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What is a cannabis vape cartridge?

March 10, 2020

When it comes to ease of use, portability, and functionality, one cannabis product stands tall above the rest—vapes. You may know them as vape carts or pre-loaded cannabis oil vape cartridges, and they have quickly become the go-to concentrate-based product for both cannabis novices and enthusiasts.

However, when it comes to choosing the right vape pen, various factors come into play. Many of these products seem similar at first glance, but there are many nuances that distinguish them. Understanding the differences between these disposable pens can help you make an educated decision on which product is right for you.

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What is a vape cartridge?

A vape cart is a glass cartridge pre-filled with a gram or half-gram of cannabis oil. This oil contain various combinations of cannabinoids and terpenes extracted from cannabis.

Most oil vape carts are high in THC, however, more and more CBD-dominant vape cartridges are entering the market, as are 1:1 THC:CBD products. Vape cartridges come in many forms: 510-threaded cartridges (the most common), as well as some proprietary forms like Pax Era Pods and Airo Pro oil cartridges.

How do vape pens work?

Vape cartridges work in conjunction with vape pen batteries. The vape battery will power an atomizer in the cartridge that heats up the oil, activating the various chemical components in it. You then inhale the vape smoke, which produces the effects of cannabis. Some vape batteries have multiple functions that enable temperature customization and dose management.

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Why choose an oil vape cartridge?

(HighGradeRoots/iStock)

Here are some of the benefits to using oil vape cartridges.

Ease of use

Vape cartridges take the guesswork completely out of the equation. Contrary to other methods of consuming oil, such as a dab rig and nail setup, carts require little to no effort—just press a button and inhale.

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Portability

Oil vape carts are the easiest method of enjoying cannabis while on the go. Their sleek and minimalist design allows for discreet vaping, free of the distracting traits of larger setups, and they don’t produce noticeable smoke or odor.

Dosing

For uninitiated cannabis concentrate consumers, dosing can be a major concern. Nobody wants an overwhelming experience when attempting to enjoy cannabis. Unlike dabbing, using a pre-loaded vape pen allows for a highly controlled dose with each inhalation, giving you more control over how much or how little you consume.

What are the drawbacks of vapes?

While vape cartridges are great for ease of use, portability, and dosing, there are a few drawbacks over other consumptions methods.

Cost

Vape carts can be pretty pricey, with costs between $20-60 or more per half-gram or gram of hash oil, depending on the market and extraction method. When you can get a gram of flower for a lot cheaper than a one-gram vape cartridge, it makes it a little tougher to choose the latter.

Physical effects

Vape cartridges tend to provide a shorter-lasting high than other methods like joints, dabs, and edibles because you consume them in smaller doses. However, while the effects may last shorter, they can also hit harder if overconsumed, so make sure to monitor dosing appropriately.

Battery life

Having to monitor a vape battery’s usage and power levels can be pretty annoying as frequent usage can drain them pretty quickly. To avoid this nuisance it’s best to charge your vape battery each night before bed or have a backup on hand that’s fully charged.

How to use a vape pen

It’s pretty simple: Just attach your cart to the battery and start puffing. If there’s an On/Off button, use it.

Here are a few quicks tips to remember when smoking an oil vape cartridge:

  • If your device has an On/Off button, chances are you turn it on by clicking 5 times. The same number turns it off.
  • Make sure your cart is completely attached to its battery to avoid any oil leakage.
  • Keep your vape pen upright to avoid oil leakage.
  • Start slow with dosing as it is very easy to overconsume with vape carts.
  • Monitor temperature to make sure your cart isn’t burning too hot, which could alter some of the oil’s chemical components—usually 3 clicks will adjust the temp.

Remember to always buy carts from a reputable vendor for the safest products!

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Types of vape cartridges available

An extract pod of Cinex cannabis oil for the Pax Era

An extract pod of Cinex cannabis oil for the Pax Era (Julia Sumpter/Leafly)

Familiarize yourself with the many types of oil vape cartridges on the market so you can purchase the one that best fits your needs or preferences.

Cartridge/battery combos vs. disposables

Most products typically come with a standard 510 thread that a battery screws into. The exception is a pre-loaded cart designed by a specific company to be used with their own vaporizer/battery systems—an example is PAX Era Pods.

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Alternatively, some vape pens are available as “disposables,” which contain a pre-charged battery designed to support the device until the cart empties. These pens require no charging and are meant to be disposed of after use. They contain no threading and are not meant to be separated from their battery.

What is a 510 cartridge?

A 510-thread cartridge is the most common type of vape cartridge. 510 describes the type of threading that is used to screw the bottom of the cartridge to the appropriate vape battery.

Distillate cartridges vs. CO2 oil

For a vaporizer cartridge to function properly, its contents must have the proper viscosity, otherwise the oils will either be too thick or too thin to properly vaporize within the device. Depending on the starting material used, cartridge manufacturers use several methods in order to create the perfect oil for their pens.

