We’ve all seen the recent news: Federal and state health officials have announced that hundreds of people across the country have been hospitalized with a mysterious, life-threatening lung infection they believe is linked to black market cannabis oil vape cartridges.
Leafly’s chief correspondent David Downs has uncovered that nearly all the cases are either in states where cannabis is illegal and unregulated, or counties where licensed cannabis dispensaries are banned.“No cases are associated with adult-use or medical cannabis products from legal state-licensed stores. Almost all affected states do not have adult-use legalization in effect. They include Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin. Additional states are pending verification. The California incidents occurred in Kings County, which has banned licensed cannabis stores.”
Vape cartridges have been around for a while without previous incidents, so what is happening?
The state of New York announced Thursday that vaping samples from eight of its cases showed high levels of a compound called vitamin E acetate. Investigators are focusing on the possibility that vitamin E acetate, a cutting agent used in black market vape oils, might be playing a key role in the illness.
They issued a warning, “Anyone using vape products should never use unregulated products purchased ‘off the street.’…These unregulated products are not tested and may contain harmful substances. Users of vape products should never modify vape products or add any substances to these products that are not intended by the manufacturer.
This public health crisis has all of us concerned.
Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML, said last week, “These unfortunate incidents reinforce the need for greater regulation, standardization, and oversight of the cannabis market — principles which NORML has consistently called for in the cannabis space. Consumers must also be aware that not all products are created equal; quality control testing is critical and only exists in the legally regulated marketplace.”
The passage of the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act assures consumers and medicinal patients that legally regulated cannabis products meet rigorous health and safety requirements. This means that California’s regulated cannabis products are rigorously tested for solvents, pesticides, and heavy metals.
But not all counties in California allow licensed medical cannabis dispensaries or delivery services within their county lines. This adds to the prevalence and continued growth of the black market and counterfeit products (products made to look like regulated products), and people are suffering.
So how can you protect yourself and guarantee your products are regulated and following state guidelines for safety?
In May 2019 (updated in August), Weedmaps published a detailed guide to help you understand what vape cartridges have in them and how to spot counterfeit cannabis oil cartridges. We have republished this detailed information below so that you know how to verify the products you purchase are regulated and authentic cannabis oil products and thwart potentially hazardous counterfeits.
What’s Inside Your Vape Cartridge?
While there are plenty of vaporizers that can be used to consume flower and concentrates, the most popular device style to emerge from the vape clouds is the portable penlike design. Vape pens are designed to vaporize cannabis oils and distillates.
A vape pen comprises two primary components: a battery and the vape cartridge. The battery consists of the bottom portion of the vape pen, providing power to the heating element, which vaporizes the cannabis oil contained inside the vape cartridge. Most vape oil producers will tell you which voltage is compatible with the selected cartridge. These devices come in many shapes, sizes, and styles. Some vape pens have a button that activates the vape cartridge, while others are buttonless and only activated once the user takes a draw.
Vape cartridges include a mouthpiece, chamber, and heating element known as an atomizer. The chamber is filled with concentrated amounts of cannabinoids, usually either THC- or CBD-dominant, and terpenes. The atomizer is activated when contact is initiated with the battery, heating the chamber and vaporizing the cannabis oil. The chamber of a vape cartridge is filled with a THC- or cannabidiol (CBD)-dominant concentrate, and some producers will reintroduce terpenes that had been removed from the distillation process.
Cannabis vape oils that fill vape cartridges are usually created through a process called distillation, which strips the cannabis molecules down to just the cannabinoids. So, what about unique flavors that are defined by the plant’s terpene profile found in the aroma of fresh cannabis flowers? All of that is stripped away during the distillation process. Some cannabis oil producers will collect the cannabis-derived terpenes during the process and reintroduce them into the oil, allowing the distillate-filled cartridge to be strain-specific. More commonly, the terpenes used to flavor distillate are derived from other natural plants.
Are There Contaminants in Your Vape Cartridge and Pens?
The most prevalent problem on the illegal vape market is to concentrate cartridges that contain high levels of pesticides. When consumed at concentrated levels, inhaled pesticides cause health problems. To ensure that vape cartridges don’t contain hazardous pesticide level, it’s important to purchase from reputable brands that disclose third-party test results and include screening for pesticides.
Cutting agents can be added to enhance the intensity of the vapor cloud and the overall mouthfeel of the vapors. Common cutting agents that are sometimes infused with cannabis oil and e-cigarette vape juice include:
- Polyethylene glycol (PEG): a cutting agent used in vape liquids to keep the product evenly mixed.
