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Here’s How to Buy and Review Vape Carts

July 5, 2018
Quality vape carts guide from Leafly (Leafly)Here's how to buy quality vaporizer cartridges. (Leafly)
Go to any dispensary in America and you’ll see one definitive trend: vape carts are muscling out flowers.

That’s right, sales of disposable cannabis oil cartridges that pair with a vaporizer battery are surging. Meanwhile, sales of raw, cured-flower buds—the kind that stink up your clothes—have flattened out.

But exactly how we talk about and buy vape carts is still pretty basic. We don’t have any of the vocabulary that flower aficionados have, let alone what a wine or cigar aficionado is expected to know.

If vape carts are going to dominate, how we scrutinize them is going to have to evolve.

We talked to some market-leading hardware specialists as well as oil and cart makers to better understand how to buy and review vaporizer cartridges. Leafly presents our findings as a series of questions for your budtender. Chances are, your budtender won’t be able to answer half of these questions, and that should set off red flags. The more they can answer, the better off you probably are.

Vape carts are taking over cannabis shelves, quickly outpacing consumer knowledge. (Leafly)

Vape carts are taking over cannabis shelves, quickly outpacing consumer knowledge. (Leafly)

Vape Pen Vocabulary List

First, some vocabulary. A disposable vape pen consists of:

  1. a battery base, and
  2. a cartridge that screws onto it.

The cartridge consists of:

  • a tank that holds the oil;
  • a wick that delivers the oil to
  • an atomizer, where a metal
  • coil gets hot and boils the oil into the vapor you inhale.

This interplay of oil and hardware results in a quality experience or lack thereof.

Learn About ‘Source Strains’

What is the vape cart oil’s source strain?

Ideally either your budtender knows the strain and its lineage, or this info is stated on the package. Worst-case scenario, it’s so-called bulk distillate, also known as “hot dog water,” in reference to hot dogs, which come from a mix of slaughterhouse floor scraps and unsellable pig parts. In the cannabis world, that’s dirty, old, mixed trim from god knows where.

How was it grown, harvested, cured, and stored?

Ideally, it was sungrown or grown organically indoors. Normally after cannabis is harvested, it’s then dried and cured for weeks before extraction. It can also be “fresh frozen,” which means frozen when it was cut and extracted later. It’s OK for your budtender not to know this step in the process, but the best producers want to share this info.

Hardware expert Peter Hackett, who sources vapes in China as part of his company Transpring, makes a coffee analogy: Do you want Folger crystals or single-origin coffee from Whole Foods?

“Just like you consume food, focus on the rhetoric surrounding the process of growing. If they are trying to provide insight into the process, it means they have very persnickety, picky, scientifically educated people at their core,” Hackett said.


Cannabis Oil Distillate: A Different Kind of Concentrate

Ask About Extraction Methods

How was the vape oil extracted? Was it tested?

There’s a lot of ways to get cannabis oil. Liquid butane and liquid carbon dioxide are the most popular. Steam distillation and heat-pressing are more exotic. Each has its pros and cons. The main thing experts are looking for is aroma.

Did you take out the terpenes? Did you add them back in? Or did you add non-cannabis terpenes? Did you add any other flavors or additives? 

The best carts contain pure, “full-spectrum” cannabis oil with all the plant’s cannabinoids and terpenes intact.

Chemistry, a leading vape cart brand in California, uses steam distillation to capture batch- and strain-specific terpenes. It adds the terpenes back into the mix later in the extraction. The best extracts pull out everything bad—chlorophyll, fats, and waxes—and leaves just the cannabinoids and terpenes. You want full spectrum cannabis oil, not some pure-THC distillate.

“You can’t mess with Mother Nature. She spent millions of years perfectly this bouquet of cannabinoids. To think you can use some artificial terpenes and compound those in a way that completely mimics a strain is not possible,” said Chemistry founder Trevar Mazza.

