by Rick Thompson/originally appeared in The Rolling Paper – December 2019 issue
On November 22 the Michigan Marijuana Regulatory Agency issued a freeze on sales of all THC-containing vape pens in provisioning centers statewide. The move comes after scientists have identified a liquid cartridge additive as a potential source of illness and death among adult and youth users of vape pens.
Vitamin E acetate is a filler which some off-market vape manufacturers have used to make cartridges look full and add bulk. The amount of active vape ingredients in each cartridge is small in volume; fillers ensure the cartridges are full and the medicine is equally distributed in the liquid. Each puff contains approximately the same amount of medicine because the medicine mixes well with the lipid-filled filler substance.
Not all fillers are created equal. It seems some vape cartridge manufacturers tried to save money by using the cheap acetate instead of industry-accepted standard fluids. The vape industry made millions- perhaps billions- of dollars pushing tobacco products outside the regulated cigarette market by promulgating the vape industry. THC and CBD vape cartridges are a small portion of all vapes sold but are responsible for an estimated 88% of all illnesses caused by vape pens reported to the Centers for Disease Control.
All vape cartridges in Michigan sold through provisioning centers are tested for content and impurities, but the crisis created by the vitamin E acetate situation emerged after testing rules were created. No cartridges available on the market have been tested for the acetate, prompting the MRA to issue the freeze on sales until testing for the substance is complete on each batch of vapor product.
There are six MRA-approved testing labs in Michigan but only one is equipped to test for the acetate. All testing of vape cartridge batches is seemingly being funneled through the one lab- PSI Labs- and that bottleneck will extend the quarantine time for each batch to be cleared for sale once again.
It appears that PSI Labs had insider information or just made an educated guess and installed the equipment or chemical standard needed to perform those acetate tests. This may seem like a wonderful opportunity to gain an exclusive testing contract and provide an edge over the lab’s competition but it contains inherent business disadvantages.
First, testing labs are already backed up with pending tests of non-vape cannabis products. Cannabis flower, medibles, topical compounds and all other items containing cannabis components MUST undergo testing prior to sale. There are not enough labs to handle the volume of tests in a timely manner. This additional burden will add to the backlog as PSI Labs devotes lab time and employee hours to testing these vape products. Commercial cannabis manufacturers may migrate their business to other labs in order to expedite their sample testing time period. Whether the delay is real or merely a perception by commercial clients, it seems highly likely PSI Labs will see some customers go to other facilities for their testing needs.
Second, the testing industry is losing millions of dollars each week as products gather dust while waiting for the PSI Labs test results. Every day the freeze on vape sales remains is costing provisioning centers money. As the only lab in the state performing the tests, PSI will earn the ire of cannabis retailers and manufacturers alike as the freeze stretches out day after day after day. Even if the process is proceeding at a correct pace, the perception of delay- and the reality of lost sales dollars- will bring negativity onto the PSI Labs brand as retailers and manufacturers moan and complain about lost revenue.
It seems clear that PSI Labs was planning ahead when they secured the ability to test for vitamin E acetate, regardless of if that was the result of insider information or just good planning. Getting that exclusive on the testing of vape carts may bring short-term financial gain to the lab, but the consequence of being the gatekeeper to restoring an entire industry is a liability the lab’s advisers clearly did not predict. Be careful what you wish for, because when you get it there is no guarantee it lives up to your expectations.