Rolling Papers

Soft Secrets
16 Aug 2011

Although the most common way to ingest Cannabis in the USA is through the use of a bong or pipe, a large and growing number of pot users smoke joints or blunts as a primary or supplementary consumption method. In this article SSUSA takes a closer look at the papers themselves. It would seem that the bulk of any lung damage incurred through smoking joints is the fault of combustion of weed and sometimes tobacco at high temperatures, and therefore to be selective about choice of paper is pointless. However, we should always try to minimize the severity of the risk we undertake when we use Cannabis, so for this reason we should be considerate of the papers we use. Furthermore, it is surprising how much a slight difference between papers will affect the finished joint, in terms of taste, burn rate and immediate effect on the throat and chest.

Rolling papers are an integral part of every joint, and not all are created equally. There has been much evolution since the original thick, rough incarnations first appeared. The first cigarette papers were produced in 1660 by the French company Lacroix (later to become Rizla+). They had been conceived of over a century prior to this, but production was not to seriously take off until 1796, when Napoleon began to order in bulk for his overseas troops.

Their 'fine' weight papers appeared in 1799, but were still quite bulky by today's standards. Competitors began to appear in the 1800s, and in 1894 the company Zig-Zag had the brainwave of interleaving the papers (in a 'zig-zag' fashion). Gummed papers came along in 1942 - another innovation by Rizla+. It wasn't until 1977 that king-size papers began to be marketed (again by Rizla+), with the rise of global Cannabis culture.

Nowadays, the range of papers available is staggering. Colored, flavored, transparent, aerated - the list goes on and on. But which choice should you, the joint smoker, make when selecting your preferred paper? Most papers are made from hemp, flax or rice, although some are made from Esparto grass and wood pulp (which may contribute to lung-, lip- and larynx cancer).

The Spanish manufacturer of Smoking, Bambu and many other well-known brands was convicted in 2006 of substituting such materials for the usual hemp and linen in an effort to cut costs, so it is to be hoped that they and other companies are now offering more considered products. Wood pulp papers are the worst environmentally, and also score poorly in terms of trace chemicals that may pose a risk to human health. Production of hemp, flax and other grassy fibers is far preferable - at least in environmental terms.

Beyond the choice of base material, chemicals may be added to the papers during the production process in order to make the paper lighter, finer and stronger, or to make them longer-burning. Bleaches such as chlorine or calcium carbonate (chalk) may also be used. Chlorine is highly toxic but calcium carbonate releases only CO2 when combusted and may, therefore, present a safer choice. There are many products on the market that are advertized as containing no chlorine, so it is not difficult to avoid as long as one is selective.

Many papers, especially blunt wraps and colored varieties, may also contain potassium nitrate to aid even burning - this substance is linked to acute oral irritation and respiratory tract damage, as well as lung cancer. Generally, the thinner the better, when it comes to papers. Ultra-thin, translucent papers have been around for a while and seem to have gained a majority in the market, although many are bleached and may contain additives that increase strength while maintaining low weight. Thin papers burn more slowly - another plus for most smokers.

The thinnest papers are made from rice, which may be blended with other natural papers such as sugar and flax. It is possible to source additive-free papers; a good, clean, thin rice paper with little or no added chemicals should burn smoothly and consistently. If a paper is burned as a test, the ash it produces should be very small in quantity and a uniform light gray color. Dark ash suggests that the paper may contain contaminants, and such papers can safely be avoided as there are many others out there that pass the test.

Thicker papers not only make a faster-burning joint with a harsher taste, but have been reported to cause greater oral and lung irritation. However, hemp papers are often thicker than rice papers and others, so this rule does not always hold true. That said, many hemp papers now produced match their competitors in terms of thickness, and as their supporters are usually among the more health-savvy, they are often made to be chlorine-free and unbleached.

Pure Hemp papers are marketed as ultra-thin and additive-free, as are Hempire and Raw Organic Hemp papers - also claimed to be vegan! Unbleached rice papers are huge in their own right - the two main brands are Raw (who make rice papers as well as the hemp variety) and Smoking Brown (a newer introduction, but as it's from the ubiquitous rolling paper giant we may see a rapid takeover here). The idea when rolling a good joint is to always use as little paper as necessary, in order to experience the flavor of the Cannabis in as unadulterated a manner as possible.

To this end, seasoned joint rollers have developed techniques to minimize paper usage, and many will tear off excess paper prior to rolling. The more expert will 'back-roll': the paper is turned inside-out so that the gum is on the outside facing the roller. When the joint is rolled the un-moistened gum then becomes tucked under a single layer of paper. The gum must be moistened through this outer layer of paper, and the excess can then be torn off along the gum line (see photo). This method ensures that the absolute minimum paper is used, and it is well-worth investing a few hours (and a few ruined papers!) to master the intricacies.

