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How the ‘Vaping Crisis’ is a Wakeup Call to Legalize Cannabis Nationwide

woman using cannabis vaping pen
Vaping cannabis oil with high tech and portable vaporizers have become the second most popular method to consume cannabis. Date: September 1, 2018 (Photo: micadew)

The vaping crisis sweeping the nation is a reminder of the dangers of a lack of national uniform cannabis regulation and decriminalization.

Both e-cigarettes and cannabis vaping related illnesses have recently hit the news with force in the U.S. An outbreak of hundreds of vaping related lung disease and 26 deaths correlated with the use of vape pens continues to spread throughout the U.S.

However, lost among the scare headlines and misleading information being reported is what’s really causing the illnesses. Misleading headlines are blaming the recent vaping related respiratory illnesses without determining the source — counterfeit cartridges purchased from black market drug dealers.

In medical and recreational states where cannabis is legal, consumers can easily purchase cannabis products from legal retail stores also known as dispensaries. However, in 39 states, adult use of cannabis is still illegal under federal law. As a result, black market growers and drug dealers can and are profiting off the increase in popularity of vaping fad by selling counterfeit cartridges – it’s these counterfeit cartridges that are causing the vaping related illnesses.

What is Cannabis Vaping?

Pre-filled cannabis oil cartridges are a safer alternative to activate the therapeutic effects of cannabis by vaporizing on-the-go discreetly. Vaping at a lower temperature reduces less carcinogenic compounds and tar compared to smoking flower because it is heated, not combusted. Cannabis oil cartridges contain a plethora of cannabinoids and terpenes in each strain to maximize the characteristics of the strain and the desired benefits for an individual’s preferences.

Over the last several years, vaping cannabis oil with high tech and portable vaporizers have become the second most popular method to consume cannabis. Customers in legal recreational and medical cannabis states can purchase pre-filled cannabis oil cartridges in licensed dispensaries.

The CDC’s Warning About Vaping Related Illnesses

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) disclosed that as of October 11, 2019, 1,299 lung cases associated with the use of e-cigarette or vaping products have been reported to their agency. Public health officials are urgently finding the cause of healthy users acquiring pneumonia-like symptoms. The CDC remains unsure about the specific chemical and ingredients used in both cannabis and e-cigarette cartridges that are making people sick.

The CDC said in a report, “The specific chemical exposure(s) causing lung injuries associated with e-cigarette product use, or vaping, remains unknown at this time . . . The liquid can contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabinoid (CBD) oils, and other substances and additives. THC is the psychoactive mind-altering compound of marijuana that produces the ‘high.’ The CDC also reported about 77% of users reported using THC-containing products; 36% reported exclusive use of THC-containing products.”

The available information from the CDC report itself does not specify a particular brand or the source of where the THC containing product was purchased from. The confusion lies with black market drug dealers, who are capitalizing on the popularity and profitability of selling cannabis oil cartridges in illegal states.

The Dangers of Counterfeit Black-Market Cannabis Cartridges

A study conducted in Illinois and Wisconsin indicates 83 percent of patients admitted for pulmonary illnesses used counterfeit cannabis oil cartridges purchased from a black market drug dealer.

Currently, 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized small amounts of cannabis for recreational use for adults over the age of 21. Over 33 states have also passed legislation to allow the use of medical cannabis as an alternative treatment for certain medical conditions varying from state to state.

Throughout the U.S., counterfeit pre-filled cannabis oil cartridges sold on the illegal black market are filled with dangerous pesticides, cutting agents, flavorings and colorings. Black market sellers can easily fill pre-filled cartridges with their own ingredients and market them as products made in a legal state. 

In New York, 34 patients reported lung illnesses with the thickening agent, Vitamin E oil,  found in their THC cartridges.

According to NBC News, a cannabis testing facility in California indicated that 13 out of the 15 sample cartridges from black market drug dealers tested positive for Vitamin E and myclobutanil, a fungicide that can transform into hydrogen cyanide when burned.

Purchasing a pre-filled cannabis oil cartridge from the black market poses health risks because the product’s content is not tested by the Food and Drug Administration due to the federal ban.

These illicit counterfeit cartridges were sold largely in states where marijuana is still illegal in some fashion, including Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. In cases where consumers fell sick in California where recreational marijuana is legalized, the cases occurred in counties that have banned licensed cannabis stores.

Consumers looking for cheaper and potentially tainted products may also turn to unlicensed dispensaries and delivery services online listed in Weedmaps operating in legal states, including California.

Regulations in legal states enforce cannabis products to be tested in a licensed lab before the product hits dispensary shelves.

However, empty cartridges and professional counterfeit packaging from popular brands, such as Brass Knuckles and Stiiizy, can easily be purchased online and in bulk. Black market sellers then claim with fake packaging labels that their counterfeit pre-filled cartridges are “lab tested.”

Cannabis activists argue the impact of the federal ban on cannabis creates health risks by pushing buyers into purchasing counterfeit products from illicit black market drug dealers, which has resulted in the current vaping health crisis.

Emergency Vaping Bans Tackle Wrong Problem  

Recently, in need of a solution, lawmakers in three states took urgent action and banned vaping products from flavored e-cigarette juice to cannabis oil cartridges. The Trump Administration also plans to take action by introducing a ban on flavored e-juice.

On September 15, 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared an emergency ban to end the sale of flavored e-cigarettes in New York State.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts, a recreational cannabis state, passed a ban on both nicotine and cannabis-based vaping products for at least four months.

“This confusion is leading to bad public policy,” Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor of community health services at Boston University, told Metro Times.

“Instead of intervening to try to stem the distribution of illegal, black-market THC vape cartridges that are filled with oil, policy makers are banning flavored e-cigarettes, which so far as we know, are not clearly associated with the outbreak. Banning these products is going to cause many ex-smokers to return to smoking and is also going to create a new black market for flavored e-liquids. Worst of all, it is going to lead many youth to switch from vaping flavored e-liquids to vaping marijuana, making the outbreak much worse than it already is.”

The repercussions of cannabis vaping related illness and deaths affect everyone, including medical cannabis patients, recreational customers retail stores and cultivation facilities.

In the end, the majority of vaping related illnesses occurred in illegal states, where consumers were assuming the health risks posed by purchasing cheaper and illicit black-market cartridges.

The vaping crisis, could, in fact, be a wakeup call for the desperate need to legalize and regulate cannabis on a federal level, establishing a uniform nationwide policy. The nation’s mismatched drug policies could be stemming the vaping health crisis as manufacturing counterfeit products becomes easier, while demand for safer products rises, but a lack of uniform regulation means consumers don’t know what they’re really consuming. 

With legalization comes regulation and consumers who can confidently purchase lab-tested cannabis products like vaping pens in licensed dispensaries knowing the safety of the source and ingredients used. 

Lisa Noeth

Lisa is a tenacious leader and entrepreneur, she started her Amazon business, LPN Trading LLC in 2016. She graduated from New York University’s Masters of Science in Global Affairs in 2016. Lisa is on a mission to unite all millennial Republicans across Nevada as the Clark County chairwoman for the Young Republicans of Nevada.

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