Massachusetts has a problem: What to do with more than 619,000 marijuana vapes that have been gathering dust and taking up space at cannabis facilities around the state for nearly a year?
The quandary is a result of the state’s ban on vape sales, implemented in September by Governor Charlie Baker amid an outbreak of lung ailments linked to the popular battery-powered drug-inhalation devices.
The prohibition came to an end in December, when the Cannabis Control Commission (under a revised order from Baker) began allowing sales of newly manufactured marijuana vapes that had been tested for contaminants such as Vitamin E acetate.
But hundreds of thousands of vapes that were pulled from store shelves or quarantined by manufacturers during the three-month ban — collectively worth well over $25 million at retail — remain stuck in regulatory limbo, with cannabis operators banned by the commission from either selling or destroying the devices.
Now, with licensed marijuana companies increasingly anxious to free up storage space and recoup their investments, the agency is seeking input on what should be done. In a letter last week, the commission invited marijuana companies, consumers, and patients, plus experts in public health and lab testing, to submit ideas.
“Continuing to restrict the sale of the quarantined vaping cartridges is a financial burden on licensees and creates a potential risk of diversion” to the illicit market, the commission wrote.
The answer, however, won’t be to simply allow marijuana companies to sell the vape cartridges full of concentrated marijuana oil that they’ve been sitting on.
Repeated rounds of testing by the commission found that, while the devices are free of the vitamin E acetate suspected to have caused many of last year’s mysterious lung illnesses, lead and other toxic heavy metals in some of the vape cartridges appear to have leached into the oil they contain. Worse still, lab results have been mysteriously inconsistent, with some batches testing positive for high levels of lead and then negative in follow-up tests, or vice versa.
“We’ve done a few rounds of testing on these, and it’s been all over the map,” Shawn Collins, the commission’s executive director, said in an interview.
Collins said commission staffers have repeatedly visited the state’s licensed marijuana labs to look closely at their methodologies and equipment, but have yet to pinpoint the cause of the variations in results. With little understanding of whether the high lead readings are a result of the products sitting in storage for long periods, poor-quality vape hardware, or testing errors, regulators are reluctant to authorize sales of the quarantined vapes — even if the oil is repackaged in new cartridges or reprocessed to remove lead, as some industry players have suggested is possible.
“This [public appeal] is an attempt to say ‘Help us,‘ ” Collins said. “We don’t know, and we don’t want to pretend we know.”
The commission in December substantially tightened its vape regulations, requiring marijuana companies to disclose more details about their ingredients and to test a random sampling of the devices for heavy metals after packaging.
Previously, marijuana concentrate destined for vapes was only lab-tested prior to being loaded into the small individual cartridges sold to consumers, leaving officials and consumers blind to any contamination introduced by the device itself. The latest results only reinforce such fears.
Many other states responded to last year’s lung illness outbreak by tightening their own vape rules, with some banning flavored products or stepping up testing. But only Massachusetts implemented a blanket ban, leaving officials here alone in confronting the challenge of how to dispose of hundreds of thousands of aging vapes.
Industry leaders said Massachusetts marijuana companies, though anxious to recoup their investments, will destroy the affected vapes if ordered to do so.
“Consumers and patients should have a high degree of assurance that products they buy at regulated [marijuana] stores are safe,” David O’Brien, president of the Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association, said. “Operators would like to find a way to retest and reuse the [vapes] if they can, because there’s a lot of money tied up in them . . . But most of all, they just want this thing resolved, and if that means they have to get rid of the vapes, they will.”