There’s no smoke and therefore very little smell.
The dank and distinctive smell of cannabis often drifts down the streets and through the parks of Manchester.
But experts say new technology is making the practice of smoking it in public more discreet – and far easier to get away with.
Vapourisers, or vapes, use similar components to e-cigarettes and are reportedly experiencing a surge in popularity among regular cannabis users.
Popularity has gradually risen in the ten years since e-cigarettes first arrived from China.
Now 2.9 million adults in the UK vape regularly, a study by YouGov in May showed.
And while there’s no conclusive data showing just how many people vape cannabis, the technology is more widely available in Manchester than ever before, in specialist outlets and ‘head shops’ like those in the Northern Quarter.
An array of glossy vapourisers specifically designed for the drug are available online and on the high street for as little as £50 – some being designed to look like smoking pipes, grenades and stopwatches.
Dr Robert Ralphs is a senior lecturer in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University with 20 years’ experience in recreational drug use trends.
Cannabis users are turning to vaping because they’re less likely to be caught, he says – there’s no smoke and therefore very little smell.
“You could be vaping quite openly on the street and nobody would know, mainly because of the lack of smoke and smell. If you compare that to smoking a skunk spliff, you can smell that up to 30 metres away.”
Other users turn to vaping to avoid the dangerous super-strength skunk sold by drug dealers across the UK, he explains.
“The herbs, oils and waxes used in vapes are quite often less potent than skunk. A lot of people don’t like skunk because of its potency but they can’t get hold of anything else. You’ve got more options if you’re vaping and there’s also a better taste, a kind of cleaner taste.”
So how does vaping work?
Cannabis contains two active ingredients: tetrahydrocannabinols (THC) which cause the ‘buzz’ and cannabinoids (CBD) which some studies claim can help those suffering from severe arthritis, multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis.
A vapouriser heats the cannabis herb, oil or wax to just below combustion point, drawing out both chemicals without actually burning them. This stops nearly 100 different types of toxin from being released. All this can be done on the go, in the palm of your hand.
While evidence does suggest vaping cannabis is less harmful than smoking it, the usual, very serious risks apply. Anxiety, cancer and coronary heart disease are all possibilities.
Michael Linnell is coordinator at UK Drug Watch, an online drug information network.
“It’s been happening for donkeys years,” he says.
“Cannabis is a class B drug but derivatives of it, like CBD, are legal because they don’t have psychoactive effects.”
He adds: “For a few years now there’s been a very large industry selling cannabis pills, oils and potions. In virtually any e-cigarette shop you’ll find CBD oils in all the different flavours like blueberry and blackberry.”
So, many people vaping cannabis are doing it entirely legally and at very little risk.
But what about people vaping the illegal form of the drug?
Janine Day is the Area Business Manager for Early Break, a charity based in Rochdale and Bury which helps young people struggling with substance abuse.
She says she’s seen just two or three young people experiment with vaping cannabis. Each one eventually returned to smoking skunk.
Dr Ralphs says there are complex reasons for this behaviour.
“The whole social experience of ‘skinning up’ and passing around the spliff between a few of you, you lose that social interaction and ritual with vaping,” he says.
Many regular users are put off by the cost of buying and maintaining the vaping equipment, which needs to be cleaned regularly. Some larger ‘desktop’ models have to preheat before use, sometimes for up to 15 minutes.
Even more worrying is the suggestion vapes will be used to take ‘legal highs’, like the synthetic cannabinoids that are hugely popular in prisons and among rough sleepers in Manchester. They suspect vapes could be used to take dangerous legal highs like Spice and Black Mamba.
Dr Ralphs explains that in prison and on the street, users tend to prefer ways of taking drugs that do not involve tobacco, which is expensive and hard to get hold of. Instead, they opt for pipes and bongs. However, he doesn’t see either group turning to vaping.
“I don’t think they will become popular among rough sleepers and the homeless community as long as they can craft a handmade pipe or something similar,” he says.
The cost of vapes could ensure that, at least for now, the practice of inhaling cannabis stays the preserve of those who can afford the equipment.
by Alex Green Manchester News