A wake-up call for the legal industry

Vape-related illness are drawing heat and reminding us of what we don’t actually know

The summer after my freshman year in high school, I spent a month visiting my Black Sheep Uncle (we all have one). We stayed up late, ate junk food, listened to his old comedy records (on vinyl!), watched movies my parents would frown at and stopped most afternoons at his favorite bar, where they’d serve me Coca-Cola in one of the frosted mugs usually reserved for beer.

It was a great trip and one of the more fun months of my young life.

But one of things I remember most clearly was not something we did together, but a story my uncle told about a car somebody bought at an extreme discount. Apparently, the vehicle seller’s son had recently died after huffing Pam cooking spray. I don’t remember the exact details and there is no way to confirm them today anyway, but I distinctly remember the punchline.

“My idiot son butter-coated his lungs.”

I’ve never forgotten that line.

Again, there’s no way to know if the guy actually said that — it seems too harsh for a grieving parent — but today, decades later, I vividly remember that line, perhaps because it was so harsh.

I have been thinking about that line again in the wake of the vaping-related illnesses and deaths happening across the country. Recently, investigators linked vitamin E acetate, an additive in many cheap and/or illegal oil cartridges, to the illness.

According to a press release from the New York State Department of Health, “Vitamin E acetate is a commonly available nutritional supplement that is not known to cause harm when ingested as a vitamin supplement or applied to the skin. However, the Department continues to investigate its health effects when inhaled because its oil-like properties could be associated with the observed symptoms.”

Basically, we’re heating oil to the point of vaporizing it and then taking it into our lungs where it at least partially cools back into an oil before the remaining vapor is exhaled, leaving a certain amount of oil residue in the lungs.

Vaping this additive is, in essence, butter-coating people’s lungs.

A second study from the University of Utah, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in September, also points to vitamin E acetate as the research showed “large immune cells containing numerous oily droplets, called lipid-laden macrophages” in the lungs of patients. It causes the illness to present like a form of lipoid pneumonia, which is typically seen in older individuals and often caused by accidentally breathing in oil-based laxatives (though the release does point out that more research is necessary to determine if it actually is a new form of lipoid pneumonia).

Cannabis industry professionals have been quick to point out that most of the cases of this illness come from cartridges purchased from the illicit market and not from legal, licensed providers. And they’re right, that’s a very important distinction. Most processors in the legal market do not use vitamin E acetate to thicken their oils. But that’s not to say that none of them do, which is why, like any cannabis product, it’s important to know where it came from as well as the growing and processing methods used.

Because here is the Real Worry: What if this is just the tip of the iceberg?

Many people believe cannabis is relatively safe because humans have been consuming it for thousands of years. While this argument might hold weight for flower and edibles, concentrates such as vapes and dabs are relatively new. Honestly, I’m not all that concerned about the safety of concentrates in general, but the truth is that we don’t actually know their long-term effects on consumers. And those of us in the industry need to be honest about that. These deaths are rightfully sounding an alarm about the dangers of the illicit market and serve to remind everyone about the importance of legalization and regulation. But at the same time, it should also remind us that this industry moves very fast and there’s a lot we still don’t know.

We can’t hide from that fact.

We all know more research needs to be done and with any luck, this could spur it on.

One producer not hiding from that fact is Seattle’s Heylo Cannabis, founded by Laurel Friesen, a trained chemist. Heylo is a licensed processor focused on making sure its supply chain and extraction process are as clean as possible. I know Friesen from an unrelated story I wrote several months back and know she takes a science-first approach, so I felt I could trust her not to sugar-coat the issue at hand. Friesen pointed out, again, that these illnesses seem to stem from nicotine vaporizers and from illicit THC cartridges, specifically those containing additives like the aforementioned vitamin E acetate.

While Friesen is quick to point out that studies have shown that vaping cannabis is safer than smoking, she acknowledges there’s a lot that remains unknown.

“I would be concerned,” she told me during a recent call. “It’s a wake-up call for our industry and our consumers.”

Like most legal, licensed processors, Heylo does not use additives in its carts, and Friesen remains convinced of the safety of vape products, as long as they don’t contain unnecessary additives. Friesen says Heylo takes great care to not use additives, and the company only sources plants from vendors who do not use pesticides or heavy metals, two things that also get concentrated along with the cannabinoids during extraction. Heylo also only uses CO2 extraction, as opposed to butane or propane (though she says she does use some organic ethanol to help de-wax and remove lipids from the final products).

“Only consume cannabis in your vape products,” she says, adding that consumers should also use lower temperatures to heat oils to help prevent the vapor from including other potentially harmful compounds.

And more than anything, she says, consumers must ask the right questions.

“What extraction method did they use? What did they add to this? Is this cannabis oil only? Those are the questions they need to be asking to filter out the stuff they shouldn’t be using,” she says.

For now, though, the focus of the industry needs to be on making sure all of the products available in the legal states are as safe as possible. The concentrates category — specifically vape cartridges — is the fastest growing sector of this industry. However, with news of this illness gaining coverage nationwide, the market share for those products has dropped precipitously, according to Marijuana Business Daily. In Colorado, the market share for vape carts fell by a whopping 21% in August, while in California — the largest legal cannabis market in the world — market share dropped 12%.

That’s a lot.

I know it’s been already said, but it’s important to note that the vast majority of the vaping-related illnesses have been linked to illegal cartridges. It’s one of the reasons to support the legal market: these incidents are causing more people to focus on what’s happening in the cannabis industry, and not just journalists. The Feds and the industry’s loudest critics are now watching a lot closer. The industry needs to own this moment. We need to remind people again and again not only that these illnesses come mainly from the illicit market, but that we are also taking steps to address these concerns within the industry, that we are policing ourselves. This moment can be viewed as a reason in favor of legalization and regulation, not against it.

In our rush to search for the next big thing in cannabis, or the next big trend anyway, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves and forget that we are being watched very closely. Let’s be certain we are sure-footed and safe as we move forward and test everything; it must be at the very core of industry.

That’s the promise, that’s why we are here, that’s what we sell voters after all: the legal industry is not just the next hot economic market, it’s safer, more accountable and better regulated than the illicit market. Let’s take time to remember that.

We’re professionals, after all. We’re not just huffing.

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