THIS PAST YEAR has seen an explosion of growth in the vape cartridge segment of the cannabis market. Some estimates have growth pegged at 400% year on year. There is an ever growing number of brands appearing on dispensary shelves, with some places, like Oakland’s Harborside, going as far as creating a separate line and display case specifically for cartridge consumers. With so many options on the menu, how is a one to decide what to put in their own lungs? The primary question in my mind boils down to understanding, what is in your vape? Here is a list of questions to help guide you to an informed decision.
Is it adulterated? If so, by what?
When vape cartridges first hit the market, many of them took their cues from the e-cigarette industry, modeling their formulations on that of nicotine vaporizers. Propylene glycol, medium chain triglyceride (MCT) coconut oil, vegetable glycerine, propylene ethylene glycol, and non-cannabis sourced terpenes have been the usual suspects used to improve the viscosity of cannabis extracts in order to make them compatible with e-cigarettes, which had originally been designed for use with propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine infused nicotine products. Fortunately for many of us, this seems to be a dying trend, and more and more brands are switching over to un-adulterated cannabis extracts, or are using cannabis and non-cannabis derived terpenes to improve the viscosity of their products. One of the first things you should be asking yourself is, am I getting an un-adulterated pure product, or has something been added to this extract in order to improve its viscosity? If something was added, what was it, and how does it affect my health? Are these products carcinogenic? Vaporized propylene glycol and glycerine mixtures have been shown to produce formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and acrolein, all potentially detrimental to your health. Flavorings and adulterants have been one of the FDA’s primary concerns when investigating e-cigarettes and consumer health and safety, they should be your concern as well.
Is it tested? And what does that really mean?
One of the most disingenuous practices that has plagued the cannabis industry is claiming that something is lab tested when only the potency or terpene tests that have been done. Stating that something is lab certified often implies that it is tested for patient health safety. Neither potency or terpene concentration have any impact on patient safety. When deciding on a vape cartridge to consume, always ensure that the test results are third-party verifiable and the test samples have been tested for the full spectrum, of available tests: pesticide, residual solvents, microbiological, potency, and terpenes.
Many of the pesticides commonly used in the agricultural industry are tested for oral safety, not for their safety post-combustion or via inhalation. Upon combustion mycobutanil, one of the most common pesticides found in the cannabis industry, converts into hydrogen cyanide, an extremely toxic substance that has no place in your system or vape pen. If you haven’t seen the recently published NBC Los Angeles expose on pesticides within the cannabis industry, I strongly encourage you to read the article and look over the data. It reveals a shocking number of major brands failures. People often take for granted that all companies have done their own due diligence. These failures were highlighted heavily in 2016 at a number of cannabis based competitions and festivals. Only two out of the five vape cartridge companies at Chalice Festival passed the rigorous testing standards. Only two out of eleven of the companies that entered the Happy Place Festival qualified to compete. Out of the the 34 entries into the Emerald Cup, an astonishing number of four companies actually qualified for the competition. While these statistics are staggering, they accurately reflect the state of affairs in an unregulated market. Knowledge is power. Demand transparency. Know your medicine. Just say know to anything you put into your temple.
What is the cart made of?
What your cart is made of is often the most overlooked yet important questions anyone should have. I’ve often heard the debate about American vs Chinese manufacturing. The fact is, that the country of origin is less of a concern to your health and safety, than are the materials and methods of construction. Don’t buy into the philosophy that nothing quality can come out of China, that is patently false. A good manufacturer would have done their due diligence, visited the factories, inspected material safety data sheets (MSDS), and been intricately involved in the design process from beginning to end. Quality control has no borders, it is an idea and philosophy that requires execution. Anyone can hop on Alibaba and find a manufacturer, vetting them is a different story. In any unregulated market, it is up to the consumer to research the products that they consume. Close inspection and the right questions will get you the answers that you are looking for.
