WASHINGTON – Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. is intensifying his calls to legalize marijuana products. That could help the federal government prevent more vaping-related deaths in the future.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Friday what many had already suspected: That most people who died from a spate of vaping-related injuries used products containing illegal THC oil, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, my colleague Lena H. Sun reports.
„