- Propylene glycol (PG): a binding agent that is added to cannabis vape cartridges because of its ability to foster even vape draws.
- Vegetable glycerin (VG): Added to vape liquids to help generate large vape clouds for the user.
Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has labeled these cutting agents as safe for human ingestion, questions remain about what happens when these compounds are inhaled. A 2010 study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that inhaling PG could potentially exacerbate asthma and allergies. Additional research also suggests that, when vaporized at high temperatures, both PEG and PG breaks down into the carcinogens formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.
There is a steadily rising number of cannabis oil producers that insist on not adding any cutting agents to their product. If you’re concerned about the potential harm of these cutting agents, seek out raw products that only contain cannabis distillate and cannabis-derived terpenes.
More vape cartridge makers are no longer adding cutting agents such as polyethylene glycol (PEG), propylene glycol (PG), and vegetable glycerin as some studies have found that the cutting agents could induce respiratory illnesses or break down into cancer-causing compounds. (Gina Coleman/Weedmaps)
It’s not just the cannabis oil that is at risk of contamination. In a 2018 study conducted by scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, researchers discovered that unsafe amounts of toxic metals, including lead, were leaking from the heating coils of e-cigarettes and seeping into the aerosol that was inhaled. As the FDA continues to grapple with how to properly regulate e-cigarettes and vape pens, it’s up to vape cartridge manufacturers and testing labs to catch potentially hazardous products.
“Metal concentrations in the e-liquid from the original dispenser increased markedly in the same e-liquid after it was added to the device and was brought into contact with the heating coil, both in the generated aerosol and in the liquid that remained in the tank,” the study stated. “These findings support the hypothesis that metals are transferred from the device (most likely the coil) to the e-liquid and from the e-liquid to the aerosol that is inhaled by the user.”
A large portion of vape cartridge components are produced at metal foundries in China, many of which add small amounts of lead into brass and copper feedstocks to improve the malleability of metals. This includes the heating coil, which heats the cannabis oil, potentially transferring toxic metals into the consumer’s vapors.
As lab testing requirements have been bolstered in California, scientists have been able to identify vape cartridges that contain high levels of lead before they reach the legal market. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control implemented Phase 3 testing standards on Jan. 1, 2019, which included analytical testing for heavy metals.
How to Tell if Your Vape Cartridge is Legit or Counterfeit
Another consequence of the vape pen’s rising popularity is the steady stream of fake THC cartridges that have flooded the market. Some of the industry’s most recognizable brands, such as Connected Cannabis Co., Heavy Hitters, and Kingpen, have battled against counterfeit vape cartridges. These counterfeit cartridges are being sold with similar branding, logos, and packaging as some of these producers, making it difficult for the average consumer to tell whether they’re buying legitimate products.
The potential dangers of consuming oil from a counterfeit vape cartridge are pretty straightforward. For starters, it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s inside of the oil without getting it lab tested. Since these counterfeits are likely bypassing state testing regulations, there’s no way of telling, without proper laboratory testing, if there are cutting agents, contaminants, or even actual cannabis-derived oil in the cartridge.
Many cannabis oil manufacturers have been proactive in helping consumers identify whether they have purchased a legitimate vape cartridge. For instance, Heavy Hitters, the California-based cannabis vape cartridge producer, has shared a list of authorized retailers on its website, and also have an online form where customers can report counterfeits. Kingpen, another vape cartridge producer in California, has used its social media presence to raise awareness and campaign against counterfeits.
In legal states and provinces, the best way to thwart the counterfeit vape cartridge epidemic is to purchase products from reputable retailers or dispensaries. Unfortunately, this isn’t a viable option for cannabis consumers living in areas where recreational cannabis is still illegal. Still, there are certain precautions one could take to reduce the chances of purchasing a counterfeit vape cartridge.
When ordering or browsing cannabis products on Leafly or Weedmaps, for instance, you can limit your search results to only display Weedmaps Verified products. This feature will show which storefronts and delivery services have been authorized to sell vape cartridges from reputable industry brands, guaranteeing that you get legitimate products from proper sources.
If the price of a branded cartridge is significantly below market price, that could be a red flag. Avoid purchasing cartridges that are sold without any packaging. If you have a vape cartridge that you suspect might be counterfeit, go to the manufacturer’s website and compare your cartridge with legitimate products. There could be a serial number, QR code, or certain stylistic differences that will help you decipher whether you have a real cartridge. Additionally, a quick Google search about a specific brand should unearth several resources that will distinguish real vape cartridges from counterfeits.