One of the first things that I ask when examining a cartridge, is what is it made of? Is it made of plastic or is it made of glass? Avoid anything that is made of plastic, especially when dealing with high terpene concentrations. D-limonene, one of the primary terpenes found naturally in cannabis should never be stored in any type of plastic, it will compromise the integrity of the plastic. Where do you think that plastic ends up? Upon vaporization it enters your lungs leading to long term health problems. In addition, many cartridge manufacturers use epoxies or glue in the construction of their carts. Not only does the glue and epoxy come into direct contact with the terpenes, they are also subjected to high heat and degradation from the cartridge’s heating coil, which can result in the inhalation of those compounds and their byproducts. Be weary of any coloring in the silicone gaskets at the tops and bottoms of many cartridges. The same properties that make limonene an auto-degreaser and cleaner can work against you in your cartridge. The potential for the coloring agent of the gaskets to leach into the oils and end up in your lungs is high, and not enticing. The final component of most concern is the wicking material. This is the component that comes into direct contact with the heat most frequently, as well as being the final point of contact within the cart before the oils are vaporized. There is much debate over whether silica and cotton wicks are dangerous and which amongst them is safer. The debates revolve around the various methods involved in preparing the wicks for safety, and the relative safety and quantity of potential carcinogens to be had from either wick. Some argue that the quantities are too small to have a significant effect and that with proper prep work the health consequences can be mitigated. The fact remains that burning cotton wicks can produce acrolein, a substance known to be toxic and act as a skin irritant, and that the inhalation of silica, amorphous or crystalline, can lead to silicosis and lung cancer. Lower voltage batteries help to mitigate some of these risks, by reducing the rate and temperature of combustion. My personal preference is a ceramic wick. Ceramic wicks are solid, porous rods, through which the oils slowly seep through before coming into contact with the heating element. Like any wick, they have their own issues, but none of which strike me as a particular health concern. They are more susceptible to clogging due to external changes in temperature and pressure, but in exchange they offer the cleanest and most delicious vaping experience amongst the current wick options. Some users find ceramic wicks less satisfying than cotton wicks, due to both the quicker absorbency rate and flow rate of oils through the cotton wick, leading to higher vaporization rates, but ceramic wicks don’t burn, so there is also little risk of smoking the vape, which is a second factor that contributes to a more satisfying experience for someone used to smoking a joint or burning their cannabis.
Product vs By-Product
Cannabis distillates, made famous by The Clear™, had the community going crazy wondering how they were able to produce a solvent free cannabis extract without the use of solvents. The magic was really in the word play. It wasn’t a solvent free process, it was a solvent free product. Through the use of thin film and short path distillation, you can start with any material, regardless of the quality, and refine it to very high percentages of pure THC, removing almost all the residual solvents such as pentane, butane, and ethanol used in their manufacturing process. While this is great from an economic standpoint, one shouldn’t be paying top dollar for a product refined from the bottom of the barrel. That would be similar to paying more for a hotdog than a rib-eye steak. There is no such thing as alchemy in cannabis, the rule of thumb is gold in, gold out.
A widely held believe is that regardless of what goes in, that the product is going to come out clean. While distillation is amazing at removing plant waxes, lipids, and stripping out terpenes, where it really fails to shine is in the removal of pesticides, as seen in the recent revelations from various cannabis competitions. The other aspect is that distillation removes many secondary plant metabolites that are actually part of the beauty of whole plant medicine. One of the greatest aspects of plant based medicine is the numerous synergistic interactions between the various plant metabolites and the therapeutic effects that they produce in unison. Distillates narrow the scope and spectrum of plant metabolites, thus narrowing the scope of the medicine being produced. This is neither a good or bad thing. It allows people to play mixologists, and create accurate dosing for a narrow band of constituents. What you gain in control and precision dosing, you lose in potential health benefits, many of which are unaccounted for due to the lack of research in this area. There is a reason that many patients who were prescribed Marinol, the FDA regulated pure form of THC, continued to make the push for the legalization of cannabis and the right to smoke whole plant medicine. Holistic medicine versus the silver bullet theory. Some things are simply too costly and too wide in scope to be accurately quantified by science given our resource constraints. Science is a great explanation for aspects of the divine, but it seldom captures the totality of what always was and is.
Transparency You Can See
Now that you are armed with the knowledge of the important components of a vape cartridge, ask questions, seek answers, and demand transparency that you can see clearly. Look for independent third party analysis from reputable labs that test down to the part per billion range. You body is your temple, just say know. What’s in your vape?