JULIE JOHNSON THE PRESS DEMOCRAT February 24, 2020
When people started getting sick and dying last year in troubling numbers from respiratory problems associated with using vaporizers and electronic cigarette products, staff at Mercy Wellness dispensary in Cotati set aside their projects and put all attention toward determining whether their products were safe.
Demand for electronic vaping devices and cartridges filled with concentrated cannabis oils has risen steadily since the products first hit shelves six years ago at one of Sonoma County’s longest-running dispensaries, said Brandon Levine, Mercy founder and chief executive officer.
But then last year, the products promoted as a better alternative to smoking became wrapped up in a public health scare.
“I feel really confident the products we carry are safe, but I can’t say the same for what’s out on the street,” Brandon Levine, Mercy’s chief executive officer, said. “There are people in the unregulated market and there’s nobody looking over their shoulder. Some people don’t have morals.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified the additive vitamin E acetate, found in mostly black-market vape products, as a major culprit making people sick. About 84% of patients surveyed who had used vape products with THC said they acquired their vape products from dubious or plainly illegal sources, the CDC reported in January.
Still, scientists are continuing to look for other reasons why vape pens used for marijuana, tobacco and nicotine products might be making some people ill. California and national public health officials continue advising against using any vaporizing products, adding further uncertainty for legal cannabis consumers and manufacturers alike.
Sonoma County is a hub for legal cannabis oil manufacturing, with some top brands being made here and dispensaries selling products they grow and manufacture themselves. Cannabis consumption is mainstream.
Santa Rosa manufacturer CannaCraft has sold an estimated 6 million vape cartridges since it came into operation about six years ago, founder Dennis Hunter said. When news of vaping illnesses started coming out, Hunter said, they reviewed their operations and ingredients. They had never put cutting agents like vitamin E acetate in their vape cartridges — including their most popular brand, AbsoluteXtracts.
“We’ve never had one customer come back and complain about our products,” Hunter said. “Out of sheer numbers and time, it really gives you that comfort that this issue was isolated to something else other than just cannabis oil.”
Vape products have become wildly popular as an alternative to smoking cannabis or tobacco, and the trend has far outpaced any understanding about long-term effects to the body.
Schools across the country are grappling with widespread teen vaping. Walmart has stopped selling e-cigarettes and San Francisco has banned the sale of vaping devices for nicotine products, including those ordered by mail, that have not undergone a Food and Drug Administration review.
A common vaporizer device for cannabis uses a battery in the pen to heat up a coil to aerosolize concentrated cannabis oil so it can be inhaled. The heat is lower than what’s needed for combustion, the tar-producing chemical reaction used to smoke.
Mercy staff began asking labs to test products for the additive vitamin E acetate alongside mold, heavy metals and other substances that disqualify them from being sold, Levine said.
The company reviewed standards with each manufacturer of the products it sells. Fliers alerting customers to the public health warnings about using vaporizing products were handed out to customers. Sales dipped 10%.
Levine said his staff has worked hard to follow the most up-to-date research, and at this point they feel confident the key factor hurting people was identified in counterfeit products.
“We don’t know the long-term risk — it’s the same for cellphone use,” Levine said. “But this hasn’t become a problem until they started using the vitamin E acetate.”
Sonoma County public health officials have reported no illnesses or deaths linked to vape use here. Elsewhere in the state, 208 people have gone to the hospital in 31 counties and four people have died, according to California Department of Public Health data.
Across the country, 2,758 people have visited a hospital since March with lung injuries attributed to electronic cigarette use and 64 people have died in 28 states and the District of Columbia, according to the CDC.
The outbreak peaked in September, according to federal data. The number of hospital visits per week has declined drastically from a height of 237 the week of Sept. 15 down to three the last week of January, CDC data shows.
“From a public health standpoint, we’d urge people to stop vaping altogether,” Sonoma County Department of Health Services spokesman Rohish Lal said. “We realize it’s legal, so if you do, don’t buy any vaping products off the street and don’t modify the products that you buy.”
Abstention could be a hard sell for legal cannabis consumers. Vaping cannabis products can offer more dosing control and be more discreet, said Erich Pearson, chief executive officer of SPARC dispensaries in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and San Francisco.
It brings the benefits of smoking a joint because of the fast onset of psychoactive and other bodily effects, which can help users adjust their intake in a way that’s harder to do with edibles, Pearson said.
“Vaping still has a fast onset while being safer and more discreet than smoking due to the absence of tar that is released in traditional smoking methods,” Pearson said in an email.
Levine and other local dispensary and manufacturing owners have said sales have rebounded and they are confident current California standards ensure products are tested and labeled so consumers can feel confident about what they buy.
To underscore the difference between legal and illegal vape products, a cannabis oil manufacturer with facilities in Detroit and San Diego paired up with dispensaries for a buy-back program, offering to take illegal vape cartridges in exchange for one free legal one.
George Sadler, president of the Michigan-based Platinum Vape, a cannabis products manufacturer, said they sent out all of the illegal cartridges they received to testing labs and the results showed about 80% were unfit for consumption due to a variety of contaminants, such as pesticides and lead. Five cartridges were cut with significant amounts of vitamin E acetate totaling about 20% of the oil inside.
“The results were horrible — as we expected,” Sadler said.
At SPARC’s manufacturing plant in Santa Rosa, cannabis goes through a variety of processes to create the distilled oil put in vape cartridges, said Ryan Emily Sereno, a senior production and research chemist who oversees the company’s manufacturing facility and product development division. They sell the cartridges at one of the company’s five dispensaries in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and San Francisco.
They start by extracting the oil from dried cannabis plant material using high-pressured CO2.
Then, the extracted oil goes through a process called winterization to separate the fats from the cannabinoids — the active compounds in marijuana plants — by dissolving it into ethanol and freezing it to separate the materials and get rid of the fats and the ethanol, Sereno said.
The oil goes through several rounds of distillation.
They do not add cutting agents but do add some botanically derived terpenes, which are aromatic oils, she said. Sereno said they also send filled cartridges out for testing to ensure materials in the devices aren’t contaminating the oil during the heating process.
“That’s the other benefit over smoking,” Serano said. “When you’re combusting you have the whole variety of the plant, the lipids, the carbo- hydrates, the sugars, the pigments, versus when you’re vaporizing 90% is just cannabinoids. We’re chipping all the ancillary things away.”