Vaporizers are nothing new – the practice has existed for thousands of years. Yet in less than a decade they’ve become vastly more portable, versatile, affordable, and ultimately, popular as a result. According to a Vice article last year, industry insiders have described the growth of the market in that time, from only 5 percent of dispensary sales to as high as 50 percent in some locations. Some vape companies have even reported growth of 350 to upwards of 500 percent in just the last several years alone. While some of this growth has had to do with advances in vaporizer technology, a big chunk of this growth has come specifically from the explosive popularity of pre-filled CO2 oil cartridges.
While the invention of cannabis vape pens with pre-filled oil cartridges was a game changing moment in cannabis history, the specifics behind its introduction are poorly documented as with so much of pre-legalization cannabis history. It’s not clear who invented the first cannabis vape cartridge, or exactly when. However, what is clear is that they appeared on the medicinal cannabis scene sometime around 2010, and relied on putting together other still evolving technologies, namely, nicotine “e-cigarette” vape pens and supercritical CO2 hash oil.
The history of what became known as e-cigarettes began much earlier than most would think. A patent was filed way back in 1927, by Joseph Robinson, for an electronic cigarette. However, it never reached the market and as far as we know, a prototype may have never even existed.
More substantively, Korean War veteran Herbert A. Gilbert is often cited as the inventor of the e-cigarette, having filed a patent in 1963 for a “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette.” He built prototypes and experimented with several flavors of water for the steam. According to Gilbert, all of today’s e-cigarettes are modeled off of his design, yet these companies waited for his own patent to expire before designing their own products.
The first modern e-cigarette that found widespread commercial success was designed in 2003 by Hon Lik, a pharmacist in Beijing, after his father died of lung cancer. Within a few years, the trend had spread to Europe, and they were first imported to the US in 2006.
E-cigarettes provided a template for a portable, discreet, user-friendly alternative to smoking. When the first e-cigarettes made it into the hands of cannabis users, the market immediately sensed its potential and possibilities. However, before such products to become a reality, they had to figure out exactly what kind of cannabis material to vaporize. To create a product with the convenience of e-cigarettes, It would have to be strong enough for each cartridge to last for a reasonable amount of time, have the right viscosity to vaporize properly and gradually, and need to be free of the dangerous additives used to create some cannabis concentrates.
CO2 Hash Oil
While the vape pen concept has also been applied to portable dry-herb vaporizers and refillable hash oil pens, these haven’t really taken the industry by storm in quite the same way as pre-filled hash oil cartridges have. With pre-filled cartridges, cannabis was able to become simpler, approachable, and user-friendly in a way that it never had before. All of the negative “drug culture” connotations of rolling a joint or even packing a pipe were all optional. Pre-filled cartridges come in a pre-packaged, consumer friendly form that mainstream America is already used to. Although it was one of many factors, it’s not hard to imagine that these products played a role in cannabis use becoming more socially acceptable, which in turn has changed the tide of the surrounding politics. In fact, one technology has really been at the core of these changes.
Supercritical CO2 extraction existed for decades before anyone decided to use it for cannabis. Since the 1980s, it’s been considered a clean approach to chemical separation and extraction, utilized for decaffeinating coffee, extracting essential oils, and many other functions. CO2 is a safe solvent, preferable to petroleum based solvents such as butane and propane. All that’s needed is pressure, and a natural solvent that is already found throughout our environment. The process does not require temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, which helps to preserve the important components of cannabis.
Using this process to make hash oil would not really be possible or practical without a fairly large and open medical cannabis industry with room for serious money going into research and development. Unlike the process for making some other forms of hash oil, CO2 extraction is an expensive, industrial process typically done in a laboratory setting. Larger operations, and a larger cannabis market in general, have helped to make the process more feasible.
It’s difficult to pin down the who and when of the first pre-filled vape cartridges. The internet is full of poorly documented claims and foggy stories – it is clear that the innovation came about during a time when medical programs were growing, but before the level of openness, and recreational legalization that we see today. Because of this, the origins are shrouded in the kind of prohibition era mystery we often see when trying to discover the recent history of the cannabis world. It seems safe to suppose that pre-filled cartridges existed by 2010, but it wasn’t until a few years later, just before the wave of legalization, that they began to show up more widely. From there, it’s been a steady rise to become of the hottest cannabis products in budding legal markets.
Today, manufacturers have both refined the process and branched out. Heating mechanisms have been optimized to vaporize hash oil without burning it, which would both ruin the taste and destroy key cannabinoids and terpenes. The once ubiquitous plastic made cartridges have been almost universally replaced by stainless steel and glass cartridges, offering a noticeably more robust taste. Today, companies are working to better preserve terpenes that are typically destroyed in the extraction process, in order to produce oil that stays true to the distinctive character of a specific strain. Other manufacturers have experimented with reintroducing terpenes into the final hash oil product, either from artificial or natural sources, or from the original flower itself. Without these innovations, CO2 oil becomes a sort of raw THC product, lacking the subtle differences between strains that comes from diverse cannabinoid and terpene profiles. The trend seems to be towards finding ways to preserve that vital distinctiveness, which leads us to prefer some strains over others, and to seek out either indica or sativa varieties. It’s likely we’ll see more of that variation in pre-filled oil cartridges in the coming years, which will also broaden their usefulness for the medical cannabis community.
It’s clear that there is a substantial chunk of the cannabis market that is interested in a pre-packaged, user-friendly model. Although it’s not yet clear where this will ultimately lead the industry, vape pens and pre-filled cartridges have already helped to bring cannabis use into the mainstream.