JT Thompson runs Sublime Solutions in Eugene, which distills the psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, THC. The resulting oil is used in everything from vape pens to chocolates.
Thompson said it was devastating to his business last year when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown banned flavored vape products.
“I lost 70% of my revenue overnight,” he said.
The ban was quickly overturned by the courts. But now, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission is proposing a more limited ban on flavors and thinning agents, focused just on THC vaping products.
The OLCC wants to stop manufacturers from mixing THC oil with any additive that has not been shown to be safe to inhale. It will allow ingredients derived from cannabis, like flavor terpenes and cannabinoids, to be added for natural flavoring.
So essentially, THC vapor can taste like cannabis, but nothing else.
“None of us expected that this was going to be part of what was going on this year,” said Thompson.
TJ Sheehy, who directs research at the OLCC, said the agency is targeting additives from third-party companies that aren’t properly regulated.
“We don’t believe that consumers should be guinea pigs,” said Sheehy.
Thousands of Americans ended up in the hospital last year, straining to breathe with damaged lungs. Almost 70 people died. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked the illness to vaping and particularly the additive vitamin E acetate.
Manufacturers used the vitamin to dilute THC oil and make it taste better. But now it’s been banned and they need a replacement.
Sheehy said they've turned to a list of hundreds of ingredients the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regards as generally safe to eat — the so-called GRAS list. But he said, that doesn't mean they're safe to inhale.
“They use things like essential oils that are for perfume. Or products for ingestion. There’s no research whatsoever about what happens when you ignite or vaporize these fatty oils and you put them into your lungs,” said Sheehy.
The analogy might be that while the FDA considers bacon generally safe for consumption, it doesn’t mean the FDA thinks the vaporized bacon fat that ends up on the hood over the stove is safe to inhale.
Sheehy said that’s why the OLCC is proposing the new rules.
“We can’t rely on a health investigation after someone has been harmed, to isolate the problem," Sheehy said. "We really need to take a closer look at the ingredients that are going into products before they hurt someone.”
The OLCC’s proposal is getting support from an unexpected sector. U.S. trade group the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association issued a statement saying it does not support the use of flavors in vaping products without rigorous testing to show they’re safe.
"The manufacturers and marketers of vaping products and all other flavored tobacco products, and flavor manufacturers and marketers, should not represent or suggest that the flavor ingredients used in these products are safe because they have FEMA GRAS status for use in food because such statements are false and misleading," read the statement.
But more locally in Oregon, manufacturers are lining up against the proposal.
“We don’t support any regulations that aren’t supported by science or evidence,” said Casey Houlihan, spokesperson for the Oregon Retailers of Cannabis Association. “Especially if those new regulations would increase the cost of cannabis products or limit the availability of certain types of products for consumers.”
He thinks it will drive people to the illicit market.
Houlihan also points out that neither federal nor state officials have seen an increase in vaping-related injuries since vitamin E acetate was removed.
“On the whole we’re struggling to understand what the public safety argument is for these particular regulations,” he said.
But not every Oregon THC vape manufacturer stands against the proposal. Munib Bhandari uses old-fashioned methods to extract THC from cannabis, like heat and pressure.
His company is called Grasse, after the French town known as the perfume capital of the world. It’s where companies like Chanel first extracted perfumes from flowers.
Bhandari said using the old, labor-intensive extraction methods are more expensive, but the resulting THC oil retains the taste and properties of the original plant.
“We look at it more like a chef would than a chemist. Because if you have good ingredients, you don’t need to do anything to the end product,” said Bhandari.
The OLCC’s proposal has a better chance of being upheld in court than the previous ban, mainly because that one was introduced as an emergency, without the traditional public comment period and notice.
Staff plan to float the new proposal with OLCC commissioners this summer.