February 6, 2023

Health Canada commissioning research to compare the effects of novel cannabinoids

Health Canada confirms it is looking into the effects of different cannabinoids to create equivalency amounts to delta-9-THC.

The federal regulator plans on collaborating with provinces and territories on the issue and “will continue research and surveillance, data gathering and analysis to support possible future regulatory changes,” according to a statement shared with StratCann. The results of the project are expected during the 2023 calendar year.

The statement comes after two of Canada’s biggest cannabis markets, Ontario and BC, announced they will be pausing approval of any new delta 8 THC products pending guidance from Health Canada. The research will include different cannabinoids, including delta 8. 

In order to reduce risks associated with accidental consumption and overconsumption, the federal Cannabis Act and Regulations set limits of 10mg per package for delta-9-THC in edibles, or 1,000 mg for extracts and topicals, but no such limits exist yet for non-delta 9 products. 

“While there are currently no similar legal requirements for other intoxicating cannabinoids like delta-8-THC, Health Canada strongly recommends that the total amount of intoxicating cannabinoids should not exceed the regulatory limits set for delta-9 THC, and that testing and accurate descriptions of intoxicating cannabinoid content be clearly indicated on product labels,” a Senior Media Relations Advisor with Health Canada shared via email. 

“While there are currently no similar legal requirements for other intoxicating cannabinoids like delta-8-THC, Health Canada strongly recommends that the total amount of intoxicating cannabinoids should not exceed the regulatory limits set for delta-9 THC, and that testing and accurate descriptions of intoxicating cannabinoid content be clearly indicated on product labels.”

a Senior Media Relations Advisor with Health Canada

“Delta-8-THC is an intoxicating cannabinoid,” continued the email, “and one of the many cannabinoids found in or produced naturally by the cannabis plant. However, delta-8 THC is not naturally found in significant amounts in the plant. As such, delta-8-THC is typically manufactured from cannabidiol (CBD) by a licensed cannabis processor.”

“Cannabis products containing delta-8-THC have potential health and safety risks that may be similar to delta-9-THC, some of which can be serious or life-threatening. Products containing high levels of delta-8 THC have little to no history of use, so the scientific and medical understanding of their biological effects and health risks is still developing. Health Canada is closely monitoring the emergence of products containing high levels of delta-8 THC, as well as products that may contain high levels of other novel intoxicating cannabinoids, in the Canadian marketplace.”

“Health Canada is currently commissioning preliminary research projects in rodents to begin to compare the psychoactive effects of various cannabinoids other than delta-9-THC. This will help further inform the intoxication equivalency of these non-delta-9 THC cannabinoids to delta-9-THC. The data generated by this and additional potential projects on this topic could help inform public education and awareness efforts, potential risk assessments as well any policies or regulations concerning these substances. The results of this initial pilot project are expected during the 2023 calendar year.”

Delta-8 THC products made a small splash in the Canadian market in 2022, with a handful of companies offering products like gummies, beverages, and vape pens. Speaking with several retailers in Canada, sales for these products appear relatively low, although there seems to be interest in both the novelty of the cannabinoid, as well as the fact they provide a way to provide consumers with more THC per edible than a typical delta-9 THC edible. 

“The issue I think that we’re facing here in Canada, is that the delta 8 category here is being examined unfairly under the lens of what’s happening in unregulated markets, very specifically the US. We understand regulators and provincial distributors are looking for more understanding and we think it is important to have a greater understanding of what’s happening.”

Micahel Kestrall, Dynaleo

Steve Schnarr, the manager at This is Cannabis, with two locations in BC, says his stores saw some initial demand, but given there are only a few products, he suspects they get lost in the high-volume shuffle of products on their shelves. 

“It was interesting when they came in because it was one of the first products to go past the ten milligrams,” says Schnarr. “We just had, I think, one beverage and one set of gummies. They haven’t moved that well, I would say. I don’t think they’ve been too popular.”

Omi Sahota, a manager at Giggles Cannabis, with two locations in Ontario, says he thinks the lack of popularity is at least partially due to the fact many consumers still don’t know about it. Although he says he was hesitant to bring in the product because of some of the stories and uncertainty from the US market, their initial small shipment (less than 20) in December sold out quickly 

“I don’t think the education is there yet in the market,” says Sahota. “I think (producers) need to do a lot more education, not only for customers but for sellers. They never even told us it was available. I would say our customers who tried it, liked it. We also warn everyone that takes it that this is way more potent than normal THC.” 

