For anyone living with a disapproving relative or spouse, or in a state that still considers cannabis possession a felony, the low-key high provided by a vape pen can be a godsend.
But I'm a grown lady, and I live with a pot-friendly friend in a city that gives no fucks about the skunky smell of burning marijuana wafting out my window. So I rarely vape. As the majority of pot smokers will tell you, vaping provides a junior varsity buzz, especially when it comes to devices that you load with actual buds.
Most marijuana vape pens are like Easy-Bake Ovens. You get one for your birthday and you're dying to have some friends over to show it off. The big day comes, and you push your raw material onto some janky heating element that reeks of the polluted air outside the Chinese factory where it was made. You wait for it to get hot, but soon realize this cheap coil is simply no match for the real thing. Shame! Irritation! Disappointment! Your cookie is a goopy mess of hot dough, and your weed is, at best, lightly toasted.
Hash oil vapes are stronger, and therefore a little easier for potheads like myself to get behind, but then you have to either accept whatever quality of oil comes in the pre-filled cartridges, or deal with the sticky mess of loading your own. Now that I know most hash oil contains pesticides, plant waxes, residual butane, and neurotoxins from the nonbutane contents of lighter fluid, I try to be a bit more discerning about what I let into my body. (You can learn more about health and vaping here).
But for the sake of science, and in the spirit of optimism, I decided to give a variety of pens a try and share the results. So without further ado, here is an account of the Monday when, for my totally real and professional job, I tried 15 vape pens in 15 hours.
The Pen 15 Challenge, if you will.
A quick note on methodology: Every hour, on the hour, I took three hits. For devices where I needed to provide my own oil or bud, I always used the same kind, to minimize variables. To get a sense of the variety on the market, I tried five vaporizers that require you to add your own herb, five that require you to add your own hash oil, and five pre-filled hash oil cartridges.
8:57 a.m. — Roll out of bed.
9 a.m. — O.penVAPE, pre-filled hash oil cartridge. 2/5 pot leaves. A sativa strain called Trainwreck. This oil is apparently CO2 extracted, and therefore not made with lighter fluid, as most hash oil is. But unless the Colorado-based O.penVAPE illegally trafficked this stuff across state lines to get it to the Cali dispensary where I bought it, there's no real guarantee on how this was extracted. In California, nothing is regulated or inspected, so labels are sometimes meaningless. (Even CO2 hash oils are illegal to make in the Golden State.)
9:01 a.m. — Maybe it's that I haven't brushed my teeth yet, but there's a crackling garbage taste to this one. It feels hot in my mouth. Cough. Cough. Usually I don't even cough on blunts. Why am I coughing on this? Third hit is also very hot.
9:06 a.m. — Head rush. Heart pounding. This day is going to be a lot.
9:14 a.m. — Notice I have an email from Facebook saying someone tried to request my password. Am now quite paranoid. Cannot decide if someone is trying to steal my identity or if the email itself is a phishing scam.
9:30 a.m. — Jesus what have I done? Have I locked myself in a daylong prison of vapes?
9:33 a.m. — Realize I left myself a few easy chores (laundry, burning a new audio book onto CDs) that will make the day feel more productive. Also remind myself that I am getting high for official and important research purposes.
9:40 a.m. — I shouldn't have started the day with something called Trainwreck. That might have been my bad.
10 a.m. — My friend Gina stops by with her Pax, by Ploom, for dry herbs. 5/5 pot leaves. When it comes to marijuana vaporizers, this one is supposed to be the very best. Gina shows me how to change the temperature.
"It takes me eight hits off of the low setting to get stoned," Gina says. I go for medium heat.
10:03 a.m. — Mmmm this has a light that swirls through some trippy colors while it's heating up. Love it. Green means it's ready to go. Tastes fine. Hits smooth. When it gets too hot, it automatically switches back to the swirling colors, indicating you should wait. All the better to zone out to.
10:10 a.m. — We head down the street for a walk around the park. I'm already feeling a nice, light, comfortable high.
