NCIA Report: Illicit Market to Blame for Vaping Crisis

Credit: National Cannabis Industry Association

The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) today released a lengthy report examining the potential causes of a vaping crisis that has sent more than 2,700 individuals to the hospital with lung illnesses and claimed 60 lives.

According to the NCIA, an underground marijuana market is mostly to blame.

“The cannabis industry has a serious and disruptive illicit market problem that is directly affecting public health and safety,” the report states, noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “has not yet definitively determined the proximate cause for every injury or death.”

“The overwhelming preponderance of the evidence points to additives in illicit market products,” the NCIA contends.

For much of last year, the cannabis industry was stung by a steady stream of negative headlines outlining the dangers of vaping.

As of January 21, 2020, the CDC has confirmed 2,711 hospitalized cases of EVALI (e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury) from 50 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

82% of patients admitted to hospitals reported using THC-containing products, and the overwhelming majority of individuals (78%) that provided data on sourcing methods said they obtain THC vape cartridges from “informal sources.”

In the wake of the EVALI outbreak, a number of states – including Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Washington – worked quickly to temporarily ban the sale of flavored vaping products, include those containing THC.

Although some of those bans have since been lifted or overturned by the courts (Massachusetts, Michigan and New York), additional states are still considering similar mandates for 2020, according to the NCIA.

Nevertheless, the CDC has reported continued declines in the number of EVALI cases being reported on a weekly basis, which the agency believes is the result of increased awareness of the risks associated with using THC vapes, statewide bans and the removal of vitamin E acetate (VEA) – a suspected culprit of the outbreak – from THC products altogether.

For its part, the NCIA, which acknowledged the decline of new EVALI cases via a press release (below), did not offer its own reasons for the why fewer respiratory illnesses are now being reported.

The organization did, however, outline what it believes led to the vaping crisis.

The primary culprit of the EVALI outbreaks were black market products, the group said, adding that high taxes, a slow licensing process and a lack of proper enforcement have deterred experienced cannabis growers from legitimizing their operations and complying with stricter manufacturing standards.

“In order to permanently displace cannabis’s illicit market, regulators must lower taxes on compliant businesses and their customers, work to expand the market by providing a licensure pathway to unlicensed operations, and re-shift focus from raiding illegal retail storefronts to permanently dismantling illicit cultivation operations,” the report states.

Credit: National Cannabis Industry Association

According to the NICA, illegal retailers outnumber licenses marijuana businesses in California by a ratio of 3 to 1. Meanwhile, only 33% of California cities and 41% of California counties allow commercial cannabis operations, a phenomenon that has stunted the growth of the legal market and allowed illicit enterprises to thrive.

“Illegal operators pay no tax and avoid the substantial costs that come with being compliant under state and local regulations,” they wrote. “This imbalance prevents a legal operator from being able to meaningfully compete against its underground counterpart.”

In addition to undercutting the legal market on the price, black market producers also go to great lengths to disguise their offerings as bonafide brands.

“Illicit market cartridges are often sold in packaging that resembles known brands,” the NCIA wrote. “From the colors to logos and unverified lab results, all are printed and ready to fill with whichever fake cartridge can be procured.”

Meanwhile, the heating and battery units themselves are also a concern. Some devices can be made with heavy metals that are not food-grade, while others can heat product beyond recommended levels, the NCIA said.

In addition to identifying potentially harmful diluents such as VEA and polyethylene glycol (PEG) that can be found in certain vape product, the organization expressed concern about the inclusion of both cannabis-derived and non-cannabis derived terpenes in vape products.

“One widespread misconception in the cannabis vape industry is that cannabis-derived terpenes are somehow safer or better for you than non-cannabis derived terpene,” the NCIA wrote, noting that terpene profiles and potency could vary from batch-to-batch and pose a “potential safety concern.”

Meanwhile, non-cannabis derived terpenes sourced from foreign suppliers could contain “residual solvents” such as ethanol, butane and others.