“I think (producers) need to do a lot more education, not only for customers but for sellers. They never even told us it was available. I would say our customers who tried it, liked it.” 

Omi Sahota, Giggles Cannabis

Michael Krestell is the executive chairman at Dynaleo, a cannabis producer located in Alberta that specializes in cannabis edibles and beverages and is one of the companies offering delta-8 THC products. 

“The issue I think that we’re facing here in Canada, is that the delta 8 category here is being examined unfairly under the lens of what’s happening in unregulated markets, very specifically the US,” says Krestell. “We understand regulators and provincial distributors are looking for more understanding, and we think it is important to have a greater understanding of what’s happening.”

Their delta 8 “soft chews” are available in packs of 10 with 10mg of delta 8 THC and 1mg of delta 9 THC per piece. The company has sold more than 50,000 units so far of the product, primarily in markets like Ontario. 

Despite these sales, the delta 8 products are only a small portion of their full product menu, so the policy shift isn’t a big concern for the company, says Krestell. However, he does think that some of the concern relating to the unregulated US market is potentially unwarranted. 

With that said, he also notes the company understands the government’s cautious approach. 

“We’re pleased that everyone is taking a measured approach as everyone gets up to speed from an education perspective and seeing what the actual experience is with the product in the market.”

A delta-8 vape cart on a cannabis retailer shelf in BC

The policy change does impact the company, though, since they can currently not sell into two of the largest cannabis markets in Canada. Especially when these are all products that have gone through the federal and provincial processes for new cannabis products. 

“The impact on us is twofold,” explains Krestell. “One, it constrains an avenue for future growth and we’ve also got commitments out there for purchase of products, and we have delta 8 inventory and purchased bags we have in inventory, so from that standpoint, it’s a little disappointing. We didn’t try to sneak anything by anybody. We went through the NNCP process…. We went through provincial listing processes, and everyone’s interpretation is that nothing here is in contravention of any regulations, and it’s a decision being made to sideline it.” 

Health Canada says it will “continue to monitor the effects and risks of all cannabis products, including products with high levels of delta-8 THC, and will take appropriate actions if needed.” Although BC and Ontario are not currently listing any new products of this kind, Health Canada has not currently said they will be implementing a similar policy change nationwide.

Ingestible oils most common cause of adverse reactions in two annual reports

Health Canada has released their first two reviews on Adverse Reaction Reports associated with cannabis products.

The most common reports of adverse reactions to cannabis involved ingestible cannabis oils or softgels, and reports were most often from adult women. Younger adults were more likely to report negative effects from inhalable forms of cannabis like dried flower or extracts, while older adults were more likely to report negative effects from cannabis oils or softgels.

Covering October 17, 2018 to December 31, 2019 and January 1, 2020 to December 31, 2020 there were a total of 378 adverse reactions associated with cannabis products reported to Health Canada’s Canada Vigilance Database

While the first year of data collection for 2018-2019 showed 219 adverse reaction reports, the following year saw only 159. 

In both years, most reports involved legal cannabis products, while others were associated with the illicit market or from an undetermined source, or from mixing other substances with cannabis.  

Of these, 198 (77 in the first year and 121 in the second year) were considered “serious,” with hospitalization as the most frequently reported reason for seriousness. The majority of cases in both years originated from consumers and were reported to Health Canada by cannabis licence holders (federal producers). Only 24% of cases in the first year and 11% in the second year were reported by health care practitioners (HCPs).

Health Canada defines an adverse reaction as “a noxious and unintended response to a cannabis product” and defines a serious adverse reaction as “a noxious and unintended response to a cannabis product that requires inpatient hospitalization or a prolongation of existing hospitalization, causes congenital malformation, results in persistent or significant disability or incapacity, is life-threatening, or results in death.”

Images via Health Canada

As the reporting of adverse reactions by consumers, health care practitioners (HCPs), medical cannabis clinics, and retailers is voluntary, Health Canada notes that serious and non-serious cases from these sources are “likely underreported.” 

