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What’s in a vape cartridge?

Black market ‘vaping crisis’ scares, the recent legalization of inhalable cannabis extracts, Quebec’s ban on vaping products, and BC’s new 20% PST on vaping products have all put vape cartridges firmly in the spotlight. What do retailers need to know as vaping products enter the legal market?

Regulated Vape Products

Reassuringly, legal vape products are not permitted to use ingredients such as vitamin E acetate (a thickener used in unregulated vapes) and under Health Canada regulations there will be no added vitamins, minerals, sugar, alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine.

RELATED: Health Canada Warns About Extracts and Edibles

“I can’t tell you how happy we are for this regulated environment,” says Darren Darcy, Director of Global Marketing and Innovation at Volero Brands Inc. (currently working with Beleave to create Flyte vaping products for the legal market).  “At the federal level, SOPs are written by a federally licensed cannabis producer and approved by Health Canada to ensure compliance with the Cannabis Act regulations; at the provincial level, a myriad of consumer protection elements (including heavy-metal leaching Certificates of Analysis) are in place at the product call stages to ensure that only quality products make it to shelves. Also, using only Health Canada-approved ingredients and having appropriate preventative control plans in place will mitigate the risk of harmful inclusions such as vitamin E acetate, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has just indicated was the principal ingredient behind the recent black market vape crisis.”

What’s in a Vape Cartridge?

Unregulated vape cartridges have been found to contain vitamin E acetate, pesticides, and heavy metals (leached from soil), residual solvents, and synthetic cannabinoids.

Regulated vape cartridges will only contain cannabinoid distillate or full spectrum oil, (optional) carrier oils, and added terpenes.

Extraction methods affect the flavour profile and consistency of the end product. “Hydrocarbon extraction is done using solvents such as butane or propane,” explains Talal Rshaidat, CSO at Toronto-based Fume Labs. “That produces concentrates such as shatter, which is a solid form made with dry flower, or live resin, which is made with fresh frozen plant material. By extracting fresh frozen plant material, you’re able to maintain a much higher terpene content that still has the same composition as a fresh plant. The advantage of that is you have a really clean flavour that resembles the flavour profile of the live plant. The disadvantage is that you’ll always have residuals of the solvents used.”

CO₂ extraction uses carbon dioxide and extremely high pressure to release molecules from the plant matter (biomass); when the pressure is released, the CO₂ nearly completely disappears from the end product. This technique enables producers to get more of a full-spectrum oil, although some terpenes are still lost. Hydrocarbon extracted oil maintains a wider terpene profile, but the final extraction method, ethanol, loses all terpenes. However, the method of washing cold ethanol over the biomass is a fast and efficient way to make high volumes of distillate, and so is a popular choice for large scale producers.

Distillate is an odourless, flavourless compound that is scrubbed clean of everything apart from THC and other compounds that have a similar boiling point, which makes it a good base for inclusion in edibles, topicals, and vape cartridges. The end product has been decarboxylated (THC and CBD have been activated and are ready for consumption) and is ready for terpenes to be reintroduced. A full-spectrum oil maintains a much wider range of cannabinoids, flavonoids, terpenes and esters, and other plant pigments.

Sourcing and Adding Terpenes

Producers have various schools of thought about flavouring vape pens. They fall into three broad categories. The first is using artificial flavours, which is a practice that is heavily used in the e-cigarette industry. The second method is using naturally derived terpenes. Terpenes are volatile organic compounds in cannabis and other plants that give each cultivar its unique flavour profile. Plant-derived terpenes come from natural sources (e.g. linalool from lavender or limonene from lemons). Those can be used by producers to create fruit flavour profiles or to mimic the profiles of different cannabis strains. The third method is using cannabis-derived terpenes. These come from the cannabis plant and can be extracted using a variety of methods. They can be extracted from a single source or they can be blends. Furthermore, cannabis terpenes can also be blended with a distillate or oil created from the same starting material to create a single source product.

Fume Labs takes a single source approach, using terpenes from that exact batch of flower to maintain the ‘entourage effect’ of the starting material. “Every time you’re adding in a new compound, there is a risk of an adverse effect,” says Rshaidat. “Terpenes can be poisonous in certain combinations, so if you’re mixing flavours to create a terpene profile, you should really know what you’re doing. We stick to what’s in the plant, as the more you add into it, the more unpredictable the results will be, so we make sure we do not add anything to our products that did not come from the cannabis plant.”


Approved Carrier Oils

Health Canada has approved three diluting agents/diluents to be used as carrier oils. Their purpose is to decrease the viscosity of cannabinoid distillate (e.g. THC/CBD) to help cannabis oil interact with standard vaporizer hardware. CO2 extracted full-spectrum oils don’t usually require carrier oils.

Carrier oils generally have a sweet taste, are colourless, and practically odourless. Commonly used carriers include: the organic compound Propylene Glycol (PG), which is also found in food, Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT) that is most often derived from coconut, and Vegetable Glycerin (VG), which is sourced from vegetable oils.

PG has been one of the carrier oils to come under the spotlight recently and Health Canada suggests that the “thermal degradation of propylene glycol and glycerol during vaping can lead to the emission of significant amounts of formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and acrolein, among other potential toxicants.”

Every common carrier has a unique potential for toxicity when heated above 200 degrees Celsius.

“Every common carrier has a unique potential for toxicity when heated above 200 degrees Celsius,” says Darcy. “When vaporized at these extreme temperatures, there is a chance for them to break down into undesirable by-products. Our products are not designed to heat near that temperature.”

Temperature and Terpenes

Vape temperature is important, as it can affect the flavour profile, potency of each ‘hit’, and the overall experience.

“Different temperatures can either express or mute the terpene profiles of a particular product,” describes Darcy. “A higher temperature increases the amount of product vaporized, but can also rip out any real flavour or experience. It’s like the difference between sipping a Don Julio 1942 versus doing shots of Cuervo. High temperature yields a big hit at the expense of flavour. Variable voltage batteries allow the consumer to dial in the experience that’s right for them. Other hardware is set to a single setting that is matched to terpene profiles, cartridge resistance, intake hole diameter, and viscosity of their products.”

Choosing the Right Hardware

Studies suggest that thermal degradants are produced as a result of a ‘dry hit’ or ‘dry puff’. Regulated device design and operating parameter limits mean that emissions will be as low as possible, but hardware choice can help consumers to select an oil.

Dry hits can occur when a vaporizer wick is heated, but not soaked in oil. This happens with higher viscosity, uncut oils as they’re not fluid at low temperatures—if the wick isn’t soaked when the vape is turned on, then it will burn out. Ceramic element vapes are better suited to these oils as they can be preheated without burning out.

“Wick-based systems are usually better for oils with lots of carrier oil as they have a lower viscosity; there’s more liquid so you want a wick that will slowly absorb the liquid,” says Rshaidat. “Low viscosity oil is likely to leak with porous ceramic. The intake holes in the cartridge should match viscosity, so more viscous oils need bigger holes and more of them. Clogging can happen when small leaks occur in the airway and you end up with oil droplets forming and clogging the air channel. Variable air intake cartridges will not activate in draw-to-fire vapes; you need a push button vape to use them.”

Visit Health Canada for more information about vaping regulations:

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