In the past decade vaping has become popular, touted as a healthier alternative to smoking. By superheating marijuana oil or flower into an aerosol that can be inhaled, people could get the benefits of the plant without harming their lungs with smoke. But an outbreak of vaping-related lung injuries in the past year that left more than 2,800 people hospitalized and more than 60 dead nationwide turned into a vaping panic — a matter that was compounded by (and in many mainstream media outlets, conflated with) a coincidental crackdown in states like Michigan on flavored nicotine vaping products, or e-cigarettes, to curb teen use. For a lot of people, all vaping got a bad rap.
The leading research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now points to vitamin E acetate, a substance used to dilute marijuana oil in black-market vaping products, as the culprit of the injuries. In response, Michigan made it mandatory in November for marijuana dispensaries to test all products for vitamin E acetate.
Jerry Millen, of the Greenhouse in Walled Lake, says that when you get a marijuana vape cartridge, inspect it closely, watching the bubble inside the golden oil. It should move very slowly. "Turn it upside down like an hourglass and watch it," he says. "If that distillate moves very fast, it's been cut pretty heavy."
Millen says that bad actors have long been a problem in Michigan's marijuana industry. "When I started, I'd get a lot of delivery people who would call me and say, 'Man, I can get carts five for $100, $20 a piece. You're like three times that price.' I'm like, OK, well, what's your life worth? You don't know what's in it. It's not just about getting high."
He says that's why it's so important to buy from a licensed marijuana dispensary and not from the black market.
There have been a number of vaping product recalls from licensed dispensaries in recent months, however. Millen, who says he's very careful and selective with his vendors, even removed more than $10,000 worth of Motor City High vaping cartridges after another dispensary, Liv Wellness in Ferndale, tested the same brand and the test indicated the presence of vitamin E acetate.
"I got into this 12 years ago to work in a new industry and help patients," Millen says. "The last thing I would ever want ever is for somebody to get a bad product and either get sick or die from it."
Millen notes there appear to be some hiccups in Michigan's testing process. The labs he normally uses to test his products typically take about four to six weeks to get results. The lab that detected the vitamin E acetate in the Motor City High product, Iron Laboratories, was getting tests done in three to five days. That same lab had its license temporarily suspended in 2019 for unreliable testing.
After Millen had removed the product from his shelves, the product was tested again, this time by two other labs. The results came back showing no vitamin E acetate.
Millen says he suspects the lab was trying to get things done "cheap and fast."
Now, the carts remain off the Greenhouse's shelves as Millen works with the state to figure out if they can be released to be sold again. If not, he says, he'll just eat the loss.
Marijuana Regulatory Agency spokesman David Harns told MLive the recall was ordered out of "an abundance of caution" and "there has been zero evidence of violations by any licensee."
Still, Millen says he feels he was "thrown under the bus" by the whole ordeal. "I totally agree with (the state) that, let's err on the side of caution," Millen told MLive, "but if you don't handle the media appropriately, you cause hysteria."
In all, more than 65,000 vaping cartridges have been recalled so far, the vast majority of which were not sold. In March, the state banned the sale of vaping products made by caregivers like Motor City High in stores, which usually sell directly to medical marijuana patients. And under the new rules, licensees must notify the state within one business day of becoming aware of any adverse reaction to a marijuana product sold or transferred.
Millen says that despite the recent scare, his customers haven't become wary of vaping. Some of his top-selling cannabis oil vaping products are cartridges from Platinum Vapes and Monster Xtracts. There's also Michigan-based Terpene Tanks, which makes vape cartridges by isolating natural terpenes, the organic compounds that give marijuana strains their unique aromas and flavors. As far as vaping marijuana flower, Millen recommends the brand Pax, a sleek device that can run off a smartphone app for precise temperature control.
"I think we have a good reputation at the Greenhouse of doing the right thing," he says. "We always put the patients first and public health. I'm in this for the long haul."
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