Cannabis licence holders are required by federal regulations to report any serious adverse reactions.

While the total number of serious cases reported to Health Canada increased by 57% between the reporting periods, from 77 cases in 2018–2019 to 121 cases in 2020, cases where hospitalization was required declined, from 43 in the first year to 33 in the second. In the first year, there were seven reports considered life-threatening, while only one was reported as life-threatening in the second year. 

In contrast, the total number of non-serious adverse reaction reports decreased by 49%, from 74 in 2018–2019 to 38 in 2020.

However, reports associated with other medically important conditions increased in the second year, from 27 to 86. “Other medically important condition” includes events that are not immediately life-threatening or do not result in death or hospitalization but may jeopardize the patient or may require intervention (for example, ambulatory services, emergency department visits, outpatient visits with an HCP or at-home medical interventions) to prevent a serious outcome. 

Images via Health Canada

In both years, cases involving legal cannabis products were more likely to involve female adults, and the majority of the time involved cannabis oils or softgels. Very few cases were associated with minors (two in the first year and three in the second).

While the first year’s report did not capture a significant amount of cannabis extracts or edibles (most weren’t yet on the market), in 2020, there was one suspected case of vaping-associated lung illness (VALI) that was reported as involving legal cannabis products, and two suspected cases that were reported as involving undefined cannabis. None of these cases were established to be a confirmed or probable case according to the case definition established by the Public Health Agency of Canada, though. 

The majority of reports of adverse reactions in both years involved a single legal cannabis product, although some included the mixing of multiple cannabis products. Orally-ingested extracts (ie edibles and/or oils) were the most common product associated with an adverse reaction, followed by inhaled cannabis products. 

Cannabis oil products or extracts were more frequently reported in serious cases, while dried cannabis products were more frequently reported in non-serious cases. 

Interestingly, most of the cannabis oil products in the adverse reaction cases were considered ‘CBD-dominant’ or ‘CBD-leaning’, while the dried cannabis products were typically reported as ‘THC-dominant’.

Cases involving adults 65 years and older exclusively reported use of cannabis extracts. Cases involving younger adults reported use of dried cannabis and cannabis extracts.

Only those between the ages of 18–64 were involved in adverse reaction cases with vaping liquids, while older adults (≥65 years) were more frequently involved in adverse reaction cases with ingestible oils in liquid form and softgel capsules.

The most common associated events leading to hospitalization were nervous system disorders and psychiatric disorders, followed by “general disorders” and gastrointestinal issues.

Images via Health Canada

The most commonly reported symptoms in the first year were headache, nausea, hallucination, dizziness, and anxiety. Reports of headache and dyspnoea (difficulty breathing) were more frequently associated with THC-dominant products, while reports of dizziness and diarrhea were more frequently reported with CBD-dominant or CBD-leaning products. 

In the second year, headaches were replaced by hallucinations as the most frequently reported medical events, followed by dizziness, nausea, euphoria, abnormal feelings, and insomnia.

Different medical events were also associated with different types of products, cannabinoids, and modes of consumption. 

In the second year, insomnia and pain were more frequently reported with THC-dominant or leaning products, whereas anxiety and diarrhea were more frequently reported with CBD-dominant or leaning products. Dizziness, loss of consciousness, syncope, and hallucination were also more frequently reported with CBD-dominant or leaning products.

In the first year, instances of headache and dyspnoea (difficulty breathing) were more frequently observed with THC-dominant products, whereas events of dizziness and diarrhea were more frequently reported with CBD-dominant or CBD-leaning products.

Health Canada also notes that more data over the coming years will be needed to draw more solid conclusions. The regulator also highlights that other factors may be contributing to these events including: the age and health status of patients (including pre-existing health conditions and use of concomitant medications); prior exposure to cannabis (for example, cannabis naïve consumers); dosage; route of administration; and knowledge or awareness of effects of cannabis and cannabinoids. 

Health Canada also covered one new data point that involved an increased bleeding risk associated with an interaction between orally ingested CBD-dominant cannabis oil products and the anticoagulant medication Warfarin. 

Images via Health Canada

Helping to gather data on the topic, the most recent Canadian Cannabis Survey, released in December, also included questions about any accidental exposures to cannabis in the household for humans or pets in the past year. 

