As the executive director of NORML, the leading lobbying organization for pot smokers’ rights, Allen St. Pierre gets asked a lot of strange questions. But the one he’s been getting lately is, “What is that metal thing they use on Weeds?”
The answer is the Volcano Vaporizer, a smokeless inhalation device that has recently shown up on both the Showtime series and HBO’s Bored to Death, in which a sexy stoner played by Jenny Slate lures Jason Schwartzman into her bedroom to test one out. (“Just squeeze down on that nipple and suck in the vapors,” she coaches him.) It’s even used at the renowned Chicago restaurant Alinea, albeit unconventionally, to pipe aromas of nutmeg and coffee to diners as they eat dessert.
The Volcano is affectionately known as the “Mercedes Benz” of toking up.
“If you live in Ohio, or if you’re a baby boomer who has no problem with cannabis, and you see them using that, you’re asking, ‘What’s going on?’” says Pierre. “There’s a veneer of sophistication to it. This is not your daddy’s bong.”
Indeed, the Vaporizer wouldn’t look out of place in the pages of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. With its sleek, brushed-aluminum chassis and digital temperature gauge, it could be mistaken for a device that steams milk. And, perhaps not incidentally, the $700 Volcano is growing in popularity with the cappuccino crowd—highly educated strivers who demand nothing but the best. “If you’re buying this, you are either an aficionado, or you are well-read in the best ways to deliver cannabis to your body as science currently tells us,” says Pierre. “Otherwise you’d have to have a lot of vanity to drop this much money.”
“After I understood what it was, I immediately ordered one,” says a criminal lawyer in his 60s who heard about the Volcano from a colleague. “I have friends who are musicians. They get together at each other’s houses. These are businesspeople and professionals. They don’t smoke cigarettes. We filled up the bag with their pot and passed it around. None of them had seen it before. They were amazed.” He believes the Volcano—affectionately known as the “Mercedes Benz” of toking up—should be a standard offering for high-end travelers. “Someone should start a hotel chain with a Volcano in every room. I think there are a lot of people who would pick a hotel just for this.”
What might be most remarkable about the Volcano is its engineering. It works by pushing hot air through the cannabis, delivering all the chemicals that get you high without combustion or carcinogens. Using it is about as easy as operating a rice cooker. After waiting for the vaporizer to heat up, you place about half a gram of ground pot in a small chamber and press a button that releases the “vapor” (a misnomer since there’s no actual water) into a large bag with a mouthpiece on it. The vapor dissipates quickly, making the pot smell disappear. The user then smokes from the bag. “For me, it was the satisfaction that there was no smoke,” the lawyer says. “I wasn’t getting any carbon monoxide into my blood. I wasn’t doing anything that might hurt me. It made the experience better.”
Vaporizers are nothing new. The devices have been sold in magazines like High Times and Cannabis Culture since the early ‘90s, but the original versions were clunky and not very user-friendly. They didn’t take off until 2000, when NORML co-sponsored a study looking for pot alternatives after the FDA asserted there is no such thing as a “smoke medicine.” An MIT student approached the organization saying he had invented “the safest way to inhale marijuana.” Storz & Bickel, a German design company that manufactures the Volcano, refined the findings into what they considered the best vaporizer on the market. Early units sold for thousands of dollars at drug-conference auctions. “They were just so notable,” says Pierre. “It was clear they were going to become the standard.”
When it first came out in 2001, Jeff Jones had trouble selling the Volcano at his Los Angeles marijuana club, Patient ID Center. No one knew what to make of it. Now entertainers and singers come in asking for the product by name. “They get paid to speak,” he says, “and they’re worried about what smoking is going to do to their lungs.” Bill Maher, one of the most public marijuana advocates in the country, told Rolling Stone in 2006, “I once gave a Volcano to a high-powered studio executive who shall remain nameless. He was having respiratory problems.”
The Volcano has succeeded in spite of a complete lack of marketing. Storz & Bickel are shy about being associated with drug culture (their Web site avoids references to marijuana), possibly in part because the federal government seized over 1,600 Volcanoes during Bush’s last term. (The company declined to comment for this story.) But word-of-mouth recommendations have anointed the Volcano a certain mystique, especially in states where medical dispensaries have opened up a whole new target demographic. “The Volcano is perfect for the coming medical marijuana age,” says a high-level entertainment executive who uses it, “even if there never was anything particularly ‘medical’ about smoking, if you think about it.”
Devout vaporizers say it’s not just a healthier high, either—it’s also a purer high. They liken the experience to eating pot brownies, which, unlike smoking, results in more lasting, full-bodied effects. “For people who are experienced smokers, the Volcano is just different. It’s like describing the bouquet of a wine,” says a 35-year-old lawyer from Oakland, California who uses his Volcano to savor the complex aromas of high-end pot. “It tastes better—you can actually taste the flavors, as opposed to just tasting smoke. You can taste the herbal essences.”
That’s also one of the potential drawbacks. For the uninitiated, vaporization can be a little jarring. One Internet entrepreneur who owns a Volcano competitor called the Vapir One breaks it out when he throws parties for his friends at his house in California. Someone almost always needs to go upstairs and lie down, he says. “Some people tend to get way too stoned. Then they’ll never touch it again.” The Volcano is also heavy and, for those making less than six figures, dauntingly expensive. As it is, it usually takes a certain kind of person to fully appreciate the device—someone who takes both their drugs and their health equally seriously. “I know a personal trainer, and it’s the only thing he’ll use,” says the Oakland lawyer.
Not to mention cramping your style. In many ways, the Volcano fits perfectly into a society embracing the concept of enlightened pot smoking: in an era where everyone gets high, the most well-informed, health-conscious smokers use a vaporizer. It's become a gently subversive status symbol, like a tasteful tattoo. "Bill Maher has probably pushed the idea of vaporization on the unsuspecting American public more than anyone,” says Pierre. “When Maher says, 'I don’t smoke, I vaporize,' you get a whiff of elitism. In some quarters of this country, elitism sells."
Then again, maybe it’s just a generational thing. About a year ago, after giving a speech, Pierre jumped down from the stage and spotted a kid wearing a t-shirt that said, “Got Vape?” And technology is catching up with the times. “These products are getting so sophisticated that they can be used anywhere, at any time. They don’t need to be in a controlled setting like a Volcano. They can be used on airplanes, and almost no one would know you’re using it, other than by the smell of your breath,” he says. “In 15 or 20 years, kids aren’t going to be smoking, per se.”
Paul Schrodt is a writer living in New York City. He has contributed to New York magazine, Radar, and Esquire.com.