Grow, Gift, Repair

Marijuana company will destroy $2.6 million inventory of year-old vapes

A Massachusetts marijuana company plans to destroy $2.6 million of aging cannabis vapes, saying consumers have no confidence in the state’s system for certifying that the devices are free of lead and other toxic heavy metals.

Temescal Wellness, which operates dispensaries in Framingham, Hudson, and Pittsfield, said Friday that it will dispose of more than 40,000 vape cartridges that have been sitting in storage since last year’s temporary ban on their sale.

“People are just not comfortable with these products, and they’re not comfortable with any company that would sell these products,” said Temescal chief executive Ted Rebholz in an interview. “We didn’t feel good about selling something to consumers and patients that we wouldn’t want to use ourselves.”

While it remains unclear whether other operators will follow suit, the decision by a major player in the state’s cannabis industry to sacrifice its large investment in the vapes underscores — in dollars and cents — the depth of public skepticism about the products.

The company’s marijuana vapes are among 619,000 statewide that were removed from store shelves and “quarantined” in September, when Governor Charlie Baker banned their sale for several months in response to an outbreak of vaping-related lung illnesses. The illnesses were later linked to an additive used in illicit cartridges.

Regulators allowed sales of newly manufactured vapes to resume under tighter rules in December, but only lifted the freeze on previously quarantined cartridges this month after months of pressure from operators eager to recoup their investments. That’s when the state Cannabis Control Commission gave licensed marijuana firms the options of either destroying the vapes, testing one-half of 1 percent of each batch for lead and reselling them as is, or breaking the cartridges open and reprocessing the oil they contain to remove lead before using it to make new products.

However, the agency’s investigation into the safety of the devices yielded confounding results. Tests showed a significant number of cartridges contained high levels of lead, which presumably leached into the concentrate from the vape hardware while the products sat in storage for months. Yet follow-up tests often failed to confirm the findings or revealed contamination after initial tests showed none.

That has prompted critics — including consumers, medical marijuana patients, physicians, and even the scientists who conducted the tests for the commission — to question the reliability of the tests and whether measuring only a small sample of each batch sufficiently protects the public. They also said a warning label that must be applied to any previously quarantined product is too vague.

Rebholz said consumer confidence in vape safety had already waned because of the lung health scare, with Temescal now selling roughly 24 percent fewer of the devices compared to last summer. Dumping questionable cartridges into the market would only make matters worse, he argued.

Rebholz also noted that cannabis operators were ineligible for federal coronavirus relief payments because the drug remains illegal under US law and because Massachusetts shut down the state’s recreational sector for 10 weeks at the beginning of the pandemic. That raises concerns that other operators will feel financial pressure to sell the questionable vapes, even if it potentially endangers public health, he said.

“$2.6 million is not a small number for us at all, and this wasn’t a flippant decision,” Rebholz said. “I can understand how some businesses might think they don’t have a choice, but we think consumers and patients deserve better. There’s already a massive trust deficit in cannabis compared to other products, and in a context where individual health is at stake, you’ve got to be careful.”

In the long term, he added, the commission should impose standards not only on marijuana concentrates used in vapes but on the cartridges themselves, which are little-regulated and typically manufactured in China.

Officials at the cannabis commission declined to comment specifically on Temescal’s decision. They said the agency had provided options so that operators could make decisions based on the type of vapes they possessed and how they had been stored since last year, and that the decision to release the vapes from quarantine was intended to balance public health with the financial and security risks of letting them gather dust.