Under federal cannabis regulations, licence holders are required to submit serious adverse reaction reports for instances involving a cannabis product and are encouraged to voluntarily submit non-serious adverse reaction reports involving a cannabis product. Licence holders can find more information in the Cannabis adverse reaction reporting guide.

Consumers and HCPs are also encouraged to report all adverse reactions to a cannabis product directly to the Controlled Substances and Cannabis Branch (CSCB). Consumers and HCPs may also send a report to the LH of the cannabis product.

That online Cannabis Reporting Form can be found here and includes reports for issues relating to marketing and promotion, products and packaging, as well as potential negative health events.

New testing standards could help challenge inflated THC levels in legal weed 

Last Friday, Health Canada announced several changes to the cannabis regulations. While a long-awaited change to beverage equivalency factors is getting most of the attention, the allowance of standard reference materials (SRMs) for product testing is arguably of equal importance. 

In particular, the announcement allows for “analytical testing licence holders and federal and provincial government laboratories to produce, distribute, and sell reference standards and test kits, to increase access to cannabis testing materials and thereby support access to a quality-controlled supply of cannabis.”

As unenthused as I am about the prospect of being able to push a wheelbarrow full of weed drinks home from the store now, I’m enthusiastic about this lesser-celebrated advancement. 

SRMs allow manufacturers to provide accurate information about the products they sell. For instance, when you read the nutrition information on the label of any food product, you can rest assured that the calorie count and fat content listed are accurate because the equipment used to measure them has been calibrated with an SRM that contains a known quantity of each substance being analyzed. 

Now imagine there were no SRMs. Imagine the ice cream you’re eating actually has significantly more fat and sugar in it than the nutrition label states, or only half of the vitamin C. 

Until now no such communal standard reference has been available to the cannabis industry, meaning that labs have been left to calibrate their equipment with self-adopted standards. It has been argued that, in the absence of SRMs, some labs might have calibrated their equipment in such a way as to maximize cannabinoid and terpene measurements, which would be desirable to cannabis producers in that there is an established retailer and consumer preference for higher levels of these constituents. It’s much easier to move flower at 20+ per cent than it is at say, 17.5 per cent.

These new standard reference materials have the potential to put an end to inflated cannabinoid and terpene values. Scrupulous labs can now use them to calibrate their equipment, ensuring consistently accurate measurements. They can advertise that they do this. As time progresses, this will become expected, if not mandated. 

And what’s more, these materials don’t come cheap. It takes a great deal of time and expensive equipment to produce them and all of the documentation they come with. This presents a potentially lucrative opportunity for licensed labs with the means to manufacture them. 

While I’m happy that beverage equivalencies are now more realistic—even though I’m personally not a fan of drinking weed—I’m much more optimistic that in the future this artificial notion that cannabis needs to test above 20 per cent THC in order to appeal to consumers will be a thing of the past. 

–Until it closed last spring, Ryan was the general manager of Aurora’s 200-acre outdoor facility in Westwold BC (which is now a heavily fortified garlic farm). He’s currently looking for new opportunities. Previously, he was one-half of Verp, a news editor for Lift (before the ampersand), managing editor at Canlio, and a longtime employee and ally of the Victoria Cannabis Buyers’ Club. 

The pros and cons of cannabis irradiation

One of the often misunderstood aspects of legal cannabis production is the quality assurance measures many licensed producers take post-harvest to ensure that their product passes a variety of tests. And in the four years since legalization, few have garnered as much attention as the process of irradiation. 

Take this Forbes article from April 2022, for example. “Would you smoke ‘nuclear weed’?” asks the headline before quickly (and ominously) answering: “You might already.” 

The nuclear weed in question is not, of course, the glowing, radioactive bud image the headline conjures, but cannabis that has undergone irradiation—a quality assurance process, common in both the Canadian and American cannabis industries, that exposes cannabis to radiation in order to bring its microbial levels below regulated thresholds.

“The intent of the irradiation process is not to make up for, or compensate for, really poor sanitation systems or really contaminated product.”