“Cannabis manufacturers that make formulated vape products should be aware of any toxic liabilities of non-cannabis derived molecules introduced into these products,” the NICA said. “Vape products should also undergo analytical testing for cannabinoids, terpenes and contaminants.”

To better avoid lung illnesses, the NCIA recommended that vape users purchase cannabis oil that is free of additives and has been tested from licensed dispensary, buy hardware from reputable manufacturers, and stop supporting the black market.

“The American consumer clearly wants cannabis products to be both accessible and legal,” they wrote. “It’s time for the federal government to deschedule marijuana and regulate it like alcohol. Legalization through descheduling, regulation and testing is the best path forward to keeping consumers safe.”

A full copy of the NCIA’s 20-page report -- which was produced by the organization’s “Safe Vaping Task Force” and featured input from a variety of industry stakeholders -- can be found here.

A press release with additional details is also included below. 


National Cannabis Industry Association Releases Extensive Report on Vaping Illness and Related Policy

Report contains detailed information on proximate causes and provides recommendations for displacing the illicit market and minimizing potential for future public health issues

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In response to an outbreak of respiratory illnesses primarily associated with unregulated cannabis vape cartridges found in the illicit market in recent months, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) Policy Council, with the help of experts in several fields, has produced an extensive report that explores the known and potential causes of the condition and offers ways for producers, regulators, and lawmakers to prevent such issues from occurring in the legal regulated market. NCIA is also sharing this report with key congressional committees.

The report - titled “The Key to Consumer Safety: Displacing the Illicit Cannabis Market - Recommendations for Safe Vaping” - discusses topics such as vaporizer liquid formulations, vaporizer delivery devices, possible contaminants, and best practices for testing. It also recommends ways to displace the illicit market and make sure that unregulated products don’t find their way into the legal market, including decreasing the financial burdens that prevent legal providers from being competitive with the illicit market, methods for identifying counterfeit products, creating more accessible pathways for unlicensed operators to enter the regulated market, and increasing non-criminal enforcement against illegal cultivation sites.

“The cannabis industry has a serious and disruptive illicit market problem that is directly affecting public health and safety. While the Center for Disease Control has not yet definitively determined the proximate cause for every injury or death, the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence points to additives in illicit market products,” the report states. “NCIA’s Policy Council urges consumers to only purchase regulated and tested cannabis products from the state-legal market. Reliable vaping products manufactured using suitable vaporizer hardware and liquid formulations created from high quality ingredients are common in the legal cannabis market. The same cannot be said for the unregulated market. We must stop the flow of illicit, unregulated, and untested products to consumers... We also need to lower taxes, so that the legal market can fairly compete with the illicit market. This effort will take a collaborative approach, with law enforcement, state-legal cannabis businesses, and state cannabis taxing and licensing authorities working in concert.”

Earlier this month, the CDC ended its “state of emergency” regarding this illness, known as EVALI, as the number of new cases being reported has sharply declined. While discussing the sources for the products linked to specific cases, the agency inaccurately grouped regulated cannabis businesses with completely unregulated businesses such as illegal pop-ups and unlicensed storefronts as the sources for 16% of the cannabis products associated with EVALI cases. This is despite the fact that only a handful of cases have been associated with licensed businesses, which are greatly outnumbered by unlicensed stores in California.

Cannabis is legal for adults in eleven states as well as the District of Columbia and the territories of CNMI and Guam, and 33 states as well as several territories have comprehensive medical cannabis laws. The substance is legal in some form in 47 states. Dozens of states are set to consider cannabis-related legislation or ballot initiatives this year.


The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) is the largest cannabis trade association in the U.S. and the only organization broadly representing cannabis-related businesses at the national level. NCIA promotes the growth of a responsible and legitimate cannabis industry and works toward a favorable social, economic, and legal environment for that industry in the United States.