Examining America’s Vaping Crisis
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has now confirmed what most cannabis industry stakeholders had long asserted: Vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent added to some cannabis vape cartridges, is the leading culprit in an outbreak of lung injuries that has reached 49 states and claimed 39 lives.
In early August, some of the first cases of vaping-related lung injuries, known as EVALI, began surfacing. Fast forward three months, and more than 2,000 EVALI cases have since been documented by the CDC.
CDC officials have stressed that vitamin E acetate might not be the only cause, nevertheless, many cannabis industry members have taken it upon themselves to alert consumers of the potentially harmful chemicals that could be lurking in their vaporizers.
Cresco Labs, one of the largest vertically-integrated cannabis companies in the U.S., was one of the earliest to address the issue publicly. In early September, the Chicago-based cannabusiness, which had been tracking the issue for weeks, took to social media to discuss vitamin E acetate and its possible linkage to the outbreak of vaping-related lung illnesses.
Cresco Labs believed in its rigorous protocols that tracked cannabis products from seed to sale. So on Saturday, September 7, Cresco tweeted a statement that laid bare its airtight production process, and how it avoided potentially problematic additives and cutting agents.
A message to our community. pic.twitter.com/q22Vo9OtV8— Cresco Labs (@crescolabs) September 7, 2019
“People were appreciative that we were being so forthcoming with what’s in our products, and what’s not in them,” Jason Erkes, Cresco’s chief communications officer told THCnet.
The tweet, which hinted at a need for stricter regulation, quickly became the company’s most popular social-media post.
In recent years, vaping has become an increasingly popular method of consuming cannabis. Cartridges and disposable devices account for around 15 to 30 percent of sales in legalized states including California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, according to data from Headset, which tracks purchases in the cannabis industry.
The widespread appeal of vaping cannabis oil lies in its rapid vanishing act. Unlike smoking flower, vaping is discrete, odorless and packs a near-instant onset of THC.
Now, dark clouds have surrounded vaping. As of November 8, a total of 2,051 EVALI cases have been reported to CDC and the epidemic has stuck the cannabis industry in the crosshairs of public officials looking for a target to blame.
In September, Massachusetts initiated a ban on all tobacco and cannabis vaping products, while Oregon enacted a six-month ban on flavored cannabis vaping products in October. (The Oregon Court of Appeals placed a temporary stay against the ban for flavored tobacco products.)
Legal-cannabis states that lack bans have also seen sales slide. Vaping pens accounted for around 32 percent of California’s cannabis market in early August, dropping to 24 percent by mid-September, according to Headset.
“The initial national inclination is to start banning things,” Erkes said, “but it’s important for regulators and enforcement agencies to look at where the problem is coming from.”
Early reports suggested that additives and cutting agents such as Vitamin E acetate, which legalized cannabis companies have said are more often used by black-market producers as a way to dilute the finished product and cut costs, could be to blame.
In September, NBC News commissioned CannaSafe, a California-based testing lab, to analyze 18 THC cartridges — three acquired from legal dispensaries, the remainder from black-market sellers.
The legal cartridges contained no Vitamin E acetate, heavy metals or other contaminants. However, 13 of the 15 unregulated cartridges contained Vitamin E acetate and, troublingly, a fungicide called myclobutanil. It’s commonly used on wine grapes to prevent diseases such as powdery mildew.
The government deems the pesticide safe to ingest in small amounts. But when myclobutanil is heated to 400°F, it releases a stew of toxic gases including hydrogen cyanide.
As the news cycle filled with fearmongering stories such as “The Dangers of Vaping Doctors Want Everyone to Know,” the cannabis vaping crisis cranked the heat on another simmering health concern — teenage vaping. E-cigarette companies such as Juul were under fire for manufacturing flavored cartridges that proved wildly popular, and addictive, to underage teenagers.
Vaping tobacco and cannabis became intertwined, confusingly so.
“The real problem is illicit vaporizers,” said John Oram, the CEO and founder of NUG, a vertically-integrated cannabis company based in California. “It’s not the tobacco vaporizer.”
Oram is one of the industry stakeholders that believes black-market products are the issue.
“How do you stop the illicit market?” he asked.
In California alone, where authorities seized more than $1.5 billion worth of illegal marijuana during fiscal year 2019, it’s estimated that the illicit market is three times as large as the legal market. And not everyone possesses the scientific chops to package cannabis vape products.
“It’s one thing to grow weed in your closet and sell it, but it’s another thing to become a junior chemist in your closet,” said Max Simon, the CEO and co-founder of Green Flower Media, a cannabis education platform.
“Fake chemists are playing important chemistry roles,” he added. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing the repercussions of unregulated, untested, unverified products ultimately getting tainted and making people sick.”
Part of the blame goes to uneven, and even nonexistent, cannabis regulation. When America exited alcohol Prohibition, the government enacted a strict legal framework for the production, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages. The decriminalization of cannabis, however, is occurring in a patchwork, state-by-state manner with no federal oversight.
Nationally, cannabis remains a Schedule I drug. In legal states, the regulatory onus largely sits on cannabis producers, who take seriously their roles in manufacturing safe products with dependable dosing.
“Our standards are higher than what you find in the organic food industry,” said Erik Knutson, the CEO and co-founder of Colorado’s Keef Brands. Around 50 percent of the Keef’s sales come from vaping-related products.
As a golden rule, Knutson cautions consumers against purchasing cannabis products from unregulated and unlicensed stores. In states where cannabis remains illegal, vape pens are likely not being produced in regulated facilities, he said.
So where does the cannabis industry go from here?
In a doom-and-gloom scenario, the ongoing crisis could block the bumpy road toward national legalization efforts, halting and even reversing hard-fought gains. At a minimum, cannabis has taken a serious reputational hit.
“This has associated the risk that cannabis can cause people to die,” said Simon of Green Flower.
Former Canopy Growth co-founder and CEO Bruce Linton, who was just named the executive chairman at Vireo Health International, recently told Bloomberg that national legalization of recreational cannabis is unlikely, but that federal laws permitting medical marijuana or “states rights” could be part of the 2020 political conversation.
In the meantime, cannabis companies hope the vaping crisis can help point toward a safer, healthier and even a fully legalized future. Licensed and fully accountable stores selling traceable products might be the necessary medicine to cure the ills of the black market.
“This very tragic experience is a very strong motivation to enact legalization efforts to ensure that unregulated products don’t cause more consumer-safety issues,” said Jeff Mascio, the chief executive officer of Cannabis One, a Colorado aggregator of cannabis retailers and manufacturers.
“Vaping technology is not going anywhere,” he added. “The only thing you can effectively do is regulate it.”