The Vapocalypse: Why Can't We Learn From Our Mistakes
One of the biggest topics in the news right now is the ban on vape products after several people died, and many more suffered injuries, while puffing on cannabis and nicotine vape cartridges. States started to address the issue in several ways, including complete bans on all vaping products (Massachusetts), or partial bans on flavored vaping products (Oregon). While these regulators’ intentions are done with best interest in order to limit the consumption of harmful vaping products, banning legal, regulated, lab-tested products is entirely counter-productive in preventing further death and illness, instead causing even more harm to consumers.
For context, Vaping Associated Pulmonary Injury (VAPI) is a newly-named condition discovered this year. As of October 2019, roughly 1,800 cases of VAPI were reported, with 37 attributed deaths nationwide. In response, many states have implemented bans on vape products. First, let’s explore how this problem arose by understanding the specifics of vape chemistry.
Counterfeit Brands In Prohibited Markets
Popular, recognizable California and Colorado vape brands are now counterfeited and sold into prohibited markets like Wisconsin, Illinois and Texas. Illicit operators knock-off reputable brands without following compliant manufacturing processes, or undergoing product safety testing by third-party labs. Thus, they are likely to include pesticides, heavy metals, mycotoxins or any number of other toxic ingredients.
Toxic Additives Used In Illegal Products
Illegal vape products often contain dangerous flavoring additives or other chemicals known as diluents. In addition to making extreme flavors (particularly in nicotine vape pens), these compounds dilute the viscosity of the cannabis oil, thinning it out for better performance in the vape pen. Diluting oils in this way effectively “cuts” the cannabis oil to maximize profits. Harmful diluents like Vitamin E Acetate have frequently been found in the illegal vape pens used by victims of the recent VAPI epidemic. This is according to a recent CDC report.
Terpenes Are Sometimes Considered Flavor Additives
Cannabis naturally includes compounds called terpenes, which provide the flavor and aroma of each unique strain. All plants produce terpenes, often in a wide variety of flavors and aromas, which range from “herbal” to “fruity”. In many cases, the highest-quality cannabis vape cartridges only contain full-spectrum cannabis oil and cannabis-derived terpenes. However, non-cannabis plant-derived terpenes are no less safe than cannabis-derived terpenes, and were frequently used in high-quality, safe, legal products (until recently).
Addressing The Wrong Problems
States like Massachusetts reacted to the vaping concern by completely banning all cannabis and nicotine vape products, without making distinctions about product ingredients and their relative safety. Other states like Washington and Oregon have issued partial bans, making a distinction between cannabis-derived, same-strain terpenes -- which are allowed in those states -- and non-cannabis derived terpenes, which are banned.
These knee-jerk reactions to ban were made in a noble attempt to protect public safety, but were naively-made with incomplete scientific evidence. For instance, only Colorado, Washington and Ohio have prohibited the use of Vitamin E Acetate, yet that is the compound shown to cause VAPI diagnoses as identified by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), so why haven’t more states made similar choices?
Further, there is no chemical difference (nor safety difference) between isolated terpenes from cannabis, lemons, wood or other natural sources. A pure chemical is the same pure chemical regardless of where it came from, so why ban some sources of terpenes but not others? Instead, we lack important evidence on the general safety of vaporizing terpenes, the relative safety of various individual terpenes and the dose at which vaporized terpenes become dangerous.
Lastly, no VAPI cases have been attributed to the exclusive consumption of legal lab-tested products in regulated states. Instead, all of these types of cases have been attributed to illegal and counterfeit products that are not available in regulated markets. Just recently, Colorado faced the largest cannabis recall ever after several issues, including mold, were found in flower on store shelves. This doesn’t happen with “under the table” sales. No recalls. No checks and balances. No testing of products.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Backwards
The world has come a long way to right the wrongs of the War on Drugs. 25 countries and 33 U.S. states have repealed the prohibition of cannabis for medical or adult-use purposes. As a result, the safety and our understanding of the plant has improved tremendously. So why do we think prohibition of vape pens will solve any problems?
The worst decision a regulator can make is to ban vape pens, in whole or in part, without first considering the evidence. These bans inevitably force consumers to substitute regulated, lab-tested products for potentially dangerous, illegal products -- the only products responsible for the harm caused in the first place. The only way to make sure harmful products don't make it into the hands of consumers is to legalize and regulate the products people demand, while allowing ethical entrepreneurs to compete freely and fairly against the illicit market.