Gordon Dobrindt, Senior Manager Quality Systems, Steris

Irradiation is generally accepted within the cannabis industry as a useful quality assurance process at the end of the production cycle that brings microbial levels under safe thresholds. Many producers routinely irradiate all batches of cannabis as a kind of quality guarantee—not necessarily to bring an unsalable batch up to par, but to provide an assurance that the batch will pass quality tests. “The intent of the irradiation process is not to make up for, or compensate for, really poor sanitation systems or really contaminated product,” said Gordon Dobrindt, senior manager of quality systems at Steris, during an irradiation panel discussion earlier this year. “It’s a final level of insurance.”

But this is far from a unanimous opinion, and critics of how the industry uses irradiation say the process is being “abused” by some producers. Craft producers, meanwhile, are finding that marketing their cannabis as non-irradiated is attractive to quality-conscious consumers coming over from the illicit market. 

The public’s understanding of irradiation is spotty. Questions and myths persist about the safety, value, and necessity of irradiation in cannabis production, as well as the impact on the cannabis itself, with many laypersons blaming irradiation for all manner of deficiencies, from dryness, to colour, to poor taste. 

When it comes to this oft-misunderstood process, who’s right here? In a way, everyone is. 

What is irradiation? 

In the simplest sense, irradiation works by exposing harvested cannabis to radiation—commonly either gamma, electron-beam (e-beam), or x-ray—to render contaminants like mould spores and other microbes inert and harmless to the consumer. At the outset of legalization, gamma irradiation was the most common method of decontamination, but since then, some producers have moved to e-beam irradiation, a shorter and cheaper process than gamma that produces comparable results. 

There’s little disagreement, even among critics, that the process, which was first used on food in the 1950s, can effectively reduce microbial contamination to safe levels. Irradiation is broadly effective at bringing microbial levels below acceptable, safe-to-consume thresholds. The goal is rarely to sterilize the product completely but rather to bring the microbial levels down. “The limits themselves are pretty strict,” says Siva Kalyan Sompalli, quality assurance technical lead with Aleafia Health. Stripping cannabis of all microbes is unrealistic, he says. “It’s not free of microbes, it’s just that the microbes are within acceptable limits.” 

Does it damage the cannabis? 

Although a few studies over the years have examined the effect of irradiation on cannabinoids and terpenes, “there really is very limited science out there on this issue at the moment,” says Tess Eidem, a microbiologist and owner of Rogue Micro, a microbial control consultancy in Colorado. “Overall, data is pretty lacking in our industry.” 

A 2020 study led by researcher Olga Kovalchuk found that irradiation converted some of the THCa in their samples to THC, as well as noted “changes in several terpenes.” A further study, published in November 2022, found, however, that irradiation “has minimal effects on THCa, delta9-THC and terpene concentrations”—but noted that they achieved that “under well-controlled laboratory conditions” that “do not reflect how cannabis manufacturers may conduct their decontamination procedures.”

Terpenes are a slightly different story. A 2016 study by Bedrocan’s Arno Hazekamp found that “irradiation had a measurable effect on the content of multiple cannabis terpenes, mainly on the more volatile monoterpenes.” The damage was normally found to be in the 10-20% range. “The slight terpene reduction observed in the current study is comparable to the effect that short-term storage in a paper bag had on cannabis samples,” the study found. “A likely explanation, therefore, seems that gamma irradiation slightly accelerates the evaporation of some of the more volatile terpenes.”

But it’s important to note that the degradation of terpenes is not due specifically to the irradiation. “Irradiation itself generates a very small amount of heat,” says Sompalli. “It’s not the irradiation itself that affects the terpenes, it’s the temperature change.”

“You’re growing something that is plant material, in grow mediums where you apply nutrients. You need to have microbes to support plant growth, and that’s the primary source of any microbial contamination itself. It’s a natural balance, a symbiotic relationship.”

Siva Kalyan Sompalli, quality assurance technical lead, Aleafia Health

How are LPs using it? 

It’s been estimated that between 80 and 90 percent of Canadian LPs are routinely irradiating their cannabis as a standard practice in order to avoid costly recalls and failed tests. “We are irradiating because we want to guarantee the quality,” said Nina Ackah of Viridis Cannabis during the previously mentioned panel discussion. Microbial regulations are strict. “I believe almost every LP would not be able to meet those limits,” she said. “Irradiation comes in to meet the product specification that we require.” 

