Michigan pot industry reps urge ban on vitamin E acetate in vaping products

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — An additive that health officials have linked to an outbreak of lung injuries can still be legally used in vaping products under Michigan's medical marijuana program.

While it's unclear whether vitamin E acetate has been used widely in legal marijuana products in Michigan, industry officials and at least one former medical marijuana regulator said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration should specifically ban it.

"That should have been done within the first week of them identifying vitamin E acetate as a likely cause," said Don Bailey, a former member of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Licensing Board and a critic of the Whitmer administration's handling of marijuana issues.

George Murphy III, a senior scientist at PSI Labs in Ann Arbor, performs testing for the detection of banned microbes on Nov. 11, 2019. PSI Labs is a licensed laboratory in Michigan's medical marijuana program.

The statewide group that represents businesses in the marijuana industry would agree with a ban on vitamin E acetate, said Robin Schneider, executive director of the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association.

“I think that would make complete sense for them to do," Schneider added.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released what it called "direct evidence" of vitamin E acetate within the lungs of patients with injuries related to vaping. As of Nov. 5, 2,051 cases of lung injuries related to vaping, including dozens in Michigan, had been reported, according to the CDC.

Some officials have suspected vitamin E acetate as a potential culprit for months. Because of its thickness, vitamin E acetate has been used as a cutting agent in THC oil, the compound of marijuana that produces the “high," in vaping products.

On Sept. 9, the state of New York said it was investigating the health effects of vitamin E acetate, which was already banned under New York's medical marijuana program. New York also said it was subpoenaing a Michigan company and two others as part of its investigation.

David Harns, spokesman for Michigan's Marijuana Regulatory Agency, acknowledged Friday that vitamin E acetate is not prohibited from being used under the state's marijuana program.

"We are working closely with our partners in public health to determine the cause of the illnesses related to vaping and decide if any changes are needed to further protect patients and consumers," Harns added.

Vitamin E acetate is often used in skin ointments. When it's applied to the skin, it doesn't cause harm. But when it's inhaled, it "may interfere with normal lung functioning," according to the CDC.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Nov. 7 that 
new government figures show more than 2,000 Americans have come down with vaping-related illnesses.

As an outbreak of injuries and deaths related to vaping has occurred across the country, the use of vitamin E acetate in vaping products has drawn scrutiny from public health officials. As of Nov. 5, there had been 39 deaths across 24 states, including one death in Michigan.

Illegal market worries

While the CDC recommends that people stop using vaping products that contain THC, individuals in Michigan's legalized medical marijuana industry say they're primarily concerned about products sold in the illicit market.

People in the industry have had concerns about vitamin E acetate for months, said Schneider of the cannabis industry organization.

“We are confident that the vape pens that are being manufactured in licensed facilities don't have vitamin E acetate added to them," she said.

The vaping situation, Schneider argued, points to the importance of legalizing marijuana so pot products face regulations and testing.

Likewise, PSI Labs has not found evidence of vitamin E acetate being used in legal marijuana products in Michigan, said Lev Spivak-Birndorf, the co-founder of the Ann Arbor-based lab — a licensed safety compliance facility in Michigan's medical marijuana program. But the lab has found the additive in products sold outside state regulations, he said.

As testing machines hummed Monday within the PSI Labs facility, Spivak-Birndorf said he had even received a text message from his mom who advised him not to vape amid the outbreak of lung injuries. Spivak-Birndorf said better advice would be not to vape products sold outside the state's regulated market.

In the regulated market, testing on products' potency could point to the use of vitamin E acetate to cut THC oil because the potency would be lower, he said. In the illicit market, however, vitamin E acetate could be used without consumers knowing.

Yvonne DePorre, a senior scientist at PSI Labs prepares vape cartridges to be tested for heavy metals on Nov. 11, 2019. PSI Labs is a licensed laboratory in Michigan's medical marijuana program.

Bailey, the former medical pot licensing board member whom many marijuana advocates have criticized, expressed concerns about both the legal and illicit markets. He called on Whitmer to ban vitamin E acetate in vaping products.

The governor already has had her administration issue emergency rules banning flavored vaping products in an attempt to curb illegal youth vaping, but a state judge has granted a preliminary injunction temporarily stopping the prohibition.

Spivak-Birndorf said such a ban on vitamin E acetate would probably be a good idea.

If vitamin E acetate were banned, it would join a list of chemicals and heavy metals already prohibited from products in the state's medical marijuana program.

Initial test results

On Oct. 25, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services released test results the state received from the Food and Drug Administration on vaping materials collected from lung injury patients in Michigan. Of five lung injury patients, only one's products contained vitamin E acetate.

"Although the cause of the lung injuries is not yet known, the majority of lung injury patients report using products with THC," the department wrote in a press release. "One hypothesis being investigated is that contaminants in THC vapes, including vitamin E acetate, may be related to the outbreak."

The CDC's latest information was based on fluid samples from patients' lungs.

The Michigan health department's findings came over a month after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sept. 9 that New York would subpoena three companies that have sold thickening agents containing vitamin E acetate.

Vitamin E acetate, an additive found in vaping products, is not currently prohibited in Michigan under the state's marijuana program. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said fluid extracted from 29 lung injury patients who vaped contained the chemical compound in all of them.

One of the three companies is Floraplex Terpenes, based in Ypsilanti, which sold a product called Uber Thick. A past advertisement for Uber Thick said it would help "control the viscosity of your product." Although it's no longer for sale on Floraplex Terpenes' website, it previously sold for $3,499 a gallon.

A representative for Floraplex Terpenes said the company declined to comment.  According to an August report from the cannabis website Leafly, Floraplex Chief Science Officer Jared McKinney said vaping cartridges were not an approved use for Uber Thick.

"We don’t sell it for vaporization, but that’s what some customers use it for," he said, according to the article. "Whether it would be bad or good, we can’t say either way."

Alec Riffle, the listed chief executive of Floraplex Terpenes, has also been listed as an executive with companies that received pre-qualification for grower, provisioning center and processor licenses from the Michigan Marijuana Regulatory Agency, which replaced the Michigan Medical Marijuana Licensing Board under the Whitmer administration.

The Medical Marijuana Licensing Board had previously rejected applications from the companies tied to Riffle.

Floraplex Terpenes has not shown up in investigations by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said Lynn Sutfin, a department spokeswoman. New York also has not contacted the Michigan department regarding the subpoenas, Sutfin said.

A team of Henry Ford Health System medical experts recently performed what the health system said Monday it believes is the first double lung transplant in the United States for a patient whose lungs were irreparably damaged from vaping.