Vape Scare and Black Market Creates Confusing Mess for Consumers

The lack of familiarity with vape products and inconsistent regulation make it hard for those not steeped in cannabis knowledge to make informed decisions.

Four Californians and dozens of Americans nationwide have died of a vaping-related illness since last August. The illness, formally named EVALI (E-cigarette or Vaping Product Use-Related Lung Injury), has been connected to a cutting agent called vitamin E acetate, used to fill illicit vaping products at a lower cost. However, the CDC has resisted ruling out other chemicals, some of which are allowed on the regulated market, as playing a possible role. 

As a consumer, it’s understandable to be scared about whether vaping is safe, but Californians may at least feel a little relieved to know that evidence points to EVALI being a black market problem in our state. 

“We can say with certainty that none of the vaping-related illnesses in California have been traced back to the legal cannabis market,” says Aaron Francis, public affairs analyst for the Department of Consumer Affairs. He adds that all regulated cannabis products pass through “regulatory testing for more than 60 types of pesticides and chemicals.” 

For consumers looking for safer cannabis vaping products, it’s crucial to know products have passed these tests. Yet not every brick-and-mortar store or online delivery service is operating within the regulated market. A known brand name might not be a good indicator of safety, either; some cannabis brands have been found to operate in both the regulated and illicit markets, and homemade vapes with counterfeit packaging circulate as well.

“If the brand’s got one foot in the regulated market and one foot out, they’re likely not going to go through all of the rigid testing requirements,” says Island Cannabis Co. president Brandon Mills, who says Island has never engaged in illicit sales.

The Cannabis Advisory Committee says as much as 80 percent of California cannabis sales still occur on the black market. In certain counties, particularly Los Angeles, unlicensed dispensaries are nearly three times as common as licensed dispensaries. 

Because of the propagation of unlicensed retailers, the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) has been recommending licensed retailers display a QR code that consumers can scan to certify the store’s legitimacy at CApotcheck.com. On Jan. 23, the BCC announced plans to make that regulation mandatory in the coming weeks. Most licensed brands have been releasing similar legitimacy checks as well, using either QR codes or more advanced custom apps.

Health risks with vaping don’t stop at EVALI, however, and many chemicals and oils permitted in the regulated market have undetermined health risks. “All oils need to be studied, because with some of the chemistry we need to be able to tell how they interact with the cells in the airways,” says Nick Kenyon, division chief of the pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine program at the UC Davis Department of Internal Medicine. He leads a research group studying what’s exhaled in the breath of vape users and has treated a patient with EVALI. He says that because of the large variety of ingredients in vape cartridges, it’s been difficult for researchers to assess vaping risks as a whole. 

“Additive free” products have the shortest ingredient lists, and many brands have highlighted the phrase in their marketing materials, press releases, and packaging. The term doesn’t only mean the vapor cartridge is free of vitamin E acetate. It also means it doesn’t contain coconut MCT oil, propylene glycol, or other cutting agents still permitted in products regulated by the BCC, but with untested long-term effects. 

“I more felt bad for the consumers, because I know that it created a lot of confusion,” says Stephanie Beck, director of sales at the cannabis concentrate company Beezle, in reference to the recent EVALI scare. After receiving an influx of questions from worried dispensaries and consumers online, Beezle released a statement to all retailers they work with reiterating that their vape cartridges are filled with exclusively cannabis ingredients.

For consumers looking for more information, most industry employees admit finding information can be difficult. “Unless you have an ‘in’ or know somebody who recommends a source, it’s really hard to come across good information,” says Chris Garcia, buyer for education-focused Berkeley dispensary Hi-Fidelity. 

For beginner consumers, he recommends the website Leafly, which, despite often providing inaccurate cannabis strain information, regularly posts dependable content for consumers with a limited lexicon on the blog page “Cannabis 101.” He also recommends researching the brands themselves. 

For the large majority of casual consumers, it’s most important to go to a regulated dispensary with employees who are well-educated about the store’s inventory. “Anything that’s in this store I will show you the COA for,” says Chris Garcia, referring to the ‘Certificate of Analysis’ document which details the ingredients and test results for any regulated cannabis product in the state. 

This gesture, he says, is something any legitimate store or brand should be willing to do, especially after the fall’s vaping crisis. Legion of Bloom co-founder and marketing director Troy Meadows, in fact, echoes a sentiment shared by many reputable companies that the crisis has given them an “opportunity to address” customer concerns. “Purchasing from the regulated market means that you’re buying into transparency,” says Meadows. 

In summary, Stephanie Beck urges consumers to keep learning: “Just don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions.” 

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