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Live Resin vs Distillate Vape Carts – What’s Better, Safer… and Why?

vape carts
Written by Alexandra Hicks

Every single year, thousands of adults all over the world are switching from smoking to vaping. It’s easy to see why, considering the discretion and variety you can find with vape carts as opposed to traditional cannabis and tobacco products. It’s also pushed as being the safer option between the two, but how accurate is that?

The truth is, vaping is only safer than smoking if the cartridges you’re smoking contain safe, high-quality ingredients. If you’re vaping boof carts filled with chemical cutting agents, pesticides, heavy metal contaminants, and who knows what else, that is much more dangerous to human health than smoking burnt plant matter.

Which brings us to our next question, what exactly is in all those weed vape carts you’re getting from dispensaries, online stores, or your local plug? A couple terms you’ll hear quite often when shopping for vapes is “live resin” and “distillate”. But what do these words mean when it comes to vape carts? What are each of them? Which one is better, or safer? And why?

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Quick Overview: Live Resin vs Distillate

When it comes to consuming anything other than flower, live resin is definitely where it’s at (in my opinion, as a cannabis purist). Live resin is processed from high-quality, freshly harvested flower that is flash frozen to preserve all the terpenes and additional compounds without prolonging the curing process. This results in a very full-flavored extract that produces what’s known as the entourage effect, where all the plant components work together synergistically, thereby providing the best results.

Distillate is highly refined, pure THC oil extracted from low-quality shake, trim, and discarded biomass, with plant terpenes added back in at a later point during the manufacturing process. Sometimes the terpenes are from cannabis, sometimes they are the same terps found in cannabis, but extracted from other botanical sources – for example, adding limonene from lemons instead of actual cannabis plant matter. Although this process does add to the overall flavor, the vaping experience if often lackluster compared live resin, because the terps and THC don’t always synergize as well as they would naturally.

Because all the terpenes are removed, distillate has no taste and is not the proper consistency for vaping. While adding the terps back will help solve these problems, some low budget, black market brands will often use some other type of chemical cutting agent for both, correcting viscosity and added profits. Common cutting agents include PEGs (polyethylene glycols), glycerin, and MCT oil; and the question of whether or not it’s safe to heat these compounds and smoke them remains a hot-button subject in the vaping community.

To summarize, distillate is like making Everclear and adding beer flavor in later from either natural or artificial sources. Live resin is like craft beer: carefully sourced, properly handled, with flavors and effects unique to each strains profile.

Vaping: Everyone’s Doing It

Over the last decade or so we’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of both adolescents and adults who use vape products, but the transition has been going on for quite some time now. Since the 1960s, the use of traditional cigarettes and tobacco products has decreased by around 68 percent, according to data from the American Lung Association.

But in dropping the cigs a new product found its way to the retail shelves and eventually our daily lives: e-cigarettes and vape carts. Particularly popular among young adults, we can see that sales of Marlboro, Newport, Camel, and similar brands that almost exclusively sell cigarettes are giving way to JUUL pods, vape pens, and different flavored disposables.

In the United States, roughly 28 percent of high school students and 11 percent of adults report vaping “regularly or occasionally”. Additionally, the FDA conducted a poll of 5 million Americans in 2019, 1 million of which claimed to use these products daily, and 1.6 million use them more than 20 times per month. Results from the Annual National Youth Tobacco Survey | FDA

In the same vein, cannabis vaping is on the rise as well, having doubled between 2013 and 2020. These number show the trend is not restricted simply to tobacco, but to all smokables across the board. I personally still enjoy old-fashioned pot smoking and I always thought I’d be the last person to hop on the vaping bandwagon but even I can’t say no to a top-shelf, live resin cart. They’re discreet, cost-effective, potent, and you still get the amazing flavor of the natural plant terpenes.

There’s been a lot of discourse on the safety of vapor products and whether or not they pose a threat to public health. There’s a common misconception that vaping is more unsafe than smoking, but that’s only true if you’re vaping things that shouldn’t be inhaled into the lungs at all, like pesticides and other contaminants, various synthetics, or Vitamin E acetate, a common cutting agent said to “interfere with normal lung functioning” when inhaled.

Distillate Carts

A distillate cart is a vape cartridge containing cannabinoid oil – typically THC – that is extracted using a range of solvents including carbon dioxide, butane, and ethanol. The oil is made from bulk biomass, usually discarded shake and trim, so while the use of low-quality bud might not appeal to most people, it is a smart way to repurpose plant matter that would otherwise go to waste.

