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Vaporized fumes said to be cleaner, almost toxin-free
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 country.
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 technology.
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 dispensaries.
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, N.C.
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 vaporize."
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 J?rgen 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 effects.
"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.