Vaping illnesses show need for regulated THC markets

By: - September 17, 2019 8:26 pm
Several types of vaping products associated with lung disease

Vapes which tested positive for vitamin E. (Photo courtesy of New York Department Of Health.)

“One of the things I’m wondering is why is this all of a sudden happening now?” said Eric Marsch, an organizer with the cannabis advocacy organization NORML, pondering the rash of hospitalizations connected with vaping. “I’ve seen these vape cartridges around for years,” Marsch added.

Medical investigators are still working out exactly what made people who used a variety of vaping products so sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is tracking 380 cases across 36 states, and one US territory. In a section on it’s page updating the public on the issue, the CDC states, “we do not yet know the specific cause of these illnesses.

Seven people have died after vaping-related hospitalizations. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is tracking 35 cases across 15 counties. Another 20 cases are still under investigation in the Badger State.

Doctors in Milwaukee recently found that teens admitted to hospitals there showed signs of interstitial pneumonia. “It’s usually associated with bad disease,” Michael Meyer, medical director of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit of the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin told Yahoo news. Unlike bacterial pneumonia, which typically affects concentrated areas of the lung’s lobes, interstitial pneumonia looks like an intricate spider web spread throughout the lung.

The federal government’s reaction to the rash of hospitalizations related to vaping might outpace our actual understanding of the illness. Last Wednesday, President Donald Trump signaled that he’s seeking a ban on flavored vaping, saying, “it’s causing a lot of problems and we’re going to have to do something about it.”

Senator Tammy Baldwin called on the CDC to activate an Emergency Operations Center to “provide the resources necessary for understanding the cause of this illness and preventing future cases.” The agency has since activated an emergency center, which will establish an information-sharing and logistical support network with local medical facilities.

Michigan quickly followed suit with a ban on flavored vape products, which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said was aimed at protecting youth, Detroit Free Press reports. The drafting process for the ban, which will cover retail and online sales, will be completed in a few weeks. Business owners will then have 30 days to come into compliance with the new law.

While these measures target the regulated market, specifically for nicotine and nicotine-free flavored vapes, many are pointing to the black market as the source of the illnesses.

Particularly, counterfeit Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) vape cartridges have been singled out by numerous agencies and news outlets. Examples of these products, tested by the New York Health Department, were found to contain  high levels of Vitamin E actaine. A wide variety of substances, from opioids to synthetic cannabinoids, have also been found in counterfeit THC products.

“These all seem to be illegal black market cartridges,” says Marsch. “So, I think it shows the need for regulation in the market.” The Wisconsin-based cannabis activist says that, “as long as people are buying from a trusted, regulated source, then people don’t have a whole lot to worry about.” People in states without legal cannabis, however, buy their marijuana vape products on an unpredictable black market. Marsch objects to media coverage of the deaths and hospitalizations that conveys the idea that “these people died from vaping.”

“Well, they died from contaminated black market cartridges—unregulated cartridges,” he says.

Federal and state agencies are still working to sort out the traits of the illness itself. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently creating a case definition, which will help organize probable cases in a consistent way.

“Unlike nationally reportable conditions,” reads the CDC’s website, “these cases are requiring clinicians and public health professionals to interview patients to determine product use and individual behaviors.” The CDC notes that, “many patients have reported using THC and nicotine. Some have reported the use of e-cigarette products containing only nicotine.” According to the page, “no consistent e-cigarette or vaping product, substance, or additive has been identified in all cases, nor has any one product or substance been conclusively linked to lung disease in patients.”

Trump’s proposed flavored vape ban caused #VapeBan to trend on Twitter for days. Under the hashtag, a deluge of online observers blasted the president’s rush to ban vapes. Some compared the number of vaping deaths, seven thus far, to the number of deaths associated with smoking—well over 40,000 people each year.

“It definitely is striking,” says Marsch, “there’s all these things like the opioid crisis, or gun violence, where people just kind of allow it to continue. And, I think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that a lot of politicians get a lot of money from pharmaceutical companies. They get money from the gun manufacturers. There’s not a lot of politicians getting money from the vaping industry.”

The behemoth vaping corporation Juul gave $100,000 mostly to Democrats in the first half of 2019. While significant, that number is dwarfed by the over $13 million given by the tobacco industry, and $155 million from the pharmaceutical industry. Juul held three-quarters of the US e-cigarette market by the end of 2018, making it the lobbying presence for the industry. Shadowing this open market is the black market, which police say generates $2 million a month in sales in Milwaukee alone, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

Across the ocean in Europe, the vaping market is expected to see a major boom by 2025. The United Kingdom, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Russia all have significant numbers of people who vape. None of these countries have reported illnesses or deaths connected to the recent rash of hospitalizations in the United States. European countries, also have different cultures around vaping, and regulations against advertising to younger audiences.

Although recent years have seen a decline in the US tobacco industry’s lobbying power, communities still deal with the legacy of decades-old targeted tobacco advertising in America.

Marsch also sees the new health crisis as a byproduct of the way marijuana smoking has been criminalized in the United States.

“People are afraid of drugs,” Marsch said. He hopes that, in the case of THC vapes, the damage done by black-market products underscores the need for legalized, regulated markets for THC vaping products.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.