I recently discovered that I was already a participant in yet another real-time experiment in applied neurochemistry. Adding unnecessary excitement to the experimental environment was the potential lethality of this new unexpected complication. Taking an active personal interest in the recounted events was admittedly somewhat obligatory for me at the time, and remains something more than idle curiosity. However, this account of my latest intrepid adventures living in a dynamic self-modifying biology experiment, should provide a wider audience with some intriguing insights into the complex wetware that makes each of us who we are.
Perhaps a bit of background would be useful. My father took high blood pressure mediations, along with supplements and other medications to treat the adverse side effects of the drugs controlling his blood pressure. Thirty years ago when I bought my first blood pressure cuff, my unmedicated blood pressure was borderline hypertensive for my age group (140/95). Smoking medical marijuana to treat my form of ADD (RBS - Racing Brain Syndrome) also reduced my blood pressure down to the normal range (120/80). I haven't worried much about my blood pressure over the years I've been medicating with medical marijuana, since it was always within the normal range whenever there was occasion to check it. Counter-intuitively, the lowest reading I recall ever hearing in a doctor's office (117/76) was after adding low doses of Dextroamphetamine - a strong stimulant for most people - to my ADD medications roughly five years ago.
(Note that ADD isn't an officially covered condition under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act. However, my covered chronic pain is adequately controlled by long term lifestyle accommodations and the dosage levels necessary to deal with my ADD, so I don't think much it much - except when I forget to be careful and do something I shouldn't have, or go without medication for too long. As a consequence, my primary focus has always been on what appears to my conscious awareness, to be the most obvious short term dosage related variable - the effect on my ADD and subsequent mental functioning.)
As previously documented in my article "Marijuana and ADD", low doses of Dextroamphetamine (also known as Dexedrine, Dextrostat, Dextroamphet, and other trade names), have a complementary therapeutic effect on my condition when taken in conjunction with medical marijuana. One of the most obvious effects of combining these drugs is a significant reduction in the amount of medical marijuana required to maintain a functional level.
All of the actual adverse side effects of smoking marijuana identified in over seventy years of intensive research, are caused by inhaling the smoke from burning plant material. These adverse effects are the result of the same tars, carbon monoxide, and other undesirable substances that are commonly contained in the smoke released when a wide variety of plant materials are burned.
One alternative is to cook the medical marijuana in food. Alcohol or butter can be used to chemically extract the active cannabinoids from the vegetative material, eliminating the grit and taste. However, this method is slower to take effect, and generally takes double the amount of medication to achieve the same therapeutic effect. This method is commonly used by the many patients who can't inhale medication. However, the chronic shortage of medication that is still being imposed by the prohibitionists, cruelly forces most patients to resort to smoking. Smoking is the only method they've been allowed to know about, that is capable of rapidly extracting the maximum therapeutic effectiveness from the limited amount of medication they're permitted - even though smoking exposes them to unnecessary potential health risks.
When medical marijuana is smoked, the plant material burns at over 450F - high enough to release tars and other contaminants that can cause adverse side effects, as well as destroy desirable cannabinoids. The sixty known active cannabinoids in medical marijuana are thought to vaporize at around 170F - well below the temperature required to create/release the undesirable substances associated with smoking.
Humanity has been smoking plant materials since before the dawn of recorded history. I suppose it says something about us as a species that with all the smokers there have been down through the ages, almost none of them paused to wonder about what was actually going on right in front of them. Almost none of them even considered questioning the conventional wisdom that inhaling the smoke they could see with their eyes, was the objective of their smoking. Fortunately, a few of our species are a bit more curious about the real world around them. They wonder about things like why apples fall, how birds fly, and what's really happening inside the joint they're smoking.
When smoking medical marijuana, the inhaled air is first drawn through the burning plant material, heating the air. While the visible smoke is generated in the fire zone, the heat of the fire destroys any cannabinoids it touches. What limited amounts of cannabinoids are in the visible smoke are being vaporized out of the heated but not yet burning materials in close proximity to the fire. The fire-heated air is then drawn through the unburned material, heating and vaporizing the cannabinoids it contains, and carrying them - along with unfortunately the smoke generated by the burning plant material - into the patient's lungs.
The next logical step that naturally follows from understanding the thermodynamics of smoking, has been very easy for some people to grasp, and surprisingly difficult for those with a vested interest in maintaining their self-serving ignorance. The only known harmful components come from the smoke, and the smoke is only present because fire is being used to provide the heat to vaporize the cannabinoids. Eliminating the need for a fire as heat source also eliminates the smoke - and ALL of the adverse side effects attributed to medical marijuana.
