, this wasn't enough to prevent Sacha from contracting a near fatal lung infection a few years down the line. The doctor advised that this brush with death was a result of his cigarette habit, so Sacha quit both cigarettes and weed for about four months and then stumbled across information about vaping online. After a six-month transition, he's cut his herb consumption to one gram per day. "I began vaping exclusively and now I vape every day," Sacha recalls. "I'm planning on fully quitting in September of this year."
Lucian and Sacha's stories might sound familiar to anyone living in recreational, decriminalized or medicinal marijuana states. Less widely known is that some former crystal meth and heroin users are vaping to manage their drug cravings, and describing these experiences on online forums. On Drugs-Forum, a 25-year-old American called Reason4rhyme recounted how vaping has acted as a coping mechanism for the behavioral aspects of his former meth addiction.
"I recently bought a Blu e-cig and have found it to be fucking incredible at stress relief/mood increase simply because the clouds (water vapor—not smoke) remind me EXACTLY of good old meth clouds…the likes of which I haven't blown in almost a year." No scientific research has examined the efficacy of vaping as a substitute for methamphetamine yet—for the moment, this remains specific to Reason4rhyme's anecdotal experience.
Rytag is a Reddit member who first got into heroin in 2013. After spending three years with a habit that was slowly destroying his life, rytag's parents booked him into rehab. Despite his parents' financial help and good intentions, rytag wasn't really able to engage with the rehab. Shortly after checking out, things spiraled. "I dropped out of school, was spending my food and rent money on dope, and was facing legal charges," he explained. Luckily, his parents were still happy to support him, but this time they put rytag on lockdown in their house.
The first couple of days were riddled with brutal opiate withdrawals that got marginally better as he persevered. "However, I was still having strong cravings, horrible anxiety, and just bad thoughts in general," rytag said in one post. "Every time I felt these feelings I would smoke a cig, so I was pretty much chain smoking all day. But I started getting sick from smoking so much and it made everything worse. I was about to give up but I decided to try a vape pen."
On the first night that he bought the vape, rytag had a few puffs and noticed that his anxiety was slowly dissipating. "I realized I was feeling normal and that gave me a hopeful euphoric feeling throughout my entire body. It was the first time that I felt genuinely happy without heroin in years." Rytag has now been clean for eight months.
Again, the scientific community is still grappling with the concept of former heroin users vaping. One analysis of Reddit discussions indicates that individuals experiencing anxiety and/or depression may report that e-cigarettes feel more effective than tobacco at managing their symptoms. However, John Turner, professor of psychology and chair of the Drugs and Addictive Behaviours Research Group at the University of East London, believes that any effects of nicotine on opiate withdrawal symptoms may be negligible.
"The science suggests that nicotine, however delivered, has no positive effects on anxiety. If anything, it is quite the reverse—nicotine is often anxiogenic," Turner explains. "Any positive effects that we see in regular nicotine users are most likely due to use reversing nicotine-withdrawal effects in between tobacco or e-cigarettes." Nonetheless, there is clear potential for vapes as harm reduction devices—not just among bearded, snapback-wearing cloud-chasers, but for other former drug users, too.
Richard Greenhill is a research assistant at the University of East London.
*Pseudonyms have been used.
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