April 18, 2014 at 11:21 AM ET
For comedienne Whoopi Goldberg, excruciating headaches caused by glaucoma were no joke. So when ordinary painkillers didn’t help, she says she turned to pot.
The actress and co-host of “The View” has revealed she uses a marijuana vaporizer to help her cope with the pain in her debut column for The Cannabist, The Denver Post’s pot-centric site.
Titled “My vape pen and I, a love story,” the first-person essay explains Goldberg isn’t looking for a high, but relief.
“The vape pen has changed my life. No, I’m not exaggerating. In fact, her name is Sippy. Yes, she’s a she. And yes, I named her Sippy because I take tiny, little sips — sassy sips, even — from her. And with each sip comes relief — from pressure, pain, stress, discomfort,” Goldberg writes.
“These glaucoma-induced headaches come on like freight trains — like, BOOM, my head starts hurting, my eyes start bugging, my whole body starts to tense up. But then I find her, and it relaxes everything and calms everything. It helps my head stop hurting, and with glaucoma your eyes ache, and she takes the ache out. It’s wonderful.”
Goldberg compares the high she gets to “a gentle, warm breeze at the beach.”
Vape pens are just now becoming popular, especially with people who use marijuana for medical purposes, said Dr. Lester Grinspoon, an associate professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an expert on marijuana issues. He called the devices "sort of a rip-off of the e-cigarette."
Unlike smoking a joint, puffing on a vape pen is discreet, unobtrusive and doesn't fill the room with the smell of marijuana, he said.
"Some of us like them just because they can stop some kind of imminent physical or medical problem," Grinspoon told TODAY.com. "It’s so easy and so convenient and it doesn’t offend people."
You can get a high from marijuana in a vape pen if you take enough of it, but most people seeking pain relief just need a puff or two, Grinspoon said. The vapor has no effect on other people in the room, he added. Grinspoon called cannabis remarkably useful for glaucoma.
Glaucoma occurs when the normal fluid pressure inside the eyes slowly rises, according to the CDC. It can damage the eye's optic nerve and result in vision loss and blindness.
Smoking marijuana lowers intraocular pressure. But the American Glaucoma Society does not recommend using the drug to treat glaucoma because of its side effects, short duration and lack of evidence that it alters the course of disease.
Using marijuana vape pens for glaucoma or any other purpose falls into a legal grey area since federal law prohibits the use of any drug paraphernalia, said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Even in states where pot is legal, the laws cover the possession of marijuana itself, not a device that may be used to deliver that drug, he added.
Still, cracking down on individual personal use cases is not a law enforcement priority so it's likely you'll see more people using vape pens, Armentano said.
"They’re going to grow in popularity: they’re portable, they’re discreet, they’re effective," Armentano said.
Vaporizers heat marijuana to below the point of combustion, so no smoke forms. That allows users to avoid potential risks to the lungs and throat from inhaling smoke, Armentano said.
Supporters of e-cigarettes — which let users let users inhale nicotine-infused vapors — make similar claims, but many questions remain about the safety of vaping. There’s no good data about the harms of inhaling vaporized nicotine, experts say.