An illicit-market vape cartridge buy-back program set in motion by Platinum and Miramar, Calif.’s Mankind Dispensary has revealed that the majority of unregulated vapes collected are unfit for consumption.
During the month of September, Mankind’s customers were invited to turn in vape cartridges that had been purchased from sources other than a legal cannabis dispensary in exchange for a Platinum vape cartridge.
“Our partner, Platinum Vape, came to us and said, ‘We want to do something about this vape crisis and we want to learn a little bit more,’” John Butters, VP of Strategy for Mankind, tells Cannabis Business Times. “We had similar goals. We heard about some of the scary things that are out there in some of the illicit-market vapes and some of the problems they were causing, and we wanted to get an idea of how it was affecting our local community. So, we said yes, and we allowed customers to come down with any illicit market vape they had and [they] could trade it in with a small cost for a Platinum vape cart. There has to be a small cost for it to be legal.”
Two dozen cartridges collected during the program were viable for testing and were released to Infinite Chemical Analysis Labs to undergo testing for potency, pesticides, heavy metals and vitamin E acetate. Samples passed or failed these tests based on the California Bureau of Cannabis Control’s testing regulations for the legal cannabis market.
“We saw that 79% of them were deemed as unfit for consumption overall,” Josh Swider, co-founder and CFO of Infinite Chemical Analysis Labs, tells Cannabis Business Times. “About 80% wouldn’t have passed the California compliance regulations.”
Sixty-two percent of the cartridges failed for pesticides, while 37% failed for lead.
“One of them [tested] extremely high [for lead]—approximately 100 times the limit,” Swider says.
Five cartridges contained 20% or more vitamin E acetate.
“When you consider they’re supposed to be zero, those levels are beyond alarming,” Platinum President George Sadler tells Cannabis Business Times. “[Vitamin E acetate] was in five cartridges, which is telling us that those cartridges more than likely came from the same illicit manufacturer because the consistency was there in just those five cartridges.”
Half of the products tested contained less than 50% THC, while the average legal cannabis vape cartridge contains 60% to 95% THC.
“I thought [the fail rate for pesticides] would’ve been a little higher, to tell the truth, but it was very alarming,” Swider says. “Some of them had high concentrations of pesticides. Eleven of the samples actually contained pesticides [that, when heated, turn into] cyanide—[pesticides] like myclobutanil. … Some of [them] were diluted so much with the vitamin E acetate that you didn’t see any pesticides. Maybe it diluted all the THC material out with vitamin E acetate. That could be one reason we didn’t get more fails.”
Butters, on the other hand, was surprised at the high fail rates.
“I did not anticipate levels being this high, to be honest,” he says. “I thought maybe one in 10 carts would have something in it that would be scary, but seeing that [with] 80% of the carts, you were more likely than not to get something that was hazardous to your health, that was very shocking to me. I knew it was a lottery, but I didn’t know it was more than likely that I’d get something that would harm me.”
Testing is Mankind’s first line of defense when it comes to protecting public health, Butters says, followed by the dispensary’s purchasers vetting vendors to ensure product quality and ethical cultivation practices.
“To see that this many people were using carts that wouldn’t even come close to hitting our shelves is scary for our community, and it makes us want to be more proactive about getting this information out there so people aren’t taking an illicit experience and thinking that’s what cannabis is because that’s not the case,” he says. “[This is] just people shortcutting and doing things that put the community at risk.”
Mankind runs a similar buy-back program year-round that allows customers to exchange illicit-market vapes for a 35% discount on a legal cartridge.
“We’ve continued this program on just because we see the value and it’s important for us to protect our community and maintain the quality of cannabis nowadays,” Butters says. “We’ve put a lot of work in and our tax dollars go into this testing and assuring it’s safe for customers, and we want to maintain the integrity of that.”
And while most cannabis businesses can agree that California’s tax rates are high, the statistics uncovered during this program demonstrate the reasoning behind them, he adds.
“For the longest time, we’ve all disliked having to pay taxes on our cannabis, especially the high tax rates we pay,” Butters says. “But at the end of the day, if that’s making sure that the products going out to the market are safe and do less harm, that’s critically important for us. We’re all in this for the long-term benefits, and a lot of our customers are in this for the medical benefits of cannabis, so we want to make sure they’re getting the product they signed up for when they come in. When we do things like this, it creates transparency in the market, and it allows people to see what’s going on and what’s going into their bodies. It’s almost always received with open arms because people want that kind of information.”
Platinum participated in a similar buy-back program in Michigan, also during the month of September, in partnership with The Greenhouse Dispensary, although the testing performed on those surrendered vape products was not as extensive as the testing in California.
“We just wanted to get a definitive but broad scan of what’s going on in the illicit market,” Sadler says.
For him, the testing results show that regulators need to take additional steps to crack down on the illicit market to protect consumers.
“That’s what makes this a little more tough to absorb, that as a licensed manufacturer in multiple states, [we have] guidelines that we have to live by, [and] the money that we spend on being compliant … isn’t going toward closing down these [illicit] companies, and these companies are everywhere,” Sadler says. “When you know that somebody in your basement is building a bomb and they go blow up a building, you own part of that because you knew that they were doing it in your basement. The same thing happens [with] the municipalities. …When you know that you have in your district eight to 15 stores that are not licensed, which means they’re not paying business license [fees], they’re not paying taxes, and you know they’re sitting there … and you also know that what they’re putting out to the consumer … is stuff that is going to cause damage, you own part of that.”
The testing results should also warn consumers against purchasing illicit-market products, he adds.
“The biggest part of this and the biggest thing that needs to be understood is that none of this is on the licensed market,” Sadler says. “With the restrictions and everything that’s in place for testing, you get a really good, clean product versus somebody going to the black market. Yes, you can save $10 to $15 by purchasing from an unlicensed store, [but] is it worth it? Just look at those numbers.”
Infinite Chemical Analysis Labs entered California’s cannabis industry when it was still a gray market, Swider says, and the lab used to see a 90% fail rate due to pesticides.
“You’re seeing a similar trend still in the illicit market, where the legal market is 100% clean now,” he says. “Anything going onto the shelf is going to be clean, so it’s alarming that it’s still around and that the consumers are ignoring the warnings. That’s one thing that concerns me. You see these things—the lead over 100 times the legal limit—and no one should be inhaling lead. … It’s one of those things where [consumers are] literally smoking poison and they’re fine with it because they’re getting high.”
Swider hopes the statistics revealed in the buy-back program will help consumers make more educated decisions about cannabis.
“We want consumers to have hard numbers and data out there to help them decide, ‘Maybe I should stop making bad decisions,’” he says. “Maybe they just don’t know. I’m not sure why, but they have the option of having a clean product or something that’s going to kill them, and they’re still going for the something that’s going to kill them. We just want to put this out there, and hopefully people will start seeing this and take away that they should be smoking legal products and not products from the illicit market.”
Sadler echoes this sentiment. “The bottom line of why we did this … was to get people to understand what’s going on in the black market and what’s going on in the municipalities where they’re not taking a hold on their responsibility."