10:15 a.m. — Gina prefers to use the phrase "gentle lift" when describing the effect of the Pax. "I'm able to handle a type of weed I wouldn't normally smoke that gets me too body-high or too dumb," she says. I agree. "Gentle lift" pretty much sums up how I feel.
10:52 a.m. — We stop in a café. I insist I am only lightly stoned but order both oatmeal and coffee cake.
10:59 a.m. — Just before it's time for my next pen, all the other diners leave the back patio where we are sitting. A clock tower chimes. I take out the Spliffin' pre-filled hash oil cartridge, which has been cleaned of butane and plant waxes. 4/5 pot leaves.
This is actually one of Spliffin's low-dose cartridges, designed for the new or occasional cannabis smoker. While the current weed market is all about more, faster, stronger — see: dabs and 30% THC marijuana — the people who will start buying marijuana once it's recreationally legal on a federal level are going to require products that are easy to use and don't get them scary-stoned.
11:01 a.m. — I don't taste anything, though the pen is supposed to have the light orange flavor of a strain called Tangie OG. I also know they use a polymer like propylene glycol but I don't taste that either. Many vapers worry that the popular hash oil cartridge additives propylene glycol and polyethlyne glycol are bad for you, but no research seems to support that.
11:03 a.m. — Three hits. Five clicks to turn the pen off. Gina, eating an egg-and-cheese bagel across from me, says she smells no weed.
11:48 a.m. — Back at home, I cannot stop reading Mad Men series finale recaps. I have only seen the first season of Mad Men.
12 p.m. – The Dabstix Bubbler, a complicated-looking glass contraption that you add your own hash oil to. 4/5 pot leaves. Kind of a sticky hassle after the pre-filled cartridges. It comes with no instructions and I watch a few YouTube videos to figure out how it works.
12:08 p.m. — This is nice. Very light taste. Evenly heated. No harshness in my throat but a little ticklish in my nostrils. Very satisfying to watch the vapor fill the glass chamber. No crackling or weird sounds.
12:41 p.m. — Gosh, there are so many hours, and they come so quickly!
1 p.m. — The CloudV Terra Herbal Vaporizer. 1/5 pot leaves. Not nearly as nice as the Pax. Each hit involves a stream of hot vapor to the tongue, but when I exhale no vapor seems to be coming out of my mouth. The plastic of the mouthpiece is all hot, but am I doing this right? This thing is also huge, like seven pens in one.
1:05 p.m. — I am hardly high from that. Maybe I did it wrong?
1:21 p.m. — Decide to reheat the rest of the oatmeal from earlier. Can plates made from date palms go in the microwave? #CaliforniaQuestions
2 p.m. — The Autodabber, pre-filled hash oil cartridge. 4/5 pot leaves. This company is actually pretty smart. Instead of making their own hash oil, they partner with established hash oil brands and label each package accordingly. For today, I picked up a West Coast Cure cartridge.
2:02 p.m. — Lots of sizzle. This tastes a lot like weed, which means it hasn't been entirely purged of butane in order to leave more terpenes in the oil. (Terpenes are organic compounds that produce a smell and a taste in products like weed and wine.) My favorite thing about the guys who make West Coast Cure hash oil is that one guy's father and uncle are lawyers who run this ridiculous Instagram account called @pot_brothers_at_law, in which they provide ebullient 15-second legal tips.
2:08 p.m. — This cartridge is much softer than the super-intense O.pen from this morning, but it has a slight chemical aftertaste. Or am I imagining that?
2:29 p.m. — This is possibly the most calm I have been all day.
2:52 p.m. — Ah! Forgot I left a bunch of wet laundry on my bed, like an hour ago. Dammit.
3 p.m. — The thirstiest vape manufacturer of all time has landed at LAX and texts me that he will be here for my 4 p.m. vape. Oh, did I forget to mention one company, Evoke, insisted on flying their vaporizer prototype down from San Francisco, just so I could try it? The CEO is in an Uber, on his way.
3:07 p.m. — The YoCan EXgo II Wax Vaporizer, which I had to load myself with oil. 2/5 pot leaves. The instructions on how to load the atomizer were really clear on this one, with little photographs of each stage. You unscrew a chamber and put the oil inside, before smushing it back in there, like a metallic sandwich cookie filled with pot goo. It pops as I inhale and the vapor tastes gross and chemical-laden.