Enter the Vaporizer
A variety of vaporizer designs were being developed during the 1970's when they were banned as drug paraphernalia, thereby protecting the "drug war" lie claiming that the adverse effects of smoking plant material justified prohibiting citizens from using medical marijuana. Citizen initiatives that forced the legalization of medical marijuana also legalized the means of administering that medication, making it possible for patients to use vaporizers again.
The basic concept is to force electrically heated air through a chamber containing medical marijuana, releasing the cannabinoids without heating the remaining plant material high enough for combustion. The functional objective is to pass the minimum amount of air, at just the right temperature, slowly enough through a chamber of medical marijuana to vaporize the maximum concentration of cannabinoids. The medicated air is then collected in an oven-proof plastic bag, where it cools, ready for inhalation by the patient. Ideally, the vaporized medication contains all of the good stuff without any of the bad stuff.
I've been using a vaporizer for quite awhile now - long enough to start tinkering with the equipment. As with many things, the idealized theory doesn't always work out so quite nice and tidy in the real world.
The flow of low pressure air through the vaporizer is highly sensitive to changes in resistance, which in turn causes fluctuations in the temperature of the air even with digital monitoring and control. Screens get clogged, the amount and density of the medication in the chamber varies, knobs get bumped, etc. It's necessary to pay some attention to operating the equipment in order to get consistent performance. Once paying attention to the operation, it's an all too easy step to experimenting.
On the theory that the objective was to avoid heat as much as possible, I experimented trying to find the lowest heat setting that was still effective. The effect of medical marijuana most obvious to my conscious mind has always been its effect on my ADD. So that became the metric for my experiments - setting the stage for the unwanted learning experience mentioned at the beginning of the article.
The doctor I had been seeing for my Dextroamphetamine prescription retired, and I put off finding a new doctor until well after my last prescription ran out. During my initial physical with my new doctor, I was shocked to learn that my blood pressure was higher than ever before - 175/125. Needless to say, my new doctor was less than enthusiastic about prescribing a stimulant with a known tendency to raise blood pressure to someone whose blood pressure was already alarmingly high.
The Doc suggested I start checking my own blood pressure to see if there was a significant difference at home ("white coat syndrome"). I couldn't find my old cuff, and all its rubber parts are probably cracked and broken by now anyway. I got a trick new digital display power inflating self-torture machine, and started keeping an eye on my blood pressure. I wasn't surprised when it was in the same alarming range at home as in the doctor's office. My blood pressure had been normal at my previous physical, and so it seemed reasonable to look at things that had changed since then. One of those things was that I'd switched almost entirely from smoking to using a vaporizer
I was quite happy with the vaporizer. There were a lot of obvious benefits - it was comparatively odor free, the medicated air didn't cause congestion and coughing, the medication didn't have to be consumed all at once making it easier to maintain a consistent level over time, etc. The main down-side seemed to be that the vaporizer wasn't exactly portable, so I still had to smoke when I was away from home.
The vaporizer became the obvious prime suspect.
I quickly discovered that simply switching back to smoking my usual low-THC medication lowered my blood pressure below 130/90. Not wanting to believe that it was the tars, carbon monoxide, and other nasties in the smoke that were responsible for reducing my blood pressure, I shifted my experiments back to the vaporizer. Turning up the vaporizer to just below the point where wisps of smoke start to appear, achieved the same result.
It now appears obvious to me that: (1) the different cannabinoids in medical marijuana vaporize at sufficiently different temperatures that even my relatively crude apparatus can selectively extract some and not others; (2) the different cannabinoids have very different physiological effects on the human brain and body; and (3) the cannabinoid(s) that effect my ADD vaporize at a lower temperature than the one(s) that effect my blood pressure.
I haven't yet started experimenting to see how much the vaporizer heat can be reduced and still rack up acceptable blood pressure numbers on the screen of my digital power-inflating self-torture machine.
There is one remaining problem that I have to figure out. It takes at least three passes for the vaporizer to extract the cannabinoids from the same quantity of medical marijuana that would typically be smoked in a single joint. This is useful for maintaining a steady state - consuming small quantities as needed over time rather than all at once. However, my blood pressure tends to be moderately elevated in the morning when I get up. Smoking still appears to offer the quickest way to restore my depleted medication level, and return my blood pressure to the normal range.