California recalls cannabis vape many months after it was told of contamination

A West Coast Cure vape cartridge tested for pesticides.
A West Coast Cure vape cartridge. California regulators Tuesday recalled an Orange Cookies-flavored batch reported to the agency as contaminated seven months earlier. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

California cannabis regulators on Tuesday recalled a pesticide-tainted vape, one of scores of contaminated products identified in a Los Angeles Times investigation that disclosed the state for months has known about dangerous chemicals in legal weed sold to the public.

The product ordered pulled from sale is an "Orange Cookies"-flavored West Coast Cure vape cartridge produced in September. The state recall said the vape exceeded safety limits for a single chemical, the insecticide chlorfenapyr.

The Department of Cannabis Control did not immediately disclose how many of the vapes remained on store shelves, but posted online a list of 169 locations throughout the state where the product had been sold. The product's safety certificate came from a lab whose license has since been suspended. That lab, Verity Analytics, reported the batch consisted of nearly 5,000 vapes.

It was among a dozen West Coast Cure batches manufactured in September — consisting of more than 62,000 vapes in assorted flavors — that private lab Infinite Chemical Analysis tested last fall and reported to state regulators as containing pesticides that exceeded state limits. All had been certified as safe by other labs.

Blue and black cartons, which are CUREpen weed vape packages
The Department of Cannabis Control is issuing this mandatory recall of a single CUREpen vape product due to the presence of the pesticide chlorfenapyr. (Dept. of Cannabis Control)

Infinite reported the Orange Cookies batch in a complaint to the state in November. In addition to chlorfenapyr, the lab identified two additional chemicals in that batch: paclobutrazol, a growth hormone not allowed at any level, and trifloxystrobin, which showed up at four times what California deems safe.

State regulators would not say why they did not flag the product for the additional chemicals. The state also did not immediately respond to questions about why it took seven months to recall a product reported for safety concerns.

"It’s a symbolic recall," said Elliot Lewis, owner of the 27-store Catalyst dispensary chain. Twenty-three of his stores carried the recalled vape. They sold out months ago, he said.

Lewis had posted news of the recall on social media, provoking heated comments that left him flustered.

"Getting slammed," he said. "First time I can remember going home unplanned [in the] middle of the day."

The owner of another large dispensary chain said its stores had two of the products still in inventory but pulled them from shelves last week after their inclusion in an investigation by The Times, in conjunction with industry newsletter WeedWeek, that found alarming levels of pesticide contamination in cannabis products available to consumers, including some of the most popular brands.

That June 14 report showed 25 out of 42 products bought from licensed stores exceeded either state safety limits or federal tobacco standards. The results mirrored 85 contamination complaints filed with California regulators since October by Infinite and another whistleblower, Anresco Laboratories.

Before Tuesday, regulators had issued pesticide-related recalls for only two of the products that were the subject of the complaints.

West Coast Cure is California's fourth-top-selling cannabis brand. Its parent company, Shield Management Group, this year was fined $3.2 million by California regulators after a surprise inspection found it had failed to guard against product tampering, such as storing cannabis products in parking lot containers without video surveillance. The company also could not produce state-required footage proving products had not been tampered with before lab testing or distribution.

West Coast Cure co-founder Logan Wasserman did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the recall.

A statement to The Times on Tuesday by a public relations firm on behalf of the company said: "We have passing test results from state licensed labs for every product we put on the market. Our dedication to excellence and doing what’s right for our customers and our community is at the core of our values. We remain steadfast in our mission to provide fully tested, exceptional products and uphold the trust placed in us."

In federal court Monday, Infinite and Anresco filed a lawsuit against 13 independent labs that test cannabis products for the weed industry, accusing them of manipulating test results in order to win business, while putting consumer health at risk. The civil suit cites product safety certificates issued by some of the labs for products later found to be contaminated, as well as Department of Cannabis Control findings cited in disciplinary reports.