Producers often claim that their microbial levels can vary a lot, regardless of sanitary practices. Cannabis is a living plant, after all, and microbes are crucial to the process. “You’re growing something that is plant material, in grow mediums where you apply nutrients,” Sompalli says. “You need to have microbes to support plant growth, and that’s the primary source of any microbial contamination itself. It’s a natural balance, a symbiotic relationship.”

Growers with large operations have found that sanitary practices are not always sufficient — some strains encourage more microbial growth than others, while sometimes it is just up to chance. Sompalli, referring to his past experience at a federally-licensed cannabis producer, says it can be a challenging process.

“We have seen that no matter how clean your process is, it’s almost like guesswork.” One batch will pass; the other won’t. “It’s also strain-specific,” he says. “Some strains like a Kush—those dense strains—they’re hard to reduce moisture [which enables microbial growth].” 

But not all producers see irradiation as inevitable. Craft growers say that consumers (especially those with a foot still in the legacy market) prefer non-irradiated cannabis. Jonathan Wilson of New Brunswick-based craft grower Crystal Cure says, “in my eyes, if a product has to be irradiated or remediated before it passes a microbial test, then I don’t consider that clean cannabis.” This echoes what any LP, even those who are irradiating, will tell you: irradiation does not exist to replace good microbial control practices, which are the most consequential factor on final microbial levels. “We prefer to be clean all the time and prevent things that would require remediation.” Being able to list one’s product as non-irradiated allows them to communicate this to consumers fairly quickly.

It also represents cost savings. “If we can avoid using it as a company, why wouldn’t we? Irradiation is a very costly process.” 

Although federal organic regulations don’t apply to cannabis, some third-party organic certification agencies (such as the Fraser Valley Organic Producers’ Association, for example) require cannabis to be non-irradiated to receive the designation. 

Critics of the process say that producers are over-irradiating. “Irradiation is abused in cannabis, in my opinion,” says Eidem. “For sure, in some contexts, these methods may be useful, specifically if a product is strictly medical and the intended use is for immunocompromised patients.” Eidem says that it’s common for producers to build irradiation into their production cycle because irradiation suppliers market it successfully. “Look at some of the irradiation company marketing,” she says. “It says stuff like ‘guaranteed passing,’ and ‘100% passing.’ They don’t talk about quality or integrating this step into their good manufacturing practices.

“People irradiate because it’s a guarantee that no matter what happens in their garden or during post-harvest, they can pass testing,” she argues. “Canada is miles ahead of the U.S. as far as good practices go, but they’re nowhere near where they should be.”

Is irradiation here to stay?

Given the industry’s comfort with the practice, irradiated cannabis is likely going to remain a valuable part of the production process. Done properly, it poses no risk to the end user on its own—though done improperly, Eidem says, it may have the ability to leech toxic chemicals from plastic packaging into the weed. 

But others would still like the industry to shift away from irradiation, if only towards improved remediation techniques. Florina Truica, chief technical officer of the Cold Plasma Group in Kingston, Ont., believes her company’s cold plasma technique (which uses cold plasma gases to kill contaminants) offers an improvement. “Our plasma remediation cycles are optimized specifically for use with cannabis flower, balancing the kill efficiency with the need to protect the flower quality. For example, their appearance, the moisture, smell, as well as the precious phytochemicals contained in the cannabis flower,” she explains. “In addition, the treatment penetrates in all the pores of the flower from all directions, ensuring a complete and uniform treatment.” She also says that their cold plasma treatment machines are “several orders of magnitude cheaper, can be operated by the processors’ regular employees, and require only a small footprint of space for installation.” 

Supporters of irradiation practices see the issue as a minor one, ultimately, that consumers will eventually forget about. “I think over time, all this will go to the back burner, and consumers will care about more specific things,” says Sompalli. “You consume spices every day—nobody is looking at the labels to see if it is irradiated or not. You are using, on a day-to-day basis, a product that is irradiated; cannabis is no different.”

More testing needed to address heavy metals in vapes, say researchers

A new research paper showing evidence of high levels of heavy metals in vape pens suggests the government should require more testing and labelling to help better protect consumers.

