Reserve Hybrid vape cartrige (Jessica Christian/SF Weekly)

Reserve Hybrid vape cartrige (Jessica Christian/SF Weekly)

Liquid Gold

If tobacco made it work, why not marijuana?

Whether you call them e-joints, vape pens, or something else, these little sticks of cannabis gold have come a long way in the short time they’ve been on the market. The cannabis cartridge is perhaps the easiest, most discreet, and most efficient method of medicating. But that doesn’t mean they’re for everyone — although everyone should at least give them a shot.

You won’t get the aroma of burned buds, or the flavors of sticky flowers. Still, pre-packaged and ready to twist cannabis oil cartridges are as ubiquitous in dispensaries as e-cigarettes in convenience stores. And their quality and value are higher than ever.

Cannabis cartridges come in several different types of packaging and are made with all manner of strain. The oil nowadays can range from 20 to almost 90 percent THC — that wonderful compound in cannabis that gives it its glory — but it wasn’t always that way. Hash oil seized by authorities around the U.S. from the 1970s to 1990s was usually less than 20 percent THC, with the highest level recorded by the government in that time at around 50 percent. And it wasn’t the cleanest thing around. Those numbers have vastly improved, as have extraction methods.

Once produced in a black market and prone to butane explosions, modern extraction has taken the caustic solvents and other shady stuff out of cannabis oil production. If your cartridge doesn’t make clear that it was made with a CO2 extraction and is solvent-free (which is rare these days), your money is better spent elsewhere; these things can get pricey, but there’s enough variety to make smart buys.

Other factors will affect the flavor and thus enjoyment of cannabis oil vaping, such as whether the buds were fresh (usually called “live resin” on the package) or cured (dried) before extraction, or whether terpenes, which evaporate during production, were added back to improve the taste. And you also might find the tip (plastic or metal) and heating method important.

As we said earlier, there are tons of options in the cartridge world. We’ve found four brands to review that are readily available in Bay Area dispensaries. We cannot guarantee that the same strain sampled will be available, but hopefully this will give you an idea of what each producer is making.

Bloom Farms Highlighter
(Single Origin Reserve)
500mg
Strain: Mango Kush (H)
55% THC, 0.8% CBD
$40+

It seems Bloom Farms has figured out how to retain the sweet, fruity flavor profile of Mango Kush in an oil, which is admirable. At 55 percent THC, it’s a step down in potency, but it still delivers the happy and relaxed feelings associated with this strain. This Highlighter provides a quick exit from stress, and if you’re feeling down, it might give you a better foot to stand on. We recommend this after dinner, either with a chill movie or chiller music. Bloom Farms opts for the plastic container and fiber-glass wick pairing, which is not as pleasant as the coil and metal tip. It also takes some neck muscles to get a solid pull. But Bloom Farms starts with premium cannabis, and it’s evident in the oil.

Ganja Gold Live Resin
500mg
Strain: Gorilla Glue (H)
73.79% THC, 0.71% CBD,
3.08% CBN
$40+

This guy is a heavy hitter, definitely batting cleanup. They don’t call it Gorilla Glue because it makes you want to dance. This is a couch-lock experience, albeit a nice one. A few deep pulls and you’ll feel the day’s stress slip right off. The flavor is OK, although we hoped the extraction using fresh, frozen buds would make the taste closer to real flowers. It’s mild and slightly grassy, which is pleasant enough. Ganja Gold uses a coil heating device and a stainless steel tip for your lips, which makes for a cleaner-tasting vapor that goes down easy. Highly recommended for stress and pain relief, but not so much for creativity and euphoria.

O.pen Vape Reserve
420mg
Strain: Unknown, hybrid
67.5% THC, 0.7% CBD, 0.92% CBN
$35+

O.pen Vape cartridges are the most widely available — the company says one is sold every 10 seconds — and the 420mg size is cute (4/20, get it?). But in the end, that means it’s less than a half-gram for the same price as a cartridge that is indeed 500mg. The company says this limited-release cartridge is strain-specific, but the package just says “hybrid.” It feels like an indica-dominant hybrid, producing a mellow and stoney mood. Good for pain relief and slumber, but not for a night out. The plastic tip and fiber glass wick don’t help the flavor, which is bland if mild, and the drag is a little stiff. But we did not use an O.pen Vape pen, which the company recommends.

Each cartridge had its pros and cons, but in the end, we preferred Absolute Xtracts’ Girl Scouts Cookies. It was the easiest to pull, had the nicest flavor, and produced a top-notch high. We highly recommend cartridges made with metal tips and coil heating as well, which can be more expensive but are worth it for the overall experience.

Absolute Xtracts
500mg
Strain: Girl Scout Cookies (H)
61.2% THC, 0.66% CBN
$35+

This strain needs no introduction, and the quality of Absolute Xtracts’ flowers shines brightly: GSC at its best, in a highly potent form. A mind-bender for sure. Pain relief combined with a light and exotic feeling, sort of a Cloud 9 experience all neatly packaged with a metal tip and coil heater. The pull is easy, especially with a quick preheat. Not too hard on the lungs, the vapor is mild and sweet. We could see this in a gym bag, but not on a nightstand. It brings happy thoughts, and should be used for creative inspiration and decompression.