It’s a sunny afternoon at Kelly’s Collective, a medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles, and Nikki Esquibel is getting stoned. But you wouldn’t know it.
The 19-year-old, who has a medical prescription for marijuana, is “smoking” pot with a handheld vaporizer, or a vape pen. It’s sleek, black, and virtually indistinguishable from a high-end e-cigarette.
That’s the point, says Esquibel. “I use it mostly around my neighborhood. It’s easy to hide.” The vapor coming from the device doesn’t even have an odor.
Discretion, it turns out, makes for good money. While e-cigaretteshave been grabbing the headlines, the vape pen industry has been quietly ballooning. And it’s reshaping the business and culture of marijuana.
Most vape pens don’t actually vaporize the marijuana plant. They’re loaded with marijuana concentrates or “hash oil:” a viscous, yellow resin chemically extracted from the plant. In many places, that extraction often occurs in somebody’s kitchen — which can be explosive and dangerous.
And the concentrates can be strong. Really, really strong. Marijuana leaves usually contain about 25 percent THC, the psychoactive chemical that makes you feel high. But the concentrates can contain up to 90 percent THC. Esquibel says she almost fainted when she tried her first hit.
Those high THC levels worry Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, a nonprofit lobbying group working to broadly legalize marijuana use.
"Between the fact that you can potentially pass out with a single inhalation, or you can have such property damage and potential bodily harm just producing it … these [issues of the vape pen] definitely need to be addressed," he says. "This is a screaming call for regulation if there ever was one."
And what about the health effects of vaping pot compared to smoking it?
"The problem is that, right now, it’s hard to tell how much [THC] you are actually getting when you take a puff of one of these things," says Mark Kleiman, who studies marijuana laws and policies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The risk of getting wrecked is a lot higher.”
And given that the output of vape pens is odorless, Kleiman is also concerned about what the rising popularity of the devices means for parents and teachers.
"For them this will be a nightmare," he tells Shots. "If I am running a school or a house and I have a nose, I can tell if my kids are smoking pot. But if they’re using a vape pen, forget about it."
Top Photo: Vaporizer pens use marijuana concentrates or “hash oil” — a viscous, yellow resin chemically extracted from the plant.(Andres Rodriguez/Flickr.com)
Bottom Photo: Nikki Esquibel, 19, has a medical prescription for marijuana. She uses a vaporizer pen around her neighborhood in Los Angeles. (Miles Bryan/NPR)