Terpenes may be the next victim of the vaping health scare if we aren’t careful.

The United States, and many parts of the world, are experiencing an outbreak of pulmonary illnesses believed to be related to the use of e-cigarettes and vaping. The ill are showing symptoms such as difficulty breathing, chest pain and in some cases, falling into a coma. The outbreak has claimed around 37 lives and injured over a thousand others, according to the FDA and CDC. A mixture of tobacco and cannabis products have been implicated, but the investigation is ongoing. Most of the evidence is pointing to the illicit underground cannabis markets in states without adult-use or medical cannabis as the leading source of the illnesses.

In the wake of the deaths, uncertainty of the cause has bred fear in consumers and regulators alike. It’s likely that there isn’t a single cause to this problem, but rather a mixture. Several reports have named a variety of potential culprits: vitamin E acetate, myclobutanil (a pesticide which becomes hydrogen cyanide when heated), synthetic cannabinoids and heavy metals

In tandem to the vape illnesses, teen use of flavored nicotine and tobacco vape and e-cigarette products has been increasing dramatically since 2011. The science does show that youth use of these products is harmful for a variety of reasons. The FDA has been working on vape regulations for years, but nothing has been implemented. However, the FDA recently lost a lawsuit with several health advocacy groups this year, which has finally forced their hand. This can be seen in their recent push to make an example of JUUL, the vape manufacturer and owner of the largest market share for flavored tobacco and nicotine vape products.

Unfortunately, the flavored tobacco and cannabis vape illnesses have merged into a single issue in the minds of many regulators and consumers. As such, many states are considering bans on flavors in vaping of both cannabis and tobacco products or even wholesale bans on all vapor products. Some bans are already in motion. Washington State has instituted a flavor ban, Hawaii is banning all hemp vapes and other products and Massachusetts has banned all vape products for cannabis and tobacco. While on its face, this argument appears to be a way to stem the tide in both kids using nicotine and illnesses related to vaping, it will most likely work to increase the problem.

The Real Risks

Let’s start with refuting the idea that cannabis legalization increases teen usage. A recent study found a 10% drop in teen use of cannabis in states that had legal markets. 

Years of prohibition of cannabis and other drugs didn’t work, nor did alcohol prohibition. Although there are some potential health risks associated with their uses, regulators and the public have identified that when something is illegal the market doesn’t go away, it just goes underground. Even worse, the underground market typically is full of things that make the public sick. Bathtub gin has become synonymous with tainted products and was a direct result of prohibition. Simply put — regulation works.

At the moment, many regulators are concerned about “flavored” vape products, many of which are created from terpenes, the organic compounds created by a variety of plants that produce odor and flavor. However, a ban on flavors, including those created from terpenes, in the regulated cannabis and CBD market could in fact push consumers onto the illicit market, where they would then be purchasing products that weren’t tested for pesticides, heavy metals, potency, additives or checking the age of the buyer. Report after report is identifying these unregulated market products as containing high amounts of pesticides and other contaminants that are being identified as likely sources for the illness, while the legal products do not.

With that in mind, it’s likely more effective for human health to allow flavors to remain in use in cannabis and hemp markets. However, that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any steps taken to enhance the safety of the market and reduce potential harm.

Why Flavors Are Needed

The reason added flavoring is important for many cannabis and hemp vapor products is that, although you can extract terpenes and other flavor compounds from the cannabis plant, only top-quality flower produces the flavor and aroma levels that are necessary for products that meet consumer demands. Most often cannabis or hemp trim material is utilized which lacks terpene content. 

This problem is even more exaggerated in the hemp and CBD markets. Hemp is produced often produced in fields ranging from three to 30,000 acres, when compared with recreational cannabis, which is only an acre or less typically. This scale creates difficulties with harvesting and curing to retain flavor and terpenes. Most hemp is actually harvested with a combine and mulched whole plant, stem and all, into what is known as biomass for cannabinoid-only processing.

Isolated CBD is not something that will easily go into solution or into a vape cartridge. It requires terpenes or other agents to allow it to be used in a vapor product.

A Better Regulatory Solution

Terpenes have been used in aromatherapy, foods, drinks and inhaled in cannabis and other plant mixtures for thousands of years. They are the building blocks of essential oils and most of the flavors that humans enjoy. However, the wave of flavoring bans across the country is beginning to threaten their use.

The current climate of fear and unknowns has started an internal and external dialogue and almost fight over what products should be allowed on the market. At the center of many of these discussions in the cannabis and hemp industry is over the use of botanical terpenes versus cannabis- or hemp-derived terpenes.

First, the terpenes found in cannabis are identical to the terpenes found in other plants. That is to say that linalool from lavender is the same compound as linalool from cannabis. The first argument against cannabis- or hemp-derived terpenes and extract being the only allowable source for flavoring vapor products is that, as mentioned above, there is simply more hemp and cannabis material of cannabinoid extraction quality than terpene extraction quality. As such, there is a shortage of cannabis- or hemp-derived terpenes to make this into a reality. It would also drastically increase the price of the products, as hemp is more expensive than lavender or other botanical sources.

In place of a ban on botanical terpenes and flavors, regulators can begin to impose third-party audited GMP (good manufacturing practices) and ISO certification requirements onto companies that are selling their products into the recreational, medical or hemp markets. This would create enforceable standards on product manufacturing and ingredients which would reduce the chances of adulteration. 

A system of compulsory, but confidential ingredient reporting to state regulatory bodies and required labeling of the name of flavor used would give regulators the tools necessary to quickly identify a terpene blend or flavoring that is a danger and remove them from circulation. 

An additional step regulators should take is to begin requiring the same testing standards for pesticides, solvents, heavy metals and other compounds that are required for hemp and cannabis extracts and flowers to be imposed upon any company or product that is being sold for use in hemp and cannabis markets. 

There are companies like Portland-based True Terpenes, [Disclosure: I serve as the Chief Science Officer for True Terpenes] which have adopted many of these steps toward safety without any government requirements. The company has achieved GMP and ISO certification, was audited and passed, is registered with the FDA as a food company, and currently tests all of their products to their True Grade standard. True Grade represents their method of testing to the cannabis and hemp inhalation product standards for the strictest markets in the U.S., such as California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington.

As state agencies, the CDC and FDA continue to attempt to stop the vape illness outbreak and reduce teen vaping, we hope they turn to some of these answers before they throw the terpenes out with the bathwater.

LET US KNOW: Are you worried about terpene regulations?


No more articles