To Be Blunt: Vaping epidemic exposes need for regulation even with weed

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

The way we consume cannabis has drastically evolved over the past couple decades. As the industry grows, CEOs, entrepreneurs and startup moguls are increasingly tapping into the innovative and technologically motivated market of weed. 

With features like temperature control, ways to track how much you smoke and an app complete with games, the PAX Era vaporizer is just one example of how digitally-driven cannabis is becoming, prompting adults to tell me, “This isn’t the shit we used to smoke.”

According to a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, between 2015 and 2017, fewer Colorado teens were smoking weed and more were beginning to embrace edibles and vapes.

Similarly, a BDS Analytics article found that the popularity of vapes in California and Oregon increased. During the first quarter of 2018, vape sales comprised 80% and 69%, respectively, of those states’ concentrates markets.

The explanation for this growth? Weed vaporizers are user-friendly, portable and discreet since they produce little to no smell. Especially for adolescents in high school and college students, vaporizers are preferable to traditional methods of consumption.

It seems like a stoner’s dream. 

However, following a recent slew of respiratory illnesses from illicit THC-containing vape products, vaporizer sales have dropped. As of Oct. 3, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 1,080 cases in 48 states of “severe acute respiratory distress syndrome” as a result of vaping, according to Leafly. An estimated 20 people have died from the condition, which is similar to lipoid pneumonia, where fat particles enter the lungs. 

The problem mainly stems from the illegal and underground trade of unregulated THC vape cartridges, although one death in Oregon was linked to a vaporizer purchased at a legal cannabis shop. No California deaths or illnesses have been associated with legal store sales — only pop-up shops — according to Leafly.

After testing seized vape cartridges, New York investigators honed in on vitamin E acetate -— a thickener used in many illegal carts — and its derivatives as a primary cause for the respiratory injuries, according to Leafly. The oil — used to cheaply dilute vape oils without watering them down — can be safely taken as a pill or used on skin but is unsafe when inhaled. Other contaminants, such as heavy metals, pesticides and vegetable glycerin, among other oils, were also found in illicit carts. In the Oregon case, the legal vape cart contained vitamin E acetate, which was previously allowed in the state as an additive as long as it was listed as an ingredient.

Following the epidemic, states immediately launched a crackdown, with health officials subpoenaing vape pen additive makers, regulators demanding stores recall any suspicious products and state officials raiding unlicensed stores carrying untested vape carts.

Less than a week ago, the Food and Drug Administration, CDC and United States Department of Health and Human Services issued statements urging consumers to throw away THC vapes they bought off the street. But even legal industries have been blowing smoke for years, and safety issues surrounding mysterious additives and oils have plagued THC vape cartridges ever since they reached the market. 

According to Leafly, only 22% of the $52 billion cannabis industry is regulated and legal. Because of weed’s federal classification as a Schedule I substance, research has significantly lagged behind dab pens’ growing popularity. 

The underlying issues here — lack of government regulation, testing, research and federal oversight — are part of a bigger problem. 

It never should have gotten to this point. Irresponsible industries that cut corners and governments that couldn’t care less about the well-being and safety of consumers are to blame for these horrific incidents.

While licensed markets have more safety measures in place, such as testing, harmful additives are not yet banned in California, among other legal states. On Sept. 24, the California Department of Public Health told consumers to avoid all vaping, according to Leafly. If consumers are concerned, Leafly recommends sticking to flower, edibles, tinctures and other methods of cannabis consumption. Customers can also look up if a store is licensed on the California Bureau of Cannabis Control’s website.

However, the fact of the matter is that people are not going to stop using THC vapes. And they shouldn’t have to if they’re buying vape carts from licensed cannabis retailers. It’s up to state officials and the federal government to impose regulations on additive and vape cart industries — as they have for all industries. Legalization is supposed to legitimize cannabis, meaning that it should also set up protections for consumers through testing these legal products.

I’m not going to lie and tell you vaping poses no risk and that your dab pen is 100% free of contaminants because the reality is that we actually don’t know. It’s also safe to say that inhaling anything other than air is probably not the best for your lungs. 

To be blunt, I’m not going to discontinue using my dab pen until the FDA finally comes to its senses and imposes stricter regulations for many reasons: my PAX Era is convenient, easy to transport and does the job pretty effectively. 

Moreso, the only carts I’ve ever bought are from Bloom Farms, which adhere to strict testing regulations and have never used vitamin E acetate. Additionally, consumers like me can minimize the risks they face by researching which vape cart companies vet their products and checking the ingredients of the extracts sold at licensed retailers.

Natalie Oganesyan is a sophomore writing about weed culture and politics. She is also the Arts & Entertainment Editor at the Daily Trojan Her column, “To be Blunt,” runs every other Thursday.