In the past few months, the stream of alarming news about the dangers of vaporizer cartridges has put some cannabis consumers on high alert. Since March, more than 2,000 people have gotten sick, and 40 people have died from illnesses related to vaping (VAPI, or vaping associated pulmonary injury). It is believed that the large majority of those who had become ill had used THC oil carts bought from illicit markets.
Vaping has become popular with consumers in recent years because it is discreet, portable, and emits less odor than smoking. And the concentrate market — comprised of products like wax, shatter, rosin, and oils, including those contained in vape carts — has continued to surge, second only to cannabis flower sales.
According to estimates from cannabis-centric firm Arcview Market Research, in partnership with BDS Analytics,cannabis concentrate sales will reach $8.4 billion by 2022, while pre-filled vape carts — like those linked to VAPI — make up 58 percent of concentrate sales.
Even though VAPI is largely associated with products sold on the unregulated market, legal cannabis businesses have also seen a corresponding dip in vape pen and cartridge sales. Cannabis analysis firm New Frontier data reported a 15 percent drop in market share for vape sales for September, while in adult-use legal states like Massachusetts and Nevada,sales dropped by a third. In California, vape sales dropped by six percent.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have zeroed in on vitamin e acetate as the likely culprit behind VAPI. Vitamin e, when used as a supplement or topically as intended, is generally considered safe. But research has shown that inhaling vitamin e could interfere with lung function and cause the symptoms associated with VAPI: cough, shortness or breath, chest pain, and death.
So it begs the question: Why would vitamin e get added to vape carts to begin with? And is there a way for consumers to vape smartly and safely with all the uncertainty?
Civilized spoke with three experts working in various aspects of the cannabis industry: an extraction professional, the president of a cannabis business, and a medical doctor with cannabis expertise. Here are some of their thoughts on how to vape mindfully.
The Extraction Professional
Chuck Senatore, co-owner of Oregon-based Aardvark Extracts, says that making any cannabis concentrate is a multi-step process that starts with a butane, propane, or carbon dioxide (CO2) extraction method. The next step is a post-production process called winterizing, in order to remove lipids from cannabis oil, increases purity, improve oil color, and enhance flavor.
According to Senatore, the steps of extraction create a cannabis extract thicker than honey and not easily poured into small vape carts. “The problem here is that the oil is very thick so it won’t even flow into a cartridge,” he says. So the next step, he explains, is to add a cutting agent, like vegetable glycerin (VG), propylene glycol (PG), or medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) so that the oil will flow more easily and cleanly into the cart.
VG, PG, and MCT are federally approved and considered safe to ingest, though few studies have focused on the risks associated with their inhalation. Even so, cannabis consumers, including those who shop the unregulated market, have been vaping for years without serious incident. However, that changed when a Los Angeles-based vape supply wholesaler called Honey Cut diverted vitamin e, which can be used as a thickener or a THC diluter, into the illicit market supply chain in 2019.
“In the regulated market, our products have to be tested for residual solvents, pesticide contaminants, all kinds of other crap,” Senatore says. “If somebody makes a beautiful base oil and they cut it with this other crap — they could cut it with gasoline — you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
Frustrated by “I don’t know anyone who ever uses vitamin e. It’s really unscrupulous actors who are doing this,” he says, frustrated by the handful of bad actors he believes are ruining the hard work and reputation of legal cannabis businesses. “I believe that vaping is safe, and vaping is not going anywhere. The best advice I can give a consumer is to buy from the regulated industry. When you buy legal cannabis, you’re buying local and you’re supporting your own state’s economy.”
The Business President
Sally Nichols, president of California-based Bloom Farms CBD, readily admits that their CBD vapes are a touch more expensive than their competitors', and much more expensive than illicit market products. However, there are very good reasons for the added expense.
“It took us 18 months to put our [CBD] vape and tincture on the market,” she says. “We took the time and the energy to do the homework.” What that homework entailed was a trial and error process to devise an extraction method that would allow them to extract CBD oil that would not require a cutting agent like VG or PG. This process also gives their oil the proper vaping viscosity and does not cause the oil to crystalize.
In addition to a thorough extraction and winterizing process, Bloom Farms uses high quality vape hardware. “We’re using CCELL technology that has a ceramic wicking system, so the oil doesn’t touch heavy metal components, and a higher quality cartridge that doesn’t leak,” she explains. “We’re using really high quality stuff that is providing not only the ideal temperature for vaping, but also for components. As a result, it’s more expensive.”
But Nichols thinks that the higher cost adds an element of safety for consumers. “It’s really hard for consumers to determine what is high quality and what isn’t. You really have to know who you’re buying this stuff from,” she says. “It’s more expensive and it takes longer, but it’s what we believe in.”
She strongly urges consumers to do some homework of their own, and ask themselves some key questions before buying a vape pen. “What are you vaping? Most companies don’t list their full ingredients, and you need that full ingredient deck," she adds. "And buy from quality, established brands. You have to know what you’re ingesting and consuming.”
Dr. Perry Solomon is a co-founder and former chief medical officer at HelloMD, an online cannabis community dedicated to the health and wellness of cannabis consumers. Now, Solomon works with companies in the cannabis and CBD space to help them convey appropriate medical information or develop observational studies on cannabis’ effects.
Solomon theorizes that high taxes on legal cannabis, which often exceed 30 percent, are pushing people to buy vapes from the illicit market. “People want the cheapest price. So I think one of the takeaways is that there is a range of quality of cartridges that are available to people," he says. "So if you go to get a cheap black label cart that’s not from a known manufacturer, there’s a higher chance of a problem than from a reputable company that has a COA (certificate of analysis) and third-party testing.”
Despite the illnesses believed to be brought on by inhaling vitamin e cutting agents, Solomon believes that using a vape pen — purchased from a legally compliant business — is still probably a safer health bet than combustion. “Smoking a joint, there is 110 percent chance you’ll get burnt paper, and we know the issues there," he says. "The chances of something with a vape cart is statistically less than burning cannabis leaf.”
If consumers still decide to vape products purchased from the illicit market, Solomon says that they have to be willing to accept the risk. “People can choose to do anything they want. They can speed down the freeway at 110 miles an hour, they can choose not to wear their seatbelts, they can smoke five packs a day, drink five bottles of tequila, and take a chance that nothing will happen to them,” he adds. “Vaping has been linked with lung issues, and people are choosing to accept the risk because they’re responsible adults. You pay your money and take your chance.”
But why take a chance if there’s no need? To vape safely and mindfully, the first thing you can do, as Senatore, Nichols, and Solomon all express, is to buy from cannabis businesses that are legally compliant. And if your state still doesn’t have legal cannabis, try another consumption method, like edibles or a dry herb vaporizer instead. Why risk it?