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Illicit Cannabis products: How the legal industry can do better

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It seems like all anyone hears nowadays are the health issues regarding vaping. While the problems seem minor at first glance, the constant equivocation of vaping products in the media has prompted many companies to push against the negative media. As the current political climate focuses on the varied bans on e-cigarettes, the cannabis industry has been caught in the coverage.

Some health issues have been reported by the CDC regarding illicit THC cartridges. I had the opportunity to discuss some of these problems with Kent Haehl, President at Atlas Technology Manufacturing ('Atlas'). Kent was kind enough to share his expertise and views on the current media coverage and how start ups can better improve their cannabis products from a consumer standpoint.

The biggest culprit of late is vitamin E acetate. This synthetic form of vitamin E has been linked to lung illness cases associated with THC carts purchased on the black market. While common sense would say that developing clear cut federal regulation would make this less of a problem, the current state of affairs has manufacturers in the legal market doing everything they can to ease worries. The long term outlook of the vape industry is the main question as currently some dispensaries are reporting a 20% dip in sales.

According to Kent, there is a lot of equivocation of products as media outlets are taking for granted the inclusion of illicit black market products. Until we have comprehensive national cannabis policies, we will continue to allow citizens to suffer at the hands of the shadiest of profiteers. The sad reality is that millions of American citizens are being forced to find their medicine on the black market due to antiquated laws or expensive legal products.

Legal markets will need to distinguish their cannabis products even further from the illicit market. The recent surge of vitamin E acetate seems abrupt. The additive has only been widely known for about a year or so. In California, it is actually not illegal to include the additive in cannabis vaping cartridges and state law does not require a test for the sale of commercial use.

The problem is complex and compounded by the increasing reports of toxic metals and pesticides being found during testing. Earlier this year there were reports of heavy metals-- primarily lead-- found in vape carts. California has some of the most stringent testing for heavy metals and yet labs are reporting that some percentage of carts are showing a concerning amount of lead.

That is not good for consumers and, as the CDC warns, there is no safe level of lead exposure - it is a neurotoxin. There is no heavy metal testing in the illicit market which often sources cheap carts from China. It is incumbent upon the cannabis industry to lead the way toward substantial regulation. We must learn from history and avoid the tragic deaths of thousands that were lost to tainted alcohol during prohibition.

Some companies will wait until federal regulations adjust to current health problems. It is unfortunate, but the slow process of democracy will slow the adoption of higher standards. Some companies have already placed consumer health as a priority of their product development.

Deservedly, companies are still wary about the negative press not helping to gain the confidence of consumers. For a new industry, starting off on the wrong foot with consumers will surely impede business development and the inclusion of heavy metals is an unnecessary risk for the consumers.

Future of Cannabis Vaping

Kent shared with me his thoughts on the current state of the industry and the way Atlas has set a high benchmark regarding consumer concern. Based in Tukwila, Washington, Atlas believes in aggressively pursuing a lead-free standard to protect consumers from negative health effects. What was surprising for me to learn from my conversation with Kent, was the antiquated testing standards still held by some states.

Unsurprisingly ahead of the curve is California. The golden state has already instituted strict guidelines concerning heavy metal testing. Vape manufacturers have an obligation to exceed these standards to ensure cannabis legalization is not deterred by negative press. If we are to look into the future earning potential of this booming industry, we as an industry have to take seriously cannabis media in order to deliver the healthiest array of products and information.

Concentrates are the future of the cannabis industry. Consumer spending is expected to reach $8.4 billion dollars by 2022, according to a joint study by ArcView Market Research and BDS Analytics. It is not surprising that concentrates are still being purchased in record amounts despite the current negative coverage. Carts come with many benefits including: discretion, ease, and portability.

Oversight of the illicit market is not possible. National legislation was thought to resolve the black market issue. Look north to Canada for an example. After Canada had legalized the cannabis industry nationally, the black market is expected to account for 71% of all sales in 2019. Massachusetts is estimated at 75% this year. How is the legal industry to thrive under these conditions? The only way is when cannabis users choose the legal route. The two main forces that support the black market are high prices and lack of dispensaries. With this lack of access to the cannabis industry, there is a high risk that users will stick with their illegal sources. Until national legalization is a reality, it will be up to cannabis companies to take a leadership role in educating the public.

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