Tech + Health

07.28.14

This Is Your E-Cigarette on Drugs

Dope smokers find e-cigarettes and high-tech ‘mods’ are great for smoking in public, with less fear from cops and bouncers.

The emergence of new technology can have the most unexpected results on human behavior. And when the third factor of pharmacological chemistry is introduced, it becomes totally unpredictable. For example, the invention of the hypodermic syringe in 1853, originally used to deliver anti-syphilitic drugs through a brutally wide and blunt needle, resulted in the possibility of intravenous use of drugs like cocaine and heroin. Instead of DeQuincey the Opium Eater, you get Sherlock Holmes banging coke in his study.

And now, first-generation e-cigarettes, originally from China, have evolved into second-generation APV’s, or advanced personal vaporizers. A whole subculture has arisen to take advantage of this new tech, but along with it a new form of a very old drug has appeared to take advantage of vaporizers’ unique properties. A dab of wax in a vaporizer is the latest take on the ingestion of cannabis, which was first described by Herodotus in the 6th century BC. Of course, the primitive method of taking it then was to heat up stones inside of a tent and throw a wet mess of weed on them, filling the tent with smoke. The Scythians doing this howled with joy, according to the Father of History.

I had my own encounter with vaporizers and marijuana before the cool kids kicked off the modern trend. I was in the pot capital of Europe, Amsterdam, where they had the newest equipment of 1998, so as a young enthusiast I learned about novel paraphernalia there. In one of the cafés, there was a ragged hippy who took a few guilders (which tells you how long ago this was; it’s all euros now) to give you a hit from his disco ball-sized (and -shaped) vaporizer. I now know this was a conduction-style vaporizer, which requires a chamber to hold the steam. In any case, the Dutch hippy threw some grass onto the brass plate, and covered the whole deal in a bulb that looked like telescreens did in ’60s films about the future. He pressed a button, letting the electricity pass through and the vaporizing to begin. I sucked on the hose that he handed me and was instantly really high. Amazing experience, but it took a lot of equipment.

Today’s devices fit in your pocket. Just last Friday I witnessed two young African-American men partaking in a high-tech version of the Scythian ritual , taking dope at the end of a bar counter in a spot downtown known for its vast array of old school video games and pinball machines, while the barman served them drinks. They didn’t wish to be named, but they did explain that they were “vaping,” as the practice is called, cannabis wax. I declined a sample, but looked it up later.

Wax is the latest “mod” on good old cannabis sativa. It’s a method for pulling the THC out of weed, and it’s done by filling a tube with marijuana, passing butane through it and the processing the dangerous and flammable liquid into a substance that resembles ear wax. Basically any quality of weed will do, since the extraction of THC is the point and not the flavor or loftiness of effect.

This is a risky process, and there have been several explosions and deaths across the nation since wax became all the rage a year or so ago. However, without the existence of vaporizers, there would be little point in making it, since, in addition to the amazing potency (some users describe hallucinations), its other selling point is that it melts really easy, making it simple to put a “dab” on a vaporizer’s coil and smoke in the back of a bar. Or an opera. There really is no smell. Cops aren’t too keen on this and, as a result, the vaporiums that deal in legitimate nicotine juice and beautiful handmade vaporizers get special attention from law enforcement, even though they do not specialize in drug paraphernalia in the least. But the devices look the same. In head shops you can also buy vaporizers with chambers that can process actual dry buds, but that is so 20th century.

Realizing that the new equipment is the reason for the existence of wax, I found the congruence between new technology, responsive pharmacology and human behavior fascinating. It was time to visit the vaporiums, but the cheap e-cig I pulled out of my pocket at BeyondVape on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan was an object of derision.

Its other selling point is that it melts really easy, making it simple to put a 'dab' on a vaporizer’s coil and smoke in the back of a bar. Or an opera.

“First generation,” explained a trendy and attractive little woman in a cloud of vapor from behind the counter, “Chinese cig-a-like.” All of the employees were constantly blowing out steam, some of it without even nicotine in it, let alone THC.

Very accurate. I had bought the device at Rite-Aid precisely because it resembled a cigarette. Little did I know that instead I could have joined the culture of “vapers,” enthusiasts who visit vaporiums like the one I was in. Henley, another vaping boite a bit further downtown, is even hipper. At BeyondVape, the employees did not make me feel as uninitiated as the supercool ones at Henley did, and also let me try some very unusual flavors of "juice."

Vaporizers, which start at $30 for regulated introductory models and range up to $250 for elaborate “mods,” are decidedly nothing like a cigarette in appearance, although retro-futuristic pipes like the one Sherlock Holmes smoked are available. There is a counter for sampling “juice,” the solution of propylene glycol, nicotine and flavoring, as well as one for equipment, which goes way beyond the device itself. There are stands for mod collections and add-ons to change the appearance or draw of regulated and advanced vaporizers. The juice itself is also blended to the customers’ preference. It can be nicotine-heavy, have barely any or none, which is useful for the “cloud-chasers” who avoid nicotine poisoning while filling a room with scented fog.

Don’t feel like you missed something if the terms above are new to you. The shop where I learned the most, BeyondVape, has only been open eight months. Although the Internet shows that there are conventions of modders and vapers in most of the blue states of America, it also makes it seem like the streets are full of steampunks. In fact this is a fairly new subculture, albeit one with a dark underbelly of wax-smoking.