The study, a partnership between Health Canada’s Office of Cannabis Science and Surveillance and the National Research Council’s Metrology Research Centre, found evidence of high concentrations of some metals in cannabis vape liquids from both the legal and illegal markets in Canada.

Several of the samples—20 legal and 21 illegal—”significantly exceeded” the established tolerance limits for elemental impurities in inhaled products that are established by the European Pharmacopoeia.

The samples of cannabis vape liquids (from the OCS on the legal side and from the Ontario Provincial Police on the illegal side) were analyzed for metals that are commonly tested for in cannabis, such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead. These elements can be present from fertilizers, pesticides or other environmental reasons. 

The samples were also then tested for metals that could be present due to leaching from the metallic parts of the vaping devices themselves, such as cobalt, chromium, copper, iron, and several others. Research suggests that the potentially high acidity of cannabis vape liquids can cause these metals to leach into the cannabis oil itself. 

The concentrations of arsenic, mercury, and cadmium in all of the tested samples were within the generally accepted tolerance limits, but the concentration of lead exceeded the tolerance limit in one legal vape pen and six illegal ones. Levels of nickel were, in some cases, 900 times above the established limits in several illegal samples.

Only a few of the tested samples exceeded the limits for cobalt and vanadium, and several samples from both markets were above the limits for chromium, copper, nickel, and lead. Several of the samples from the illicit market showed lead concentrations up to 100 times higher than the allowable limit.

Researchers also noted variations in the concentrations of heavy metals in samples from the same products bought at the same time from the same production lot.

What are you inhaling? Understanding analytical testing for cannabis vape pens

All vape pens tested were no more than eight months old, based on available packaging dates. The report noted that other research has shown increasing levels of leaching from nicotine vape products that have sat on shelves for more than two years, suggesting this same process could apply to cannabis vape pens as well.

Several other publications have identified metal particles in the aerosol generated from nicotine vape devices. The vape devices in these studies were heated and cooled multiple times to mimic normal consumer use better, leading to speculation that this process could add to the degradation of the metal into the vape liquid. 

However, the products used in this study did not undergo such treatment. Researchers suggest this could point to other sources of contamination, such as the stainless steel aerosol tube and the core of the electrical connector, as a likely source of detected particles.

The health concerns due to the inhalation of these heavy metals, especially in often very fine aerosolized particles, are significant. 

Inhaled metals are quickly absorbed through the respiratory tract and can be further transported to other organs. Researchers highlight that lungs are particularly susceptible to nickel toxicity, with adverse effects ranging from lung inflammatory changes to induced rhinitis and sinusitis or allergic dermatitis. 

Even low exposure to inhaled lead can result in an increased risk of cardiovascular and kidney diseases, and inhalation of chromium and copper can lead to reduced lung function, an increased risk of asthma, respiratory irritation, or chest pain. 

Adding to this, the presence of nanosized metal particles in vape aerosol is also a significant health concern. These very small particles can penetrate deep into the lungs, where they can be more easily absorbed and react even more strongly with the body. 

The uneven heating potential of many cannabis vape pens is also a concern, as high levels of heat can potentially create additional new, dangerous compounds.

Because of this high presence of heavy metals in even legal vape pens, researchers in this paper suggest Health Canada and other cannabis regulators should consider requiring additional testing for heavy metals. Testing should also be required after cannabis has been processed into a vape liquid, not only the raw cannabis inputs, as Health Canada currently requires, adds the paper. 

It also suggests Health Canada could require more information about the metal components of vape devices, along with the filling date of the vape device, to help consumers make more informed choices and standards for vaping device construction and the materials used.

In the past, the OPP along with the National Research Council have provided testing information on illicit vape products high levels of unapproved pesticides and inaccurate THC listings

British Columbia and New Brunswick have released similar results from illicit products seized in those provinces.

Health Canada is expected to announce restrictions on some flavourings for cannabis vape pens soon. The proposed amendments were expected to be registered in 2022.

These proposed amendments would restrict the production, sale, promotion, packaging, or labelling of inhaled cannabis extracts from having a flavour “other than the flavour of cannabis” and would apply equally to inhaled cannabis extracts sold for both medical and non-medical purposes.

