KENAI, Alaska The Center for Disease control recently announced that they believe the prime cause of e-cigarette or vaping associated lung injury, EVALI, is vitamin E acetate. The chemical is commonly used as a cutting agent in black market THC vaping products according to the CDC and manufacturers.
There are currently over 2,500 reported cases of EVALI nationwide, 54 of which have resulted in deaths according to the CDC. In the beginning of December, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services announced that a teenager in the southeast part of the state was hospitalized with the illness.
The teenager has since recovered and is still Alaska’s only reported case according to DHSS. The state epidemiologist confirmed he had contracted EVALI after smoking THC vaping cartridges acquired from an informal source.
As of now, DHSS is following the CDC’s lead and recommends no one should be using THC vaping products, particularly those coming from informal sources like friends, family, or in-person or online sellers.
Lisa Coates is a co-owner of Herban Extracts, a licensed manufacturing lab in Kenai where regulated THC cartridges are made and sold to retail locations.
Before venturing into the cannabis industry, she said she had a background in chemistry. She said she worked at an oil refinery for 25 years. Coates thinks making THC oil utilizes her knowledge of chemistry far more, but she enjoys the challenge.
She agrees that black market sellers cutting THC oil are the true problem with the EVALI outbreak problem.
However, she feels that not enough people are educated about how THC oil is made. Coates believes that when done properly, it’s a totally safe substance for people to use who are legally allowed to do so.
“There’s not a whole lot of evidence that any of the issues with EVALI have come from the regulated market,” she said, “I do think consumers should be aware of what they’re consuming.”
At her lab, she said they do a lot of vetting on the people they buy their marijuana from before they start making the oil.
“We know where our suppliers come from, we know how they grow, we visit where they grow, they give us a list of nutrients that they used to grow with, any sort of amendments that they use has to be reported, listed, and I keep it on file,” she said.
Another, less talked about thing that they make sure they have testing for, are the actual cartridges the oil they make goes into. Coates said that she ensures the supplier puts them through heavy metal testing before it gets to her lab.
Coates isn’t the only person with a background in chemistry in her lab. To keep things running smoothly, she hired Chris Giddings to be her science director, meaning every drop of THC oil that comes out of Herban Extracts was made by him.
Giddings said he got a degree in biology and chemistry at UAA. Then he became an adjunct professor. After that he said he went to New Mexico to work in a chemical startup company where he said he helped synthesize a few new chemicals never before made. Then he started working at the same refinery as Coates where they met.
So he knows his way around a lab and he said there’s a very good chance the people who are making black market THC cartridges and cutting them with other chemicals probably don’t.
Giddings explained what they do when they’re cutting the oil without regard for what it might do, with about 250 grams of oil in his hand to help describe.
“If I want, I can add about 200 grams of MZT oil, or propylene glycol, or whatever additive I want and double the mass and sell it at the same price right?” he said, “sure I could make a huge profit but I also know that those additives, while food safe, just because you can eat something doesn’t mean you can inject or inhale it.”
According to Giddings, that’s what’s going on with the black market retailers. He said they don’t respect the chemistry, care about underselling retail and making profit more than not making people sick, and after they get someone’s money, there’s nothing to hold them accountable.
Giddings walked through the steps of making THC oil. There are multiple ways to do it, but they use carbon dioxide winterization. He said he finds it to be safer in the lab than other methods that use butane because carbon dioxide isn’t flammable.
Creating THC oil is complicated, but Giddings explained it simply. He said there’s only a few steps and everything that comes in contact with the cannabis is completely filtered out by the end.
First, it begins with grinding up a lot of marijuana as finely as possible. It’s put into a special machine that uses the carbon dioxide and pressure to separate the THC from the plant and turning it into a crude oil.
From there, he said they add ethanol, which is just really strong alcohol, to that crude oil. Then they put it in a freezer at around -80 degrees Celsius. The ethanol helps to further separate the oil they want from other plant material and fats.
After that, they filter out the remaining particles from the oil they want in a charcoal filter. Now there’s just THC oil mixed with ethanol.
The remaining ethanol is then put in another special machine that adds minimal heat and pressure to evaporate it off, leaving them with pure THC oil.
Sounds simple, but Giddings and Coates still think it should be left in the hands of professionals who are held liable by the regulation in place.
On their packaging, they list everything that they can test the product for, both what’s required and what’s not. They also include the grower’s name on top of their own. There’s also a tracking code that tells them exactly what batch it comes from. They say you aren’t going to get that from a black market seller.