3:10 p.m. — Hit two. Still feels more like a gasp than an inhale. Like I'm drinking through a clogged straw.
3:13 p.m. — Aghhh the aftertaste on this one is not OK. Feels like I am licking a bottle of bleach.
3:26 p.m. — This one also wasn't particularly powerful, especially for three hits of hash oil. That's probably for the best, considering a stranger is about to show up with some magical crowdfunded vape pen.
3:52 p.m. — THE DOORBELL RINGS.
3:54 p.m. — Neeraj Bhardwaj is here. He's wearing a golf cap and a bright-green polo shirt. He is very loud.
4 p.m. — Bhardwaj whips out his teal laptop and starts delivering his pitch. Why is he shouting? Does he know we are the only two people here? I suppose he is used to giving this pitch in a roomful of potential investors. "This pitch deck has raised us a million dollars!" he bellows.
4:02 p.m. — Bhardwaj shows me the Evoke vaporizer, which apparently uses magnetic induction instead of the rinky-dink coil in every other vape. 3/5 pot leaves. Bhardwaj claims coil vaporizers are liable to explode in your face. That sounds a little fishy but when I google it later it does turn out to be a thing. Scary!
4:05 p.m. — Bhardwaj seems to think the best thing about the Evoke is that instead of putting hash oil directly onto a coil, which can be difficult to clean and needs to frequently be replaced, you load hash oil into capsules that contain a metal susceptor and can easily be switched out. I tell him I find loading my own hash oil in general to be kind of gross and messy. As if on cue, he drips hash oil onto my coffee table. "Sorry!" he yells.
4:06 p.m. — He's telling me about how he and his team wanted the Evoke to look different from other pens on the market. The pen is fat and thick and angular, like a trapezoid on acid, with fake wood paneling on the sides.
Me: What were you trying to get it to look like?
Bhardwaj: Something that's not a penis.
I realize as soon as he says this that the Evoke does look quite a bit like a penis.
4:08 p.m. — Finally, time to take a hit. I try to press the button, but it won't go. Bhardwaj tells me to use only one fingernail and to press it in a very specific spot. I accidentally turn the thing off, but neither of us are sure how I did that. He assures me the next prototype will have a better button.
4:09 p.m. — With Bhardwaj holding the button for me, I inhale. The vapor tastes kind of plastic. Not clean. Hit two is more tasteless.
4:15 p.m. — More shouty sales pitch stuff. "We're the only ones with a capsule system! We're the only one with Bluetooth — you control the heat setting from your phone! We're the only ones with a patent!"
None of that sounds very impressive to me at this point. I am not high.
4:36 p.m. — Phew, alone again.
5:04 p.m. — The Magic Flight Box, for dry herbs. 2/5 pot leaves. This is less of a pen and more of a little wooden box, but it's pretty popular so I decide to include it. I don't have a great history with this one. I'm borrowing it from a friend, and most of the times I've used it with her I've failed to get high. It has a strange toasty smell. You also have to shove a battery in with the side of your hand while you're inhaling, which is uncomfortable.
5:07 p.m. — Hit three. There's something very strange about pressing your lips to warm wood.
5:33 p.m. — I'm getting very tired, and it doesn't feel like I figured out this Magic Flight Box any better than I have in the past.
5:42 p.m. — I notice I have a lot of half-read tabs open in Chrome. But is that different from any normal day?
6 p.m. — Oasis, which comes with its own pre-filled hash oil cartridge and its own battery, which doesn't require pressing a button to get hot. 5/5 pot leaves. This one came highly recommended from some favorite budtenders. Every hit is strong and thick. It even tastes good, somehow.
6:35 p.m. — This is the longest day of my life.
6:41 p.m. — Zzzzzz. No…more…vapes.
7:02 p.m. — Glass bulb atomizer with ceramic-encased coil. 3/5 pot leaves. I add my own hash oil. The inside of the pen smells cheap. Each hit scratches the back of my throat. Sharp. Gross.
