Let’s take a second to talk about cartridges. Over the last decade, the phrase’s publicly-accepted definition has undergone some changes. Whereas initially we all may have pictured a printer product, nowadays we typically imagine a vapor device or something of the sort. And while a consumer may just assume that e-cigarettes and cannabinoid vapes contain the same basic components, this could not be farther from the truth. Both the active and inactive ingredients in the two products are very different from each other, and all parties concerned vehemently intend to keep it that way.
Since the cannabis industry initially delved into vapor/smokeless cartridge production, it has commonly been accepted that the premium standard of said product is aptly named distillate. In its inherent form, distillate is the most “true and potent” representation of cannabis in a vapor product. This remains the case today, and the qualifications for true distillate products are pretty simple: you distill your concentrate oil at a specific temperature for the desired cannabinoids and the end product is thin enough to be directly incorporated into a vape-able cartridge device.
Just because this is a relatively simple product to create in terms of procedural steps does not mean it is the common practice in the industry. This is the case primarily because the distillation overhead costs do not make it financially feasible for other manufacturers to pursue this avenue of production. The trouble is, there are many other safe and simultaneously unsafe means of achieving a product that resembles distillate, and sadly, the day-to-day consumer is often unaware of what is actually inside their product. Whether it be consumers or producers, those who do not comply in the industry die in the industry. And while the companies producing potentially unsafe products will ultimately be closed as the industry becomes more aware, the big concern is the safety of the customer base and the integrity and reputation of the cannabis plant may be greatly damaged in the process.
Whereas distillate contains no residual carrier oils that are not inherent within the plant extract, many cartridges utilize carriers and thinning/thickening agents. As previously mentioned, this commonplace practice of using carriers is primarily due to cost of production, but there are some benefits of using these as far as the preservation of the cannabinoids is concerned. Oxidation and UV light exposure can degrade the integrity of the cannabinoids, and carrier oils can serve as a frontline of defense of this oxygen degradation. Granted, the potency of distillate is going to be vastly different than that of cartridges utilizing carrier oils, not necessarily more or less potent, just different. However, the carrier/thinning oil extraction quality is of just as much importance as the concentrate itself.
In today’s CBD/hemp and cannabis market, the most commonly used ingredient, (for the purpose of mixing concentrates into a thinner fluid state) is MCT oil. Inhaling vaporized MCT oil is currently considered G.R.A.S. (Generally Regarded As Safe) in America. This basically means that there has not been much research time spent on determining if the chemical remains stable amidst a solution in a high temperature setting. Second to this is propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin, and quite often there’s a blending of the two. While propylene glycol is a suitable carrier for cannabinoids; because it is both nonpolar and it behaves as a sugar-alcohol, but this is not the case with vegetable glycerin. However, PG is not accepted in the cannabis industry, presumably because of the correlation to e-cig vaporizers. Yet, there have been millions of e-cig users who have consumed safely handled PG for 10+ years without any health issues. The least commonly used thinning ingredient is poly-ethylene glycol (PEG); because of its increased absorption of oils over that of PG. Typically there is a number attached to the PEG ingredient listing (i.e. PEG100, PEG200, PEG400) and this connotes the density/molar mass or saturation potential of the PEG. Lastly, there are a few companies using centrifugal machines to separate the flavonoids and terpenes, for the purpose of using terpenes as a carrier, and even in these instances a thinning oil (eluent) is still required.
That said, not all carriers are made equal, i.e. MCT is a class of oils, and coconut oil is an MCT, however inhaled MCT should never be coconut oil. This phrasing and inconsistency of production practices causes a lot of confusion. In fact, each carrier oil can be potentially harmful if not handled properly. MCT oil has been found to possibly cause lipoid pneumonia, PG is found to potentially produce formaldehyde at high temperatures and depending upon extraction, PEG may contain ethylene oxide or 1,4 dioxane (known carcinogens). Vitamin-E acetate is out there killing as we speak, so we’ll leave that out for now. Vegetable glycerin is essentially useless without any PG, unless it is the extraction media (i.e. Water soluble tincture). And thus, we have our choices! How would you like to get sick taking your medicine today?
Can They Make You Sick?
Sickness and prevalent contaminations are what the news media is leading us to believe will almost certainly happen upon our initial consumption of these goods. As they should, right? Aren’t we going to get sick from this stuff?
Well, not really – especially if the companies NOT using a distillate, maintain safety standards and are vigilant of their suppliers for said carrier oils. With the two exceptions of vaping MCT in excess possibly causing lipoid pneumonia, and vaping Vitamin-E causing EVALI, an actual sickness stemming from a carrier/thickening agent is almost unrealistic these days. In actuality, the biggest aspect to be mindful of will always be extraction processes. Just as the biggest concern in cannabis concentration is the extraction protocol, this is also the case with the carrier/thickening agents companies choose to use. As a consumer, consider only purchasing products that clarify they maintain “U.S.P.” guidelines; because dietary supplements (cannabis/hemp) are NOT required to maintain this practice, those who DO clarify it still are obviously concerned about what they are putting into their stuff.
So, what’s the takeaway? We are unique beings and should always exercise caution and discretion when ingesting anything. If we have any known allergies or irritant reactions from certain chemicals, we should avoid them, no matter how they may be used (i.e. PG is often in lotions, sodas, asthma inhalers and vapes). If you have a heavy habit, be mindful of how you get your fix. The chemicals that carry your drug may be more harm than the medicine itself. Always consume responsibly and bear in mind that any ingredient which clarifies that it is “GRAS” means there is not enough data to say whether ingredient x or y are safe, and they have not been thoroughly studied enough for there to be consistent reactions across all individuals.
When it comes to cannabis, hemp and E-cigs, USP-compliant products should be the only ones up for consideration. Because only fully recognized/patented pharmaceutical drugs are REQUIRED to maintain this practice, those in the cannabis industry complying with USP guidelines are attempting to set their standard with care and concern. In short, be mindful of yourself and do your best to stay informed, thus that you may find the bargains that are harmless and appreciate the premiums that much more.