America’s $11 billion legal weed industry has become pretty adept at blowing smoke. More than $880 million in venture capital was thrown at cannabis companies last year — twice the figure for the year before. Judging by the increasingly jargon-laced emails from pot companies in my inbox, touting their “cannabis lifestyle” products and services, most of that money has been shoveled into the marketing department.
But now the fledgling industry is facing its first major marketing crisis: a crash of confidence in one of its flagship products, the vape pen. And instead of leaping to its own defense, the reaction from Big Weed has been that of the proverbial stoner paralyzed on the couch.
The alarm was raised when the CDC, the FDA, state health officials and the New England Journal of Medicine all warned of a new threat from vaporizer cartridges. In a total of 33 states, since April, there have been nearly 450 cases of respiratory disease linked to vaping. Five people have died. Many of the victims were using black market THC cartridges, sold in non-legal states.
Vitamin E acetate, which can be used to cut THC oil and make it look richer and thicker, was fingered as a likely culprit, although officials say there may be other factors. Vitamin E may be great for your skin, but not so great for your lungs.
Given the popularity of vape pens — as I’ve written before, they’re so widespread in California they should be on the state flag — this news created a massive amount of uncertainty. On the one hand, the reported cases were the result of illicit “street” vapes, with brand names such as Dank Vapes and Chronic Carts, not the high-end California/Colorado stuff flooding my inbox. The FDA’s advice was to “think twice” before buying a THC cartridge “off the street, out of the back of a car, out of a trunk, in an alley.”
Pot companies that prize purity need to be shouting it from the rooftops
So if you bought something legitimately in a recreational state’s licensed dispensary, you should be fine, right? Not so fast. Marijuana news and reviews site Leafly talked to a handful of legal-state services which confirmed they had sold Vitamin E-based oils, legally, to various cartridge makers in the last year. Result: An enormous amount of uncertainty about whether that pen in your desk drawer is going to kill you.
The companies who don’t use Vitamin E in their vape pens would be well advised to “get ahead of the story,” to use a well-worn phrase from crisis PR management. In group texts and Facebook posts over the weekend, I saw vape-loving friends swear off the devices until they had more information. When I opened my inbox on Monday, I was confident it would be filled with emails from vape pen companies eager to distance their pristine product from the Vitamin E health scare.
Nada. Zilch. Crickets. All I could find online was one statement tweeted by Dosist, an expensive “precision dose” vape pen company, which assured users that Dosist does not use any cutting agents; oddly, the statement was not repeated on its own website under its press releases.
It was also written in the present tense, naturally leading me to wonder whether Dosist had used cutting agents in the past; the company has not yet responded to my query. To be clear, I believe this is more likely to be a case of sloppy PR than malign intent. The point is, pot companies that prize purity need to be shouting it from the rooftops right about now.
In a day of asking around, I found only two vape cartridge companies that confirmed they do not use and never have used Vitamin E, or other legal but medically dubious cutting agents such as polyethylene glycol (PEG) and propylene glycol (PG). Those companies are Bloom Farms and CannaCraft, which makes Absolute Xtracts and Care By Design cartridges.
“We feel it is our responsibility to share what we know about the additives and products suspected of endangering consumers and how to avoid them,” CannaCraft wrote in a comprehensive statement. Attaboy.
For many of the other startups in this brand new market, it’s possible they don’t even know what cutting agents were used in their products in the past and they are scrambling to get them tested. Trouble is, even the lab work required to sell marijuana in legal states does not yet involve a test for Vitamin E and its fellow cutting agents.
“In most regulated states, the majority of licensed [vape] products are free of diluents,” claims Brad Bogus, the aptly-named VP of Confident Cannabis, a testing company. That wasn’t the case a few years back, he adds; PG and PEG were “used more frequently earlier on.” Vitamin E acetate, meanwhile, is such a new player that Confident Cannabis and other quality control companies haven’t even been asked to test for it yet.
we still don’t know if vitamin e acetate is the culprit, but this is something i’ve wanted to provide for a while. many processors in oregon claim 100% pure hash oil but very few actually certify it. i hope we can help change that
— Justin Ouellette (@jstn) September 9, 2019
“Just like prohibited pesticides, we need a prohibited diluents list as well as requirements to list ingredients,” Bogus says. “We can only expect consumers to be able to know so much.”
In the absence of such regulation, it’s up to the well-funded pot providers to push that information at consumers faster than you can say “Tylenol scare.” Time to get off the couch, folks, before consumer fears strangle your promising and perfectly healthy product in its crib.
In the interim, my advice for vape pen lovers who don’t want to switch to edibles: try concentrates instead.