Vaping Cannabis and Addiction

“The vape pen has changed my life. No, I’m not exaggerating. In fact, her name is Sippy. Yes, she’s a she. And yes, I named her Sippy because I take tiny, little sips — sassy sips, even — from her. And with each sip comes relief — from pressure, pain, stress, discomfort.” Whoopi Goldberg, Staff Writer, The Cannabist

The proliferation of novel drug delivery devices has advanced hand in hand with the current movement of drug legalization. Profit motives require getting higher doses of THC to the brain, and public smoking laws have provided incentives to develop alternatives to combustible marijuana products.

Vaping Marijuana

Edibles, liquid refreshments, snack foods and even desserts are widely available and reliably deliver high levels of THC. Devices, such as vape pens, which are an electronic means of inhaling marijuana without smoke, have become a popular delivery system for cannabis users. The glowing endorsement of vaping, and for recreational marijuana use via legalization, by Whoopie Goldberg, who is an Academy Award winning mega star, and other Hollywood celebrities, as well as many professional athletes, has created an air of legitimacy to numerous, unproven claims regarding the safety and efficacy of marijuana use. In theory, vaping reduces the risk of lung disease and associated cardiovascular disease when compared to smoking, so to the casual observer, vaping is safe.

Perception of Harm

We established years ago that an inverse relationship exists between the perception of harm and the prevalence of marijuana use (and all drugs of abuse) in the U.S. Recent research has determined that cannabis use via vape pen, is associated with lower perceived risks. But does knowledge of novel, seemingly safer drug delivery products such as vape pens actually increase the likelihood of subsequent use?

As the legal and social status of cannabis use is liberalized, tacit social approval from friends, family members and celebrities are shaping beliefs and behavior. To wit, cannabis use, in its various forms including products with very high THC content, as well as products containing cannibidiol (CBD), which is non psychoactive, are increasing among all age cohorts in the U.S.

This analysis by Frohe, et al (2018) suggests that “injunctive norms” are changing with increased knowledge of vaping and vaping devices. Like an infomercial that relies on anecdotes and personal endorsements due to the lack of any empirically derived information, the risks associated with marijuana use, in its various forms are not being heard. As a result, empirically sound surveys from multiple colleges across the U.S. (N =270) reveal an increase in vape pen use among 18–35 year old adults.

These data also included alcohol use, social anxiety, expectations of cannabis use, and perceptions of injunctive norms. In addition, features of impulsivity were also included in the bivariate logistical regression analysis, as potential correlates of both vape pen knowledge and use.

Here are some specifics:

  • The results of this novel study showed statistically significant correlation between increased cannabis use and the use of a vape pen.
  • Vape pen use for cannabis was positively correlated to alcohol use. Specifically, the number of drinks per drinking day (episode) increased the likelihood of vaping cannabis by a factor of 12—per drink.
  • Higher injunctive norms reflected positive expectancies, which were predictive of cannabis vape pen use.
  • Increased knowledge of vape pens for cannabis use was associated with a lack of premeditation, in other words, increased impulsivity.

Still, the numerous variants associated with vaping are not well known. Adolescents and young adults often engage in using both cannabis and alcohol, suggesting that alcohol use is a potential correlate of cannabis vape pen knowledge and concurrent use.

Why Does This Matter?

Inhalation is injection without the needle. Drug concentrations get to the brain fast and in higher concentrations when inhaled. All of this makes compulsive, addictive use more likely. It also circumvents many laws on the books which restrict public smoking that reduces second and third hand effects. The tobacco smoking epidemic was made possible by high dose tobacco, unfettered access to cigarettes through vending machines and smoking in public places and at work, plus the systematic de-stigmatizing of smoking in movies and television made this behavior socially acceptable and even “cool”.

It is déjà vu again for vaping. The safety and efficacy of marijuana, especially the consumption of higher potency products is of grave concern, especially considering that the average age of initiation for marijuana occurs in the 12th and 13th year of life, whereby neuroadaptive changes are more likely to produce co-occurring psychiatric illness.

The present findings provide insight into the power of perceived risk and expectations. These findings suggest that a broader approach to education, prevention and clinical modalities to marijuana use and abuse, in all its forms, is needed.

Frohe, T., Leeman, R. F., Patock-Peckham, J., Ecker, A., Kraus, S., & Foster, D. W. (2018). Correlates of cannabis vape-pen use and knowledge among U.S. college students. Addictive Behaviors Reports, 7, 32-39. doi:10.1016/j.abrep.2017.11.004