Vape carts are starting to get more fake flavorings and additives, too. No one knows the long-term health consequences of inhaling random flavorings or fillers like propylene glycol (PG) or polyethelyne glycol (PEG).

“That’s the first thing I would look for,” said Mazza. Chemistry oil contains no additives. “PG and PEG are the worst filling agents.”

“None of that is acceptable by any means,” said Shareef El-Sissi, maker of the leading Eden Extracts cartridge and pen, which is also additive-free .


You may want to avoid these ingredients in cannabis oil vape cartridges

Find Quality Vape Carts on Leafly Finder

Scrutinize Oil Quality

What does the oil in the cart look and smell like?

Ideally, it’s got a nice consistent color and is free of particulates or crystals. Debris means dirty oil. Crystals usually mean the cart got hot or sat on shelves for too long. Can you smell the oil? It might the cartridge is not well-sealed. Does it smell like weed, or fake flavorings? Look at the viscosity of the oil. Pure oil is pretty thick and viscous. If it’s really runny, it could be really good high-terpene sauce or really badly purged BHO or something with additives in it.

Inspect Hardware Quality

What is the cartridge made out of, specifically the wick and coil?

The best ones use metal housing, glass or acrylic cartridge tanks, and patented “CCELL” wickless coils.

The wick used to be crucial. It functions like the wick in a candle, pulling oil down through it to the atomizer. The newest cartridges do away with wicks, though.

“CCELL is probably the hottest atomizer on the current market,” Hackett said. “CCELL’s not going to come and go. It’s going to be completely generalized in the market.”

That’s because CCELL atomizers have bigger holes to allow thicker, more pure oil to flow through them. Plus, the oil is boiling off in ceramic pores instead of cooking on an exposed metal coil. Cheap heating coils are made of exposed heavy metals that can burn up in your vapor.

Cheap pens also have fiberglass wicks that gunk up and burn, creating carcinogens, which you also inhale. And cheap carts continue to use plastic tanks, which cannabis can degrade.

“Pure terpenes will consume plastic from the inside and completely destroy the container,” El-Sissi said.

All vape battery and cart hardware is made in China, primarily Shenzhen. If the hardware is low-cost, it’s because the factory skimped on quality control, and it may be more likely to fail.

Does It Have a Calibrated Battery?

Is the vape battery voltage calibrated to work with this cart and this oil?

The best brands calibrate battery to atomizer to oil viscosity to desired taste. “Just like Apple [computers]—software and hardware work in harmony,” said El-Sissi.

Most things in the vape world screw together using an industry-standard “510 thread,” but voltage is not standardized. Run too much juice through too tiny of a cartridge and it’ll burn—or fail.

Just because they fit together does not mean they go together.
Peter Hackett, Hardware expert, Transpring, Calif.

“Frankensteining is probably one of the largest problems in the industry. It’s like selling engines without a properly matched battery,” said Hackett. “Just because they fit together does not mean they go together.”

Mixing and matching hardware—especially using variable-voltage batteries—is probably the best way to increase your odds of blowing up part of your face.

How Does It Draw and Taste?

The best ones work just by sucking on them, creating a nice pull and pleasant taste. Button-operated ones are trickier but can be just as high-quality.

You should like the taste of your oil. It shouldn’t taste bitter, burned, or sour. It shouldn’t burn your throat or make you hack out a lung. It also should have some character and not taste like generic, bulk distillate CO2 oil.

“The first hit and the last hit should taste exactly the same,” Mazza said. “Each hit should be robust and flavorful, and you should never get a burnt taste in your oil.”

A burnt taste comes from a cheap wick or another problem. The oil also shouldn’t taste like synthetic flavorings like bubble gum or really intense syrupy fruit. That indicates additives were used.

What Are the Effects Like?

How does it feel? Does it get you where you want to go?