Infinite's tests were also cited by class-action attorneys in a lawsuit filed June 14 in Orange County Superior Court against West Coast Cure, seeking damages for 21 vape flavors alleged to be contaminated with pesticides, including the Orange Cookies product recalled Tuesday.

"Whereas competition used to be healthy and revolved around quality, turnaround time and customer service, it has now devolved into a free-for-all, in which brands and laboratories agree, jointly, to ignore 'safety fails' ... in an effort to hide the presence of dangerous chemicals, which otherwise would prevent the sale of these tainted goods," the consumer complaint alleges.

Both cases were handled by Arkansas class-action attorney David Slade, whose litigation cases include filings against Apple, Best Buy stores, Target and Hobby Lobby.

Other weed industry leaders called for a crackdown on alleged “persistent testing fraud” by the private labs California relies upon to screen cannabis for harmful substances.

"The state’s continued failure to enforce against those who fail to comply — both inside and outside of the regulated market — has put the credibility of the entire adult-use market in peril, and now threatens the very consumers we aim to serve," the California Cannabis Industry Assn. said in response to the report by The Times and WeedWeek.

Gov. Gavin Newsom's office voiced confidence in his cannabis agency's handling of contamination issues, saying it "supports DCC in developing innovative policies and effective implementation that advances and facilitates a well-regulated, legal, and safe market that benefits all Californians."

California has struggled since creation of the recreational cannabis market in 2018 to set up a state lab to enforce limits on pesticides in weed products.

In 2021, the cannabis agency signed an $11-million, five-year contract with UC San Diego's cannabis research program to create a state lab "in order to confirm that licensed testing laboratories are accurately and reliably testing cannabis goods," budget filings and contract records show. Those documents describe the lab as intended to run tests for regulators with results available within five days.

Four years and $9 million in payments later, the San Diego lab is not certified to check pesticide levels, its accreditation record shows.

With consolidation of cannabis-related regulation under a single agency in 2021, the Department of Cannabis Control took over a cannabis lab in Richmond that had been run by the Department of Public Health. In the ensuing years, that lab has gained accreditation to test for potency levels and microbial contamination, but is not certified to measure pesticides.

In the interim, cannabis regulators are constrained by the limitations of other state labs that have sometimes agreed to test weed. The Agriculture Department lab, for instance, tested cannabis flower to identify the presence of smuggled Chinese-label pesticides. But the lab cannot assess the safety of vaping oils, in which contamination problems appeared greatest.

With state safety certificates called into question, one of California's largest weed retailers, Catalyst, announced it would start its own shelf testing program. Lewis, its owner, voiced mixed feelings about what consumers would make of that. He said that he remained convinced that products sold on the illicit market are worse, and that lessening public confidence in the legal market would hurt brands producing clean products.

In an email, he said vape sales have dropped since the June 14 article. "I suspect more folks now see no benefit of shopping for legal products," he wrote. "The customer's thought process is, 'It's all dirty.'"

It is not good timing for a loss of faith in the legal market. Sales of licensed products have been slipping in California since peaking in 2021 at $5.3 billion, according to monthly sales reports posted by the Department of Cannabis Control. The most recent data show reported sales of $4.9 billion for 2023.

The desire to convince California residents and tourists to purchase their cannabis in licensed and taxed shops has driven state marketing and data collection campaigns since 2020, including the $5-million "Real CA Cannabis" campaign that kicked off in February, featuring social media messages on Facebook, Instagram and Reddit targeted at key demographics.

"[F]or public health purposes, the state has an interest in seeing consumer behavior shift more swiftly to the legal and regulated market," the cannabis control agency wrote in a 2022 budget request, citing deaths and injuries two years prior from dangerous substances in cannabis and tobacco vaping products.

In California alone, some 250 people were hospitalized and five died when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2019 linked a rise in lung-related injuries to vaping products, the cannabis agency wrote in its budget request.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.