Cannabis lab CEO says hidden substances could taint vape pens, edibles

The CEO of a cannabis testing company with a lab in Michigan said substances that could be harmful to consumers have been found in cannabis oil used in edibles and vape pens and is calling out marijuana companies for not disclosing they are using them.

Josh Swider, cofounder and CEO of Infinite Chemical Analysis Lab, which has facilities in Jackson and also in San Diego, said more than 30% of marijuana vape pens and edibles his lab recently tested contained a diluting agent; a synthetically converted cannabis oil; or pesticides, some of which are not allowed by the state. He also said the brands haven’t disclosed that the substances are in their products.

“If someone told me (that) I’m smoking cannabis product that’s purely extracted from safe marijuana in Michigan, good. I trust that,” Swider said in a March interview with the Detroit Free Press.

“If you told me, ‘Hey, if you go into a marijuana store in the state of Michigan, you have a 33% chance of smoking conversion that’s synthetically produced,’ … I would want to know that,” he said, referring to oil that’s synthetically converted into THC — the oil that produces the “high” feeling.

Testing for the diluting agent, which is known as MCT (medium chain triglycerides) oil, and the converted oil are outside of the scope of what marijuana laboratories in Michigan typically do. A group concerned about cannabis safety in Michigan, which Swider declined to name, asked him to develop tests to see whether products the group obtained had the substances in them. Swider shared the results with the Detroit Free Press because he said he also is personally concerned about the safety of marijuana products and wants the public to be aware.

If companies use MCT oil in Michigan, which is derived from coconut oil, it needs to be disclosed and then approved by Michigan’s Cannabis Regulatory Agency, he said. MCT oil is banned in marijuana products intended for inhalation in some states, like Colorado, following the outbreak of vaping-related lung illnesses in 2019.

The synthetic conversion of CBD oil into THC oil is a process that’s similar to how a pharmaceutical drug would be made, Swider said.

“I am not going to stand up there and say it’s 100% unsafe,” he said. “But there’s no one that can stand there and say it is 100% safe.”

‘This is uncharted territory’

Vape pens are a popular way to consume cannabis: They’re discreet and can fit into a pocket. They consist of a battery with a cartridge that screws on top. The cartridge contains cannabis oil, which is heated by the battery.

While marijuana flower itself has been the biggest seller since cannabis started being sold for recreational purposes in December 2019, in terms of total sales, customers have spent more than $54 million on vape cartridges since that time and $26 million on edibles, according to the most recent monthly data from the CRA.

In 2019, just before sales of recreational marijuana began, the state mandated a temporary halt to the sale of marijuana vapes and ordered that a sample of each batch from every dispensary get retested in the medical market because of the vaping-related illnesses and deaths that have come from illicit market vapes.

Most of the vapes associated with the illnesses, called EVALI by health officials, had contained Vitamin E acetate, which had been used to dilute THC to make it easier to fill vape cartridges. Testing has shown it isn’t harmful when it’s ingested as a dietary supplement or applied to the skin, but it can interfere with normal lung function when inhaled.

MCT oil, similarly, is a food-safe ingredient. Dr. Adie Rae, an assistant scientist at Legacy Research Institute based in Portland, Oregon, who studies cannabis vapor in animals, likened it to spraying cooking oil on a pan and then eating the eggs that were cooked on that pan. That’s safe.

“Spraying cooking oil onto the inside of your lungs is probably not a good idea,” she said. “The lungs are an incredibly delicate organ. There are so many tiny little microscopic components inside your lungs that are highly sensitive to environmental toxins.”

When people inhale anything other than air, the super sensitive tissue of the lungs can become inflamed, Rae said, and that inflammation can turn into things like bronchitis and pneumonia. Sometimes, people can even have a lung that collapses, she said.

Rae said now that producers can no longer use Vitamin E acetate to dilute THC, some have started using MCT oil.

“This is uncharted territory,” Rae said. “Never before in human history on planet Earth have people been spraying MCT oil on the inside of their lungs. Is it safe? We have no idea.”

What’s especially concerning, she said, is that consumers who are inhaling MCT oil have no idea they’re doing it.

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