Medicine Man Dispensaries Halt Sales of Some Vape Products

Vaping pre-filled THC cartridges are a convenient way to consume, but now users worry about their safety.
Vaping pre-filled THC cartridges are a convenient way to consume, but now users worry about their safety. Jacqueline Collins
The vaping scare has finally hit Colorado's cannabis industry.

Medicine Man, a Denver-area dispensary chain with four stores across the state, has halted sales of some vaporizer products, specifically pre-filled concentrate cartridges containing propylene glycol or vitamin E acetate. The company's move comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have confirmed 805 cases of vaping-related illness nationwide, including twelve deaths.

Propylene glycol is a common ingredient in vaping liquid. Although the substance is generally recognized as safe if consumed in a food product, the hazards of vaporizing and inhaling it are still unknown. Vitamin E acetate, which is typically safe to use as a skin topical, is now being used as an adulterant to increase the viscosity of vaping liquids, and has appeared as an ingredient in a hefty portion of the products linked to recent cases of vaping-related illness.

In a statement announcing the decision to pull the selected vaporizer products, Medicine Man president Sally Vander Veer implores other dispensaries to do the same.

"The decision to take this particular product off our shelves was significant, as the confidence and trust of our consumers is paramount to our core values," she says. "Hopefully the rest of the industry will also conclude that removing these cannabis products with the chemical additives under scrutiny from the market is in the best interest of consumers and all of us as operators."

Although fingers currently point at vitamin E, federal health officials say they haven't linked one specific vaping product to the hundreds of illnesses popping up nationwide. Still, Food and Drug Administration commissioner Norman Sharpless recently told a Congressional committee that about 70 percent of the samples taken from vapes in question are THC products, and about half of those THC vaping products contain vitamin E acetate.

"We don’t know if [vitamin E acetate] causes anything, or if it’s a marker for adulteration, or a marker for a bad product," Sharpless said during the hearing.

While the facts continue to roll in, state governments have issued varied responses to the vaping-related illness outbreak. The office of Colorado Governor Jared Polis has not issued any executive orders on vaping products, while the state Department of Public Health and Environment has issued a public warning and guidelines about the potential dangers of vaping, announcing that "people should consider not using vaping products."

Other states with legal cannabis have taken more decisive action. On September 24, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker issued a four-month ban on the sale of all flavored and non-flavored vaping products and devices, including cannabis vaping products in dispensaries.

Cannabis industry representatives worry that banning sales of regulated products could lead more people to the black market for pre-filled vape products.

"By banning cannabis vape products that are produced according to state regulations, it significantly increases the likelihood that individuals will seek to purchase those products from unregulated sources. Yet media reports suggest that unregulated products containing THC may be a primary source of the epidemic," the Cannabis Trade Federation says in a prepared response to the Massachusetts ban.

But as legal cannabis-industry stakeholders point the blame toward the illicit market, the evidence is not so clear. Two of the eight individuals with confirmed vaping-related illness in Colorado reported only vaping marijuana products, though it's not clear if these products were purchased legally or on the street. And an individual in Oregon who died after vaping reportedly used a legally purchased THC product before becoming ill.

In addition to the outbreak of vaping-related illnesses, federal health officials are also grappling with what's been coined a youth vaping epidemic. As part of its efforts to combat the epidemic — which is particularly bad in Colorado — the FDA plans to issue guidance in the coming weeks to ban the sale of flavored vaping liquids.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.