Efforts to legalize cannabis have succeeded in 33 states, including Oregon and Washington. And there’s a federal bill that would allow banks to cater to cannabis businesses.
But now top health officials are linking an illness affecting 1,600 people to vaping products containing THC — the psychoactive compound in cannabis.
Federal authorities don’t yet know what’s causing the rash of lung injuries striking people who use vaping products. But the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Anne Schuchat, said most of those injured do have a history of vaping THC.
“The data does continue to point towards THC containing products as the source of individual’s lung injury,” said Schuchat. "About 85% had a history of using e-cigarette or vaping products that contain THC.”
Shuchat said that means THC is attracting more of the CDCs' attention.
Mitch Zeller with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a broad warning, but singled out the cannabis sector for particular attention in recent comments.
“If one or more specific THC vaping products for example, are identified as causing injuries, multiple federal and state authorities … could pursue action with respect to those products. We are prepared to use our authorities to the fullest extent possible as the facts emerge in order to protect the public health," said Zeller.
Vaping health concerns are also complicating political efforts to bring cannabis into the mainstream.
The chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, is holding up what’s called the SAFE Banking Act because of health concerns.
“Being categorized as a Schedule 1 drug means that the possession, distribution, or sale of marijuana and other marijuana-derived products is illegal under federal law, and any proceeds from cannabis-related activities remain subject to U.S. anti-money laundering laws, such as the Money Laundering Control Act,” said Crapo, who represents a state that borders three states with legal cannabis laws.
He said vaping-related injuries are among the concerns he wants addressed before moving forward with a bill to allow banks to handle money from cannabis businesses.
While Oregon and 32 other states have already legalized cannabis, the debate is far from over in the remaining 28 states, and at the federal level.
Nick Niforatos, with the think tank ‘Smart Approaches to Marijuana,’ said people shouldn’t be locked up for using cannabis, so it shouldn’t be criminalized.
But he’s also concerned that legalizing it just turns it into big business.
“We don’t want to jump headfirst into a mass legalization experiment and find out 50 years later, like we did with tobacco that: ‘Oh my goodness, there are all these health problems, all these issues that we didn’t even know about.’ And we end up losing millions of people’s lives in the process,” said Niforatos.
He thinks it’d be better if marijuana operated in a kind of grey market, where it’s legal to own and use, but not to produce and sell in large quantities.
“You know we’ve done our deal with the devil with tobacco and alcohol. I mean those two drugs combined kill more than twice the amount of people who die from the opioid epidemic in this country. So tobacco and alcohol are by no means going well. We’re not doing a great job regulating those substances. So we really need to think carefully, in the midst of this pot vaping crisis, if that’s really the direction we want to go with marijuana," said Niforatos.
But Eric Fruits with the libertarian ‘Cascade Policy Institute’ thinks marijuana should be legalized across the country, so that businesses and customers can make their own decisions.
He said regulations aren’t necessary because people already know there are probably health issues associated with inhaling a drug.
“You should be able to consume what you’d like, but also that you should bear the consequences for any downsides of that," Fruits said.
“I don’t think there’s a clear scientific connection between any of these health impacts and flavors," suggested Fruits, underscoring the ongoing uncertainties about the specific causes of the vaping injuries, known as EVALI.
But neither health concerns about vaping THC, nor a stalled cannabis bill, appear to be worrying Oregon’s marijuana businesses.
“We’re not nervous about THC,” said Kim Lundin, the executive director of the Oregon Cannabis Association.
“This plant has been safe to use and consume for hundreds of years. We want more testing and regulation around the vapes themselves,” said Lundin.
She suspects the problem is with the vaping technology, not marijuana. And as far as the cannabis bill sitting in the Senate is concerned, she said they have a lobbying trip scheduled.
“We’re prepared to talk about vapes when we come up there. And for us it’s going to be about the closer we can get to legalization, the more things are going to be above board and the more opportunities there’ll be for testing and regulation,” said Lundin.
It remains to be seen whether the vaping illness proves to be a major hurdle or a minor stumble for cannabis legalization. In the meantime there is some good news: the surge of vaping related illnesses appears to be slowing.