"It Makes My Skin Crawl": Michigan's Urgent Battle Against Dangerous Vaping Additives

July 2nd, 2024 Safety & Education
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Michigan's Cannabis Regulatory Agency (CRA) is aware of the presence of potentially harmful medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil in some cannabis vaping products but does not plan to test for it until October. This delay comes despite evidence that inhaling MCT oil, derived from coconut or palm oil, can cause respiratory issues such as shortness of breath and lung inflammation.

The new testing requirements set to begin in October aim to detect and eliminate MCT oil from vaping products. MCT oil is often used to dilute THC distillate oil because it makes the oil easier for vaping devices to heat and convert into an inhalable aerosol. It is also a cheaper alternative to THC oil, increasing profits for producers. However, its use is currently prohibited in Michigan vaping products, though it is not yet tested for.

Cassie Coleman, chair of the National Cannabis Industry Association's scientific advisory committee, noted, "Unscrupulous producers might be adding MCT oil knowingly, while others might be doing so unintentionally through terpenes, which are permitted additives that enhance flavor and aroma."

David Egerton, Manager at Jackson-based Infinite Chemical Analysis Lab, highlighted that a sample test of various retail products earlier this year revealed nearly 10% contained MCT oil, with concentrations ranging from less than 1% to 20%. The CRA has not quantified the extent of the issue but believes that market self-regulation will phase out the use of MCT oil.

CRA spokesperson David Harns stated, "We've seen marijuana retailers voluntarily removing products with MCT oil from their shelves already, and we fully expect that this action will result in the rest of the industry doing the same prior to the October 1st deadline."

However, this approach has faced criticism. Coleman, who stopped consuming marijuana vaping products due to concerns over additives, questioned why the CRA's actions will take until October and why the issue hasn't been more widely communicated. "I'm glad they're doing something, but I'm a little confused why it's going to take until October and why it's being presented to industry insiders rather than the public."

Comparisons have been made to the past use of vitamin E acetate in nicotine and cannabis vaping products, which was banned after causing nearly 2,800 hospitalizations and 68 deaths in the U.S., including three in Michigan. Egerton noted that while the acute harm potential of MCT oil is not at the same level, there are still concerns.

When the vitamin E acetate crisis emerged, the CRA halted all sales of vaping products until they were retested. This has not happened with MCT oil, leading Coleman to call for immediate action. "If we have evidence that these products are contaminated, we should be able to stop it," she said. "We should be able to stop today products from being made and marketed to consumers."

Vaping cartridges accounted for about 20% of Michigan's marijuana sales last year, totaling nearly $585 million in revenue, with over $52 million in sales in May alone. While some industry insiders argue that immediate testing of all vaping products is infeasible, others stress the need for swift action.

Egerton called it an "impossible task" to require immediate testing but expressed hope that most processors would eliminate MCT oil in light of the new requirements. Robin Schneider, Executive Director of the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association, noted that several retailers are already proactively testing their inventory.

Producers are required to submit their product formulations to the CRA, including only FDA-approved inhalation additives or cannabis-derived ingredients. However, until October, consumers have no foolproof way to verify that their vaping products are free from MCT oil. Lower THC concentrations can be an indicator, but Egerton pointed out that MCT oil is often used in such small amounts that it is indistinguishable from other products.

The CRA aims to have a new state-run lab operational by the end of the year, which will enhance accountability and public protection. CRA Executive Director Brian Hanna emphasized, "From a public health and safety standpoint, the potential for adverse effects with MCT oil underscores the importance of safety guidelines for product development. Michigan's licensed marijuana businesses must prioritize respiratory safety when formulating or using inhalable products, opting for ingredients thoroughly evaluated for their compatibility with lung health."

Advocating for Stricter Regulations on Cannabis Vaping Additives

The ongoing issues with harmful additives in cannabis vaping products highlight the need for more stringent regulatory measures. Instead of merely testing for specific banned substances like MCT oil or waiting for harmful effects to emerge, regulators should implement a proactive approach by establishing a comprehensive list of approved additives. Only ingredients on this list, verified for safety through rigorous testing, should be permitted for use in vaping products.

The transition from vitamin E acetate to MCT oil illustrates a troubling pattern. As one harmful substance is identified and banned, businesses may simply switch to another, potentially equally dangerous, additive to cut costs or enhance product performance. This reactive regulatory stance leaves consumers vulnerable to unforeseen health risks.

Regulators should prioritize consumer safety by banning the use of any additives in cannabis vaping products until they have been thoroughly tested and confirmed safe for inhalation. This preventative measure would not only protect public health but also ensure that producers adhere to higher safety standards.

Implementing a system where only pre-approved, safe additives are allowed would eliminate the loopholes that currently enable the use of potentially harmful substances. It would also shift the focus from chasing after the next dangerous additive to fostering a market that prioritizes consumer well-being. By taking these steps, regulators can prevent future health crises and maintain the integrity of Michigan's cannabis industry.

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