CO2 oil. Certain high-grade winterized CO2 oils are uniquely compatible with vaporizer cartridges due to the fact that they do not require additives of any kind to meet the viscosity levels needed to vaporize in an atomizer. If made properly, these oils are able to retain modest levels of plant-based terpenes, which act as natural thinning agents as well as give the oil their signature strain-specific flavor.

Distillates. A cannabis distillate cart is a highly refined oil containing pure cannabinoids and almost nothing else. The upside to using distillates in vaporizer cartridges is that the oil can be produced from a range of starting materials. Virtually any cannabis oil variety from CO2 to BHO and everything in between can be purified into a distillate with the right equipment.

The downside to using distillates in vape cartridges is that because there are no residual terpenes left behind, there is nothing to cut the viscosity of the material. In order for a distillate to be used in cartridges, a thinning agent of some kind is often required.

Additives. These are sometimes used in vape cartridge oils as a supplemental thinning agent. In some cases, methods have been taken to cut or infuse various cannabis oils with certain substances such as polyethylene glycol (PEG), propylene glycol (PG), vegetable glycerin (VG), or even medium chain triglycerides (MCT), such as coconut oil, in order to maintain a less viscous and lasting oil consistency conducive to standard atomizer functionality.

This process has become highly controversial due to raised health concerns, and products containing these thinning agents are showing up less on the market.

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One way that vaporizer cartridge manufacturers have been able to steer away from artificial cutting agents is by using terpenes.

Terpene infusions and strain-specific flavorings

The use of terpenes in vape cartridges has been found to help lower the viscosity of cannabis oil as well as increase flavor and aromas, making them a potentially safer alternative to other cutting agents.

Terpenes not only add flavor and aromatics to the experience, they can also help alter the effects of a product due to their ability to influence how cannabinoids interact with our bodies.

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There are several ways to use terpenes with vape cartridges. Some manufactures rely on CO2-based extractionswhen refined with ethanol, they can actually retain plant-based terpenes at a percentage conducive to achieving proper viscosity. This is how manufacturers are able to sell flavors based on natural strain profiles.

Natural cannabis-derived terpenes that have been fractioned through refinement can be re-added to cannabis oils in small percentages, creating a spectrum of flavors and effects while also giving an oil the correct consistency required to function in a cartridge.

Products labeled by effect

Sometimes, oil vape cartridges are labeled and marketed by their supposed effect on the consumer. Products of this variety tend to claim they provide “relaxing” or “energetic” effects, with some are labeled as indica, sativa, or hybrid.

Many of these vape cartridges incorporate carefully mixed combinations similar to what would be traced in a strain or strain type. How well these infusions imitate a specific strain is debatable.

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CBD-specific vape cartridges

Although many oil vape pens are labeled by flavor or effect, some focus on cannabinoid concentration. Aside from the typical high-THC product that most pens offer, some manufacturers offer products containing elevated levels of cannabidiol (CBD).

High-CBD pens may or may not contain added flavors, but they do guarantee a ratio of THC to CBD that can range from 2:1 all the way to 20:1 and greater. These types of pens offer great wellness benefits for those looking for CBD in an easy-to-consume product.

Full-spectrum vape cartridges

The pinnacle of oil vape cartridges in terms of overall quality rests with full-spectrum extracts. These products are created using the entire spectrum of bioavailable molecules found within a given cannabis strain. A full-spectrum oil does not add, reintroduce, or remove any active compound within a strain and offers flavors and effects with more depth than most other products.

Full-spectrum cartridges are hard to come by and are only offered in certain markets, and their price tends to reflect their rarity as well. If you’re fortunate enough to live where these products are available, we recommend forking up the extra cash to give one a shot. In terms of strain comparability, the flavor of a full-spectrum cart is incredibly similar to what you would experience with flower.

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How long does a vape cartridge last?

How long a vape cartridge lasts entirely depends on an individual’s rate of consumption. The only thing we do know for sure is that a one gram cartridge will last you a lot longer than a half-gram cartridge.

How to refill a vape pen cartridge

Some vape cartridges can be refilled with fresh oil from a syringe. It’s important to use a syringe as it reduces the potential for making an oily mess. Proprietary carts like Pax Pods are not refillable, so you have to dispose of them and buy a new one.

Browse nearby stores for vape cartridges

All in all, there are many types of oil vape cartridges to consider, each one with pros and cons. If you’re interested in learning more about these types of products, always ask your local budtender before committing to a purchase.

Often, labels only offer a fraction of the information compared to the knowledge and expertise of a cannabis professional like a budtender. Regardless of your taste, there’s bound to be a cannabis oil cartridge available to suit your individual needs.

This post was originally published on October 17, 2017. It was most recently updated on March 10, 2020.

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Patrick Bennett

Patrick lives with his wife and daughter in Denver, where he spends his time writing, photographing, and creating content for the cannabis community.

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