Electronic cigarettes are not new. A man named Herbert Gilbert patented one back in 1963 that heated a nicotine solution and produced steam. Of course, at the time, the tobacco companies were much more powerful and Gilbert’s product was never commercialized. The type of first-generation cig-a-like that I embarrassed myself with at BeyondVape was patented in China in 2003 and spread across the world from there. Wells Fargo analyst Bonnie Herzog, who has studied the contemporary market, says the worldwide market for vapor products in 2013 was $2.2 billion. And the fastest-growing sector is the world of modified vaporizers I tried at the counter of the vaporium.

Beginners usually start with a regulated model with a circuit board that prevents draws longer than 10 seconds. This is both for safety—it would be easy to overload the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems with nicotine or wax if it came in light vapor instead of harsh smoke — and also to prevent the device from overheating the battery and coil. You can still choose your blend of juice and adjust the way the coil burns it, and there are plenty of videos on how to do this available online. Dabbing wax on the coil or using hash oil on the wick also works.

The next step is to buy an APV, or mod. These are much more expensive and absolutely gorgeous. Handmade of interesting metals, sold in retro cases and thick as a tennis racket handle, these mods are vapor-producing machines of the builder/steampunk future. And if you are a cloud-chaser, you need one.

APVs don’t include circuit boards, so your draw is unlimited. The counterman at BeyondVape, a self-admitted cloud-chaser, blew out enough fog to momentarily fill the room while I was trying the Sprite-flavored juice through a sterile tip, which really did taste just like Sprite. If you plan to take in vapor in such amounts, you have to get juice with a low nicotine content to avoid poisoning yourself. Some get juice without nicotine at all, just to enjoy the process esthetically.

Filling the living room with nicotine-free, fragrant fog makes one feel a bit like the wise caterpillar that Alice learned from in Wonderland. I’m not the first to notice the connection; Alice in Vapeland is a brand of juice.

And the vapers enjoy it together. Both vaporiums I visited included areas to hang out it, like the louche opium dens of old. These comfy couches and the dubstep in the background reminded me of something I’ve seen before: the pot cafés of Amsterdam. At Henley, the other vaporium, the crew lying around on settees and filling the room with fog brought back Dutch flashbacks.

However, no one would suggest that smoking cannabis wax is a good use for their expensive APVs. The law is hard on illegal vaporizing. I witnessed the expulsion of kids too young to be in BeyondVape; along with Bloomberg’s recent laws banning electronic cigarettes in places like bars, vapers must be 21 to hang out in a vaporium.

In any case, the scene around modern vaping is a hip one. Chloe Valentine, a specialist in branded entertainment and event producer (and who was my Virgil in vaporworld), explained that she learned about the vaporizer community because she was looking for a trendy place to hold an event. She was so taken with the scene that she ended up buying a regulated model, which she stocks with her tobacco flavored ‘John Wayne’ mix and hasn’t smoked an “analog” cigarette since April.

At BeyondVape there is a board where people can record their last tobacco cigarette in brass, a way of committing to vaping. And there are celebrities who vape; Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Katy Perry all do it. Less surprisingly, so do Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen, Kate Moss, and Courtney Love. A lot of the hip people represented by her agency, Artists by Chloe, also smoke these elaborate digital devices.

But whether they are smoking nicotine juices or cannabis wax in their devices is a question I could not get answered, although I was able to make some educated guesses. Luckily I have a friend who is both an opera buff and pothead. No names; he makes a great living in IT. Years ago he would either try to smoke as much as possible before going to the Met for his Mozart fix, or eat a meal of marijuana-laced pasta. But operas last for hours; four for Verdi, six for Wagner. The effects that he desired ran out before the fugues began.

These days he is set. He owns a smallish vaporizer that still looks like it came from the future, and buys wax instead of bud. And this is a guy who used to spend a lot buying the winning entries in High Times’ Cannabis Cup. But convenience is more important; with the lights dim, in his only suit, he takes a hit of his device at the opera just as the Valkyries begin their arias, and blisses out on the sound which he feels marijuana allows him to interpret in a synesthetic way. His neighbors, and he is usually one of the younger people there, have no idea what’s going on and he has never had a brush with the law.

He bought his device on the Internet from the UK two years ago and has never felt the need to return to his collection of glass pipes, bongs, bat-hitters, and rolling papers. The technology of odorless vaporization and the chemistry of wax, both unavailable just five years ago, have improved his life immensely.

Is it a fad that will pass? The Zodiac mod vaporizer I admired behind the glass in BeyondVape is gorgeous, but it also costs $220. A bottle of juice retails for about $12 but lasts a few weeks. Wax can cost a hundred dollars a gram, while buds are as cheap as $20 these days. Of course, lung cancer costs more.

The economy around the second generation of “digital” smoking is fragile and new, but while it’s here, I am going to take advantage. My cheap cig-a-like is going in the trash. So are my Marlboros, which my wife has been harping on ever since I started up smoking again. This weekend I plan to return to BeyondVape and pick up an entry-level regulated second-generation vaporizer, buy a blend of juice which most resembles the taste of my cowboy cigarettes and try to make the switch to vaporworld. No wax for me, and I’m not putting my name on that brass board just yet, but this seems just interesting enough to defeat my addiction to cigarettes. If I can’t stop because of the dangers, maybe I can quit to be cool.