Distillate vape carts are generally much higher in THC than live resin carts but they don’t contain any other cannabinoids, whereas LR often has noticeable levels of CBD as well. Higher quality distillate carts will be over 90% THC and have the terpenes reintroduced into the formula; be it from the same plant the THC was extracted from, a different marijuana or hemp plant, or another plant species altogether.

They don’t have the best reputation, and they honestly are not my preference either, but distillate is not inherently bad. It’s not the same as LR that offers users a more natural experience similar to smoking flower, but it certainly can be fun and it does hold an important place in the industry.  

The primary problem with distillate vape carts is the ease with which they can be poorly replicated, and the sheer number of knock offs, black market brands, failed safety tests, and generally nasty ingredients surrounding a lot of the distillate in today’s market.

Another downside to using distillates in vape cartridges is that, because there are no residual terpenes left behind, the consistency of the extracted material will be too thin. In order to be used in carts, some sort of cutting agent is required. Low budget brands are using everything from polyethylene glycol (PEG), propylene glycol (PG), to vegetable glycerin (VG), or even medium chain triglycerides (MCT), such as coconut oil and Vitamin E acetate in the mix to maintain proper viscosity and longer lasting oil consistency.

Live Resin Carts

Live resin carts are much different than distillate in that the material is extracted from high-quality, whole plant cannabis that is flash frozen at cryogenic temperatures (-292 degrees Fahrenheit). The plant is frozen immediately, meaning no leaves, stalks or branches are removed, as those are often covered in trichomes too. This is why creating live resin is considered a ‘full spectrum’ process.

With standard curing where the plant is hung up to dry and is exposed to light and oxygen, a lot of degradation takes place and you lose quite a bit of potency. Creating live resin is a more challenging and expensive to produce because of the use of subzero temps and high quality plant matter, as opposed to bottom shelf trim and biomass that’s utilized for distillate and other types of concentrate. However, live resin is potent, flavorful, and you get the whole plant relevant cannabinoid/terpene ratios you expect from flower.  

Some “live resins” sold by black market brands and certain irreputable distributors contain a little bit of live resin mixed with distillate and other compounds from varying sources. If a vape cart is 100% live resin as advertised, it will contain nothing other than extract pulled from fresh frozen cannabis plant matter.

Most people prefer live resin. Despite the fact that distillate is cheaper and more potent, the high gts boring really fast when you don’t get those whole plant ratios. Meaning that when you’re taking straight THC without any other combined compounds, you’ll quickly build up a tolerance. Not to mention the many benefits associated with the cannabis entourage effect you’ll be missing out on if you skip over the LR resin carts for more affordable distillate.

Black Market Brands

The widespread sale of bunk, low-quality, and outright dangerous products is a topic that needs to be discussed in more detail. What inspired me to write this article in the first place is a recent experience I had with a delivery service in California. It started with me making an online order for a few live resin vape carts they had advertised on their website. They called to tell me they were out of the brand I wanted and offered up some other options. I asked if they had any others that were live resin, because the only other brand I heard of that they had available was distillate. The budtender responded, “uuhmm, I don’t know.”  I asked if there was anybody there who knew more about the products and could answer some questions for me. “Uuhmm, no.”

Okay then, I canceled my order and started researching their products on my own, only to discover that nearly everything they had for sale was not just distillate, but black market as well. Now, these are all legal dispensaries, and you can pull up their licensing information on California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control website… so why are they selling illegal and potentially dangerous products? I think many consumers would be shocked to find out that a lot of the products they’re using, even those they think are from reputable brands, are untested and inconsistent in quality.

Check out the testing done by dat_dude41510 on Instagram. He sends carts out for independent testing that he picks up on the black market, from medical co-ops, and state-licensed recreational vendors. His focus is on the California market. To crudely summarize his findings: the market is filled with tainted products, dangerously high levels of pesticides, fungicides, and other nasties, and a scary high number of very legitimate looking counterfeits complete with fake holograms and serial numbers, and falsified COA’s (certificate of analysis).

Final Thoughts

I think the main point that I want to drive home is, that while it may seem tempting to save some money and buy the cheaper vape carts, especially if you’re using them regularly, please resist the urge and just spend those extra few dollars to make sure you’re getting safe, high-quality products. Even if you’re getting distillate carts, make sure they’re legit. Now that products like this have been in circulation for a while, people who have been using the fake stuff regularly are starting to report negative side effects, like shortness of breath and random vomiting. When done correctly, vaping is much safer than smoking so there is absolutely no point in consuming tainted products. Your body will thank you later.

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About the author

Alexandra Hicks

Managing editor at Cannadelics and U.S based journalist, helping spread the word about the many benefits of using cannabis and psychedelics.