November 13, 2019
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appear to have made a breakthrough in its investigation of the vaping illness that has sickened more than 2000 and killed almost 40. While the cannabis industry and worried consumers are likely breathing a bit easier, many in the industry recognize the problem is more complicated than it seems.
"The uncertainty is probably the most disconcerting thing for consumers and markets alike," said Paul Botto, co-founder and president of Lucid Green. "So I think it's absolutely huge to have at least zeroed in on something that is at least causing a large part of the issue."
On Friday, the CDC announced it had found vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent used in (mostly illicit market) vape products, in lung fluid samples from 29 e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI) patients from all across the country. The CDC admitted the new research could be viewed as a breakthrough, but due to the small sample size, and concerns there may be other substances at play, the agency has maintained it needs more information to establish a causal link between EVALI and vitamin E acetate.
For those in the cannabis industry, however, this information comes as no surprise.
As far back as September, local health officials and testing companies had sounded the alarm on vitamin E acetate as a possible culprit in the vape crisis. Even then, federal officials cautioned against assuming vitamin E acetate was more than a marker for adulteration without additional evidence.
So for many in the cannabis industry, the latest CDC update served to further reinforce what they already suspected: vitamin E acetate played a major role in the illnesses. But there is much on the line for an industry that still operates outside of federal law.
Testing lab CannaSafe has been testing illicit vape products about every quarter for the last three years, and in late September published a damning report on illegal vapes, commissioned by NBC. President Aaron Riley said that whereas high levels of pesticides have always been par for the course for illicit vapes, vitamin E acetate is a relatively new additive. It's taken the market by storm within the past year, and now about 80 percent of illegal vape products contain it at staggeringly high levels.
"There are pesticides that are parts per million. But we are seeing 40 percent — almost half vitamin E. So I think that is part of the contributing factor, too," Riley said. "We've never seen 40 percent of a product be a contaminant."
Riley said that CannaSafe hasn't come across vitamin E acetate in the legal products it has tested, but that doesn't mean it isn't out there. In September, Medicine Man Technologies pulled some vape products from its shelves that it determined through internal testing to contain vitamin E acetate. And, anecdotally, CDC officials say that some cases of EVALI have been linked exclusively to legal products. Sales of vape products — among the most popular means of consuming cannabis — tumbled following reporting on deaths and illnesses, but rather than be discouraged, many in the industry are viewing the crisis as an opportunity to call out for much-needed regulation and for broader legitimization of state level cannabis industries.
"This is the illicit industry. It's exactly what happens when the federal government doesn't recognize as legitimate the legal cannabis industry," said Kyle Sherman, CEO and founder of cannabis retail software startup Flowhub.
Sherman, who sits on the board of the Cannabis Trade Federation, said approaching issues from an educational standpoint is key when talking to lawmakers, especially where regulation is concerned.
In response to the rash of vaping illnesses, officials in various states, including Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and parts of California, have issued vaping bans of varying degrees of severity — and with varying degrees of success. In Massachusetts, for example, Gov. Charlie Baker issued a blanket ban on all types of vapes, even flower vapes. A judge ruled the emergency measures are invalid, at least for medical patients. Premature reactions like Baker's could end up driving consumers back to the illicit market, according to Botto, whose company Lucid Green tracks cannabis products and provides information on cannabis potency, lab tests, and more through interactive QR codes.
"If it is in fact the black market that is the issue, and it appears that that's the case, I do feel that these knee jerk reactions of outlawing regulated vape products drive more people to the black market, which is the opposite of what these regulators are trying to do, obviously. So it does put more people in harm's way," said Botto.
Despite the spate of illnesses, and tragic deaths, it's not all dire for the future of the cannabis industry. Riley said the crisis has brought the cannabis industry together in the fight to self-regulate. He's had producers approaching him to get their own products tested. Plus, an unexpected silver lining, Riley said, is that consumers will now likely be more conscientious about what's in their products.
"Don't buy illicit market products, know what you're consuming ー whether it's a vape, whether it's an edible, whether it's a joint ー you can spend five minutes and do some research on Google, you can ask for a testing certificate," Riley said.