7:06 p.m. — Wow, there really are so many ways to get stoned nowadays. I feel like I'm barely scratching the vape surface! I could try vapes all day every day for weeks and still not try all the vapes! The world is a sea of vapes and I am a yellow vape submarine.
7:08 p.m. — Pretty effing stoned though. That's a good pen. Not a great taste though. I feel like I've been sucking on the toes of a factory worker.
7:58 p.m. — Wow, that hour flew by! I've been reading the comments thread on a single controversial blog post this entire time.
8 p.m. — The PureGold cartridge, Tetra Labs, with a pre-filled hash oil cartridge, "Classic" flavor. 0.5/5 pot leaves. This didn't get much of an endorsement from anyone but here goes. The packaging cites its "Unrivaled purity and consistency." That's what passes for ingredients lists in the marijuana industry. No mention that lighter fluid was used to make this stuff. It does say it is 25% fruit extract though! I wonder which fruit.
8:02 p.m. — This one billows immediately with vapor, and burns evenly. I taste a fruit! Actually no, this tastes AWFUL. Like really bad. Do I taste pesticides? Like banana-flavored pesticides? Dang I've only taken two hits but I might not be able to take a third.
8:04 p.m. — I feel too committed to this challenge to skip the third hit. I take a quick one, with ginger ale waiting as an immediate chaser.
8:06 p.m. — I feel a weird pain in the side of my brain. Is this the end? Did I just vape some straight-up NEUROTOXINS?! What is wrong with me? I should not be a human test subject.
8:50 p.m. — My brain is mush. I call it quits on the reading.
9 p.m. — Ugh. Must I move?
9:09 p.m. — I had thought that the KangerTech Pro Tank II Clearomizer was built for dry herbs, but after a few hits produce no vapor I decide I must have been mistaken. 3/5 pot leaves, because probably I was just too stoned to figure out how to use this properly. I take out the herbs and try to load in some hash oil while Googling how to use this thing. Can't find a useful how-to video. Meanwhile, I spend several minutes trying to screw it back together incorrectly— WHY WON'T IT JUST FIT? — and now my hands are covered in hash oil.
9:11 p.m. — Well, it smells terrible and doesn't seem to be producing vapor. I must have messed this one up, because a BuzzFeed colleague of mine loves this thing. Apparently it's the only one that won't give you nickel poisoning?
9:15 p.m. — Feel sleepier than ever. Maybe that did work.
10:01 p.m. — The Herbal G-pen, by Grenco Science. 1/5 pot leaves. Endorsed by Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa. The mouthpiece remains incredibly hot while I inhale. It's not great. It tastes like burnt marshmallow coated in gasoline. Ugh, all of the herbal vaporizers are terrible, except for the Pax.
10:40 p.m. — Two friends come over for the final vape! They are ready to celebrate my initiation into the Pen 15 Club and I am immobile on the couch, speaking in monotone fragments. At least one girl brought her adorable puppy. I send my brother a video of me playing with the puppy and cooing its name over and over. Later I watch this and realize the puppy is terrified of me.
10:56 p.m. — The White Rhino Hylo, with changeable chambers for hash oil, dry herbs and "waxy hash oil." 4/5 marijuana leaves. I couldn't decide whether my oil was "waxy" or not. Consult friends. We can't decide, and look up the word "wax" in a few online dictionaries. Reminded me of the problem when I was in Japan when garbage was divided into burnable and not burnable and I couldn't figure out where chewed gum belonged. I go with the regular oil chamber.
10:59 p.m. — This pen tasted great, better than any of the other plastic ones, but the mouthpiece and the pen itself got very hot, very quickly. Like, scary hot. If I'm going to bring a vape pen with me to a party, I need to know that I can put it back in my purse a few minutes after using it and not worry about potentially starting a fire.
11 p.m. — PEN 15 CHALLENGE: ACCOMPLISHED! Usher my friends out as quickly as possible.
11:18 p.m. — Finally… I can leave…the prison of vapes.
For dry herb: the Pax by Ploom
For pre-loaded hash oil cartridges: the Oasis
For adding your own hash oil: the Dabstix Bubbler
Me, and my brain cells.