After the end of a months-long ban on sales, Massachusetts cannabis businesses have started selling new vaping products.
Cannabis regulators gave store owners the green light earlier this month, stipulating that products manufactured on or after Dec. 12 that undergo additional testing can now be sold. Marijuana establishments jumped into production soon after the Cannabis Control Commission amended its quarantine order.
It's a process that takes several steps at Garden Remedies. First, you start with a cannabis plant — several of them.
"We're in these rooms just smelling as many different strains as possible to figure out which one that we will want to keep for extraction or which one we will keep for actual sellable flower," Gene Ray, lab director at Garden Remedies' cultivation facility in Fitchburg, says in one of the company's eight grow rooms.
Garden Remedies grows cannabis and makes marijuana products in its 86,000-square-foot facility. Once you have the plants, they're dried and ground up. Then they go through an extraction process to create cannabis oil. The thick, crude extract is dark and sticky.
"We're targeting THC," Ray says.
The crude extract is then distilled into a refined oil that's more concentrated with THC. It looks a little clearer and more like honey.
"This would be the product that we that we will give to the kitchen department and they will make their edibles with, and then this would be one of the ingredients for our vape oil," Ray says.
The vape oil consists of that concentrated oil that's thinned out with terpenes — a natural compound found in cannabis, Ray says. It takes up to an hour to make the vape oil.
In the last week, Garden Remedies has made 13 batches of vape oils, with different strains, like "Tangerine Haze" and "Deadhead OG." Vaping products make up 40% of Garden Remedies' business, according to Ray.
But before these products can hit store shelves, samples of them have to be tested by an independent lab.
There are just two in the state. And that has some people in the industry worried there may soon be a bottleneck at the labs. Garden Remedies is far from the only company looking to get its products approved.
"We are trying to produce as many vapes as we can to meet what we expect to be a very high demand," says Amanda Rositano, the president of New England Treatment Access (NETA).
The two testing labs, however, say they're ready for the demand.
Michael Kahn, president of MCR Labs, says his facility has already received over 200 vape samples for testing.
"There's going to be some patches where we might experience minor delays due to increased volume, but overall, it's something that we're built for and we should be able to handle," Kahn says.
New regulations now require marijuana vaping cartridges to be tested for vitamin E acetate, a substance federal health officials believe may be a main culprit in a wave of vaping-related lung illnesses this year. The new products will also be screened for heavy metals and other contaminants.
"The method that we developed is efficient, and it will allow us to be able to process and analyze a lot of samples," says Brianna Cassidy, chief science officer at CDX Analytics, the other marijuana testing lab. "So I expect that we'll be able to keep up with the demand pretty efficiently."
Lab results could take several days. Some businesses have already received test results clearing them to sell products again. NETA started selling vapes Saturday at its Brookline and Northampton stores, according to a company spokesperson. And Sira Naturals announced its vapes have returned to store shelves.
The CCC says it will track new vaping products to make sure companies are following the rules.
"We're able to see as product is manufactured and moved through the supply chain," says CCC executive director Shawn Collins. "We will see when vape cartridges are in fact manufactured, and we also license and regulate the independent testing labs themselves as well."
Marijuana vaping products made before Dec. 12 remain under quarantine. Of those products that have been so far tested, none appeared to contain vitamin E acetate.
The commission's latest test did, however, show that 13 of 109 samples failed for impermissible levels of lead. A product fails if it has a presence of lead at 500 parts per billion or more. One sample in that test had a presence of lead at 29,814 parts per billion.
Lab results for new vaping products can't come soon enough for Gene Ray at Garden Remedies.
"I pretty much just wait on the emails to see all the test results," Ray says. "Once the test results come back, and it's like everything passed, then we will give it to the packaging department and then the packaging department will put it in a machine that actually fills all the vapes."
From there, the products will be sent to Garden Remedies' three dispensaries. And per new rules, the products will have new labels listing any additives and notifying customers about the risk of vaping.
Meanwhile, state regulators — and others across the U.S. — continue to investigate the cause of the vaping-related lung illnesses.
This segment aired on December 22, 2019.