Others will tear off the gummed strip itself, as the Acacia gum (gum arabic) that is commonly used as an adhesive contains glycerin, which is thought to be harmful if smoked. Some varieties advertise use of pure Acacia gum, but for true aficionados and those who wish to be extra careful there are non-gummed papers available, such as S.D. Modiano's elegant range of regular and 1½-sized papers.

Made from very sheer rice paper, they require some practice to master and can be expensive, but very rewarding. Fans point to the burn test as demonstrating their superior properties, and it is true that they burn very cleanly, but they are not alone in claiming this distinction, as even some gummed papers have similar properties. Transparent cellophane papers have sparked some controversy since their introduction a few years ago (although a transparent paper was apparently produced as early as the 1970s, it was brittle and difficult to work with).

At first their use increased rapidly, but this seemed to diminish before long as the novelty wore off. Fans cite a cooler, slower burn with little tendency to 'canoe' or burn irregularly. Others say they go out quickly, and the taste, smell, and sensation of smoking 'plastic' is unpleasant (although this could be more attributable to hard-to-shake preconceptions as they have a mildly sweet taste without the acridity one would expect from plastic). They are based on wood pulp (from eucalyptus trees) which relies upon heavy chemical processing to release its pure cellulose.

They are sold as being 100% cellulose and better for health than traditional papers, but many question this, as they are reported to contain around 14% glycerin (to increase the suppleness and smoothness of the cellulose) which, when combusted, produces acrolein. This substance, also known as propenol, is a pulmonary irritant that may be extremely harmful to health and has been implicated as a factor in the development of MS (as it may cause damage to myelin nerve sheaths).

Research suggests that levels of acrolein released by smoking with transparent papers is negligible; however, the rumors have contributed to some decline in popularity. Although glycerin is also present in the gummed strip of ordinary papers, it is thought to be in too small of an amount to pose a risk. Colored and flavored papers deserve a mention. Rizla+ introduced menthol and strawberry flavors in 1906, and nowadays the range is very wide. Many of the flavorings are artificial food additives that are not intended for smoking purposes, and some users have mentioned irritation of the throat after use.

The FDA in 2009 banned clove cigarettes and other flavored cigarettes and papers (except menthol, for some reason), ostensibly in a drive to reduce teen smoking, but also with a nod to certain perceived inherent health hazards. Cloves release eugenol, a topical anesthetic that encourages smokers to inhale extra deeply, thereby exposing a greater surface area of the lung to smoke damage. There is very little information available that gives insight into what other additives are used in flavored papers and what the effect may be when smoked. However, manufacturers of such papers seem to be very reluctant to disclose these important details. The consensus seems to be that instead of adding to the flavor, most of these papers in fact detract from the taste of what you are smoking. Colored papers also are increasingly viewed as a pointless and perhaps harmful complication, and despite maintaining a presence in head shops nationwide, their use is not widespread and is more as a novelty. Blunt wraps, on the other hand, are very popular indeed. Glamorized in countless hip-hop songs, for many young stoners it is the method of choice.

The link between teenage smoking and blunt wraps is so pernicious that several states have this year instigated motions to ban their sale - although in January 2011, Illinois House reps rejected the Senate-approved motion there, with some branding it 'ridiculous'. Cigar companies back these campaigns, citing the negative impact on their image from the strong association that blunt wraps have with smoking Cannabis.

A US Bureau of Customs and Border Protection ruling from 2008 defined them as drug paraphernalia, and many outlets have stopped selling flavored blunts and may soon follow by stopping sale of unflavored wraps too. However, a cheap cigar can be split and re-rolled with the same result, so the trend is unlikely to die out completely. Aside from the risks of harmful additives, blunt wraps are wholly or mostly composed of tobacco, and all the associated risks remain. Rolling blunts also encourages greater weed consumption as more is packed in, which is not only wasteful but unnecessary and potentially harmful.

The wide variety of natural, unbleached hemp and rice papers offered by many companies today seems to present the safest choice for pot smokers. So many advances have been made to decrease the weight of the paper, while avoiding chemical additives, that it is now possible to find some really great papers out there, the likes of which would have been unseen ten years ago. A simple online search for additive-free, unbleached hemp or rice papers yields impressive results, and they are not difficult to obtain wherever you reside, as long as you have the ability to order online or a good head shop within traveling distance.

As none of us want chemicals in our pot, it stands to reason that we don't want it in our papers, either. The more of us that support the trend for natural rolling products, the clearer the message sent to manufacturers: that we are conscious of what we put into our bodies, that we wish for greater transparency (pardon the pun) regarding what's in the papers and that we will reject those that are found to be unhealthy.

Soft Secrets