If you’re looking for convenience and portability when it comes to cannabis consumption, it’s hard to beat vapes. Choose a vape cartridge, attach it to a vape battery, and you’re ready to go. The battery heats an atomizer inside the cartridge to produce a vapour, which can then be inhaled.
Those cartridges, more commonly known as “vape carts,” are glass tubes prefilled with cannabis extract or concentrate. While there are many proprietary types on the market, 510 thread carts are amongst the most popular — they’re compatible with the widely available 510 battery. Fun fact: the “510” moniker comes from the battery’s five-millimetre length and the 10 threads (or grooves) that connect it and the cart.
Have you ever wondered how cannabis becomes your favourite 510 vape cart? We spoke to three Licensed Producers, Aphria, MediPharm Labs and Supreme, to find out.
Step 1: Create the Cannabis Extract
The key ingredient in a vape cart is, of course, cannabis, which is in the form of an extract or concentrate: either a distillate (a highly refined oil that contains almost no terpenes), a full-spectrum extract (typically produced from a single strain and using techniques that preserve most of the original terpenes and cannabinoids) or a live resin (produced using heat and pressure, rather than chemicals, which maintains much of the terpene content).
Licensed Producers employ various extraction techniques to create their own unique concentrated formulas. To fill its Sugarleaf cart, Supreme uses an ethanol extraction process to create a distillate from its own sativa-dominant Jean Guy strain. Similarly, Aphria employs ethanol extraction to turn its own cannabis into its Good Supply and Broken Coast brand vape carts. MediPharm’s Wayfarer sources dried cannabis from other Licensed Producers, zeroing in on sought-after cannabinoids, and uses a CO2 extraction process to transform the cannabis into distillate.
Some brands focus on a specific strain for their carts; like the dried cannabis itself, the flavour and aroma of the extract or concentrate may vary slightly from batch to batch. Other brands use a blend of extracts and then add selected terpenes to produce a consistent flavour (more about that in the next step).
What Are Terpenes?
Terpenes are fragrant oils found in many types of plants, including cannabis. The chemical compounds they secrete give cannabis strains their unique aromas and flavours. Read more here.
Step 2: Give It Flavour and Flow
If the cannabis has been stripped of most of its terpenes during the extraction process, they’re often added back to the mix later. These added terpenes can be naturally derived from cannabis, as is the case with Sugarleaf carts, or from other botanicals (botanical-derived terpenes are identical in composition to those found in cannabis).
“By blending our distillate with individually formulated botanical terpenes, we can create consistently potent products that have the same flavour every time a consumer buys a Wayfarer cartridge,” says Brett Moon, vice-president of sales and marketing at MediPharm.
Broken Coast uses a proprietary CO2 extraction process to isolate cannabis terpenes specific to its craft strains, then reintroduces them into the vape cart extract. “Broken Coast is known for its flower quality, so it was extremely important to transfer that into the vape offering,” says Miguel Guillemette, product development associate at Aphria.
A pure extract without many terpenes may need a thinning agent — such as propylene glycol (PG) or vegetable glycerin (VG) — to produce the viscosity it needs to flow in the vape cart. As per Health Canada’s Cannabis Regulations, certain added ingredients, including vitamins (including vitamin E acetate), minerals, nicotine, caffeine, sugars and sweeteners, are prohibited.
Step 3: Assemble and Fill
Once the cannabis extract is ready, it’s time to assemble the vape cart components. While these can vary, the basic parts are the mouthpiece, tank or chamber (to hold the liquid) and the heating element (also called an atomizer). The components must be robust enough to withstand heating. Some vape carts are designed to offer precise dosing and will specify how much THC may be contained in each draw.
Each company has its own unique production line, but here’s a peek onto the factory floor at Supreme: “We use an automatic Thompson Duke filler that heats up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the filler tray is loaded with 100 bottom halves of the cartridges, the filling needles fill each cartridge to the top. The tray is then taken off the machine line, and another operator will start capping the cartridges,” says Nicole Sale, vice-president of marketing and communications.
Over at Aphria’s Leamington, Ont., facility, a 10-member team is dedicated to the production of vape carts; they can produce a whopping 24,000 carts per day!
Step 4: Lots and Lots of Testing
Quality assurance is a key part in the production process of any cannabis format: every batch must be sent out for third-party testing and receive a Certificate of Analysis (COA). For 510 vape carts, testing is done on the base ingredients in the extract, as well as the colour, viscosity, flavour and potency of the final product. It’s also checked for the presence of pesticides, heavy metals and microbial contamination, such as E. coli. Some producers may go the extra step of having the vapour emissions tested as well.
The cartridge hardware itself must also be tested to ensure the componentry will work properly. Like any hardware or circuitry, vapes have the potential to malfunction. Refer to the FAQ or troubleshooting guide from the Licensed Producer if you’re having trouble.
Step 5: Package It Up
Labels on 510 vape carts, like other cannabis formats, must include the cannabis symbol, brand name, THC and CBD content, health warning message, lot number, “packaged on” date, bar code and list of ingredients. The federal excise stamp must also be present to show the product is certified legal and the manufacturer has paid the duty on it (exemptions may apply for cannabis products with THC levels of less than 0.3%).
Because 510 vape cartridges are disposable, producers are looking at ways to reduce waste while still adhering to federal safety requirements. Supreme, for instance, says it’s working on more environmentally friendly packaging for its future products.
Now that we have a clearer picture of how 510 vape carts are made, what’s next for the format?
Producers hope the industry can move toward more sustainable production, including manufacturing, packaging and the devices themselves. They’re also working on a wider range of extract options, including more full-spectrum carts created from butane, and solventless extraction, like live resin. Stay tuned for advanced hardware, too, with more customizable elements and smart technology.