Some pens have really low THC for newbies. Others have CBD for people who don’t want any high. That’s all fine, so long as they work as advertised. Pens can run up to 80% THC or as low as the 20s. You can bet the lower stuff is cut with fillers and additives.

“My favorite brands are focusing on the extraction side. Brands that emphasize high THC with no talk of the artisanal aspect, those are companies I tend to stay away from,” said Hackett.

Is It Long-Lasting or Sustainable?

How long will the battery last? Is it rechargeable, reusable, and/or recyclable?

Most cartridge batteries will last the lifetime of the disposable cart. Some can be recharged and reused with a new cart. Most aren’t recyclable in the traditional sense.
“It’s really terrible—all this glass and metal [that] manufacturers use is used once here and dumped into a landfill,” Hackett said. “There is no waste stream to properly put this product into.”

Try and vote with your dollars for manufacturer and retailer recycling programs. You can also ask city and county leaders for a cartridge recycling program.

Lastly, commit to staying current on vape tech and science. Cannabis vapes are running 10 years behind tobacco e-cigarettes, and the health data is just starting to come in.

Your Handy Vape Cart Quality Checklist

When assessing the quality of your vape cartridge, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Single source strain?
  • How was it grown?
  • Dried, cured for a month?
  • Full-spectrum extraction?
  • No artificial flavors or fillers?
  • Clean, consistent, tested oil?
  • Metal battery base?
  • Battery calibrated to cartridge?
  • Glass tank?
  • CCELL wick and coil?
  • Non-metal mouthpiece tip?
  • Easy draw?
  • Great taste?
  • Expected effects?
  • Recyclable?

Are you satisfied with the answers? If so, you should be good to go!

David Downs's Bio Image

David Downs

David Downs directs news and lifestyle coverage as the California Bureau Chief for He's written for WIRED, Rolling Stone and Billboard, and is the former cannabis editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as the author of several cannabis books including 'Marijuana Harvest' by Ed Rosenthal and David Downs. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. TW: @davidrdowns | IG @daviddowns

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  • les

    Disposable cartridges should be outlawed in ALL states! We DON’T need any more things to pollute our world with! They should arrest the idiots that promote this kind of ” disposable” product. They most certainly are NOT biodegradable……… Its merely laziness that makes these attractive

  • The Resistance

    Thanks, David. This was a much needed article and I applaud you for the research and nice summary.

    My suggestion would be another article that compiled feedback from the community describing strengths and weaknesses of current, specific, products in each category you describe. Basically, someone tell me what to buy and why.

    I also agree with Hackett (mentioned in the article) and les (commenter) that the industry really needs to solve the waste problem. I’ve seen refillable cartridges but they seem cumbersome and clunky for the average consumer to use effectively. This issue needs to be addressed.

  • Cameron Ransom

    David, it sounds like you’re just plugging a sponsor when you begin to speak of wick-less carts. There are better designs than ccell; besides that earlier in the article you fail to mention wick-less carts. Please let’s advocate for health, not just our sponsors.

    • Jeff Hudson

      Did you bother to visit the Leafly CCEL website page for more information? CCEL reads like a very respectable product to me although I do not know because I do not live in a cannabis friendly state. If you want to feel sorry for me I live in Alabama – one of the worst states for forward cannabis thinking. Alabama will probably be the last state to legalize cannabis.
      I will gladly visit any competing product website if you care to post a reply.

    • K Cee

      Agree. CCELL is a brand…. how about the preference of ceramic in general? Just exchange every “CCELL” for ceramic and its the same thing. If you take a look at their own page there is a “What’s Different” section that compares it to a wick.

  • Dirty_Old_Madman

    A couple of months ago I finally got my Florida Medical Marijuana card. I live in Wellington and at the moment there are only two dispensaries and they are about twenty miles away. I have a son that is a budtender in Denver for a medical marijuana dispensary, so I have some knowledge of the products. I have been on opiates for more than 25 years for failed back surgery and other problems. The first dispensary I went to were very nice, but the products I got were THC-Sativa vape pen oil, THC-Indica vape pen oil THC-Indica cannabis capsules, and THC-Indica cannabis oil. They gave me a free vape pen rechargeable also. None of their products worked and I even tried 3 capsules at the same time, and three injectors of the oil. Last month I went to the second store, got Sagitta Indica 300 mg cartridge and a Baldor Hybrid 300 mg cartridge. To my surprise they both work. They also gave me a free vape pen rechargeable battery. Having tried both batteries both worked on the last two products. Unfortunately we have a Governor for only four more months that was responsible for use not being able to smoke flower. This might change as they are trying to get the nonsense rules changed as being against what the voters voted on two years ago. Good luck to anyone trying to get their license, my primary care physician has a license and thought it would be a good idea if I tried it to see if I could benefit from cannabis. Finally it is working, but will let you know if I find something better.

  • william brandt

    Hopefully there would be a review by Leafy or High Times in regards to the quality of the oil from the manufacturer ,accurate potency labeling,and the workmanship in the manufacture of these cartridges I wouldn’t think the average user would be able to address all the questions stated by this author for example “Full-spectrum extraction” Where would the average buyer find the answer to that questions And why is it on the list ? Better answered through a chemist and a laboratory not the layperson or a minnium wage Budtender

    • Vape Reviews

      Hey @disqus_uqnNgUWhrN:disqus,

      We’re working on publishing the most in-depth reviews to help consumers make informed purchase decisions. Leafly is doing a great job pushing consumers in the right direction by equipping them with the type of questions they should be asking. But, we agree that it’s challenging for the average consumer to get answers to these questions. Fortunately, we’re in a unique position with access to gain insights directly from various brands and even their chemists if we have specific questions during review. Check out our reviews at – we’re open to feedback as we work tirelessly to improve our reviews and give the people the information they want to know. Many of the brands we’ve reviewed are based in California, but we are on a mission to expand. The goal is to produce the most in-depth and honest reviews in the industry. Cheers!

  • viper643

    Flower is the best bang for the buck. Carts are convenient and discreet; but discreetness will soon be a mute subject. The residual product left in the tank of a cart when it doesn’t work anymore is a waste. Unless someone knows how to collect those leftovers. This cartridge industry will evolve into more refillable carts that will mimic the kegerator business. That will help, but for now I prefer the buds.

    • Paul Fransee

      where can u order on line

  • K Cee

    “Mixing and matching hardware—especially using variable-voltage batteries—is probably the best way to increase your odds of blowing up part of your face.”

    The worst that can happen with a variable voltage battery is you burn your oil.

    Please don’t spread this type of misinformation.

    I work at a vape shop and have to explain to people every day there is NO risk of this.

    Explosions in vapes happen with a much more advanced type of device call a “hybrid mechanical mod”. This device actually doesn’t have variable voltage. Basically it is a chip-less metal tube you put a battery into, and your tank screws directly onto the battery. It is meant for more advanced users however can sometimes be more affordable because it is only metal, whereas regulated devices have chips and boards which protect you from things like overcharging, using the wrong voltage for the battery, high/low resistance etc. Since they are more affordable, sometimes people who don’t know what they are doing end up buying them. When a certain kind of these niche devices are used incorrectly, they can blow up in use – hence the whole “vape blew up in my face” idea. A vape can. But only one kind, and if your not a vaping enthusiast you probably have never even seen one of these before.

    Here is a bit of info about the hyrbid mechanical mod:

    No one will ever be using this type of device to vape any type of cannabis oil.

  • N8te

    I like to use a reusable Blu pen for my carts. They are 510 threaded and seem to have worked pretty well for me. Anybody know anything?

    • Mina

      In your perspective, what are the benefits of using a disposable pen? You can buy a cheap battery for $10-$15 that will last you a few months at least.