Study: No significant increase in youth cannabis use following legalization in Canada

A recent study by researchers in Newfoundland and Labrador shows some changes in youth use rates and perceptions of cannabis one year after legalization. 

The study, published in October in The Journal of Adolescent Health (JAH), concludes that cannabis legalization in Canada was associated with a greater perception of cannabis harm among young people, but also easier access to cannabis.

Although researchers say there is evidence that legalization was associated with an increase in cannabis initiation rates among young Canadians, there was also no significant increase in the overall prevalence of cannabis use among youths.

It concluded that additional policy measures are needed to curb youth cannabis initiation and their access to cannabis, but also notes a possible increase in cessation among existing users.

The study notes several significant results. Although they didn’t find a significant increase in cannabis use among minors after legalization, there was a higher initiation of cannabis use among those who had not previously admitted to using cannabis. 

More than 20% of young people in Canada and more than 13% in the United States reported using cannabis in 2019, with the average age of cannabis use initiation being 14 to 16 years of age. 

Researchers also found evidence that youths aged 17 and 18 years actually postponed cannabis initiation after it was legalized. The increase in the perceived harms of cannabis among young people in Canada contradicts research conducted in the US, which the study speculates is likely due to more strict public health messaging around cannabis in Canada compared to the US. 

However, the researchers also argue that the increase in “cannabis initiation” following legalization counteracts this factor.

As with the other research it cites, the study notes it is limited by the available data on cannabis use prior to and following legalization. With the cannabis market evolving so quickly in Canada over the four years since legalization, many significant changes will have taken place that could alter the results of future research. 

Previously, two Canadian studies on the subject looked at changes in cannabis use among youths and found no changes in cannabis use prevalence after cannabis was legalized. Similar research on cannabis legalization in Uruguay showed it had no impact on youth cannabis use.

Research looking at Washington and Colorado is not as clear, with both an increase and no change found, while another study showed a decline in youth cannabis use in Washington state. 

Consumer perception of legal market improving, still has a way to go

In the first three years of legalization, Canadian cannabis consumers have had increasingly positive views of legal cannabis products when compared to illegal cannabis products regarding quality, convenience, safety, and price.

Despite this increasingly positive outlook, nearly half of respondents captured in the study still reported that legal cannabis was more expensive than illegal cannabis, while one-fifth reported there was no difference, and only about one in ten reported legal cannabis was less expensive than its illicit counterpart. 

Those who were more likely to consume daily or almost daily were more likely to have negative perceptions of the legal market compared to the illegal market when it came to factors like price, quality and convenience.

This view also reflects the declining prices documented in the legal market, especially with the introduction of larger-volume formats like 14, 28, and 30-gram flower offerings, as well as decreasing prices on products like extracts, vape pens, and edibles. 

Data for the study were analyzed from more than 15,000 Canadian respondents to the International Cannabis Policy Study who had consumed cannabis in the past year and were of the legal age of access. The survey was conducted in 2019–2021 and completed online. 

Over time, data show that respondents tended to show an increase in the consumer perception that legal cannabis is safer and easier to buy and of higher quality, although often more expensive than the black market. 

Breaking down responses by demographics such as age, gender, and location, the survey also shows how these shifts affect each group. For example, respondents in Québec were more likely to report that they felt legal cannabis was of higher quality or no different (vs. lower quality) compared to all other provinces except Prince Edward Island. 

Those in Nova Scotia and British Columbia were the least likely to say legal cannabis was of higher quality, as well as the least likely to say it was less expensive. Those in Ontario and Nova Scotia were the least likely to say purchasing legal cannabis was more convenient.  

Respondents in Québec were also more likely to report that legal cannabis was less expensive than illegal cannabis when compared to those in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia (vs. more expensive; OR reversed). This matches market data showing Quebec with some of the lowest legal cannabis prices in Canada.

Although consumers said that legal cannabis was increasingly more convenient to buy than illegal cannabis, this tended to fluctuate by province, given the significant difference each jurisdiction has in regard to stores per capita, as well as the size of the licit market. 

Respondents in British Columbia and Ontario were the least likely to report that legal cannabis was more convenient to buy, likely due to both a robust black market in those provinces and—especially so in Ontario—an initially slow rollout of retail stores (Ontario went from 24 stores in 2019 to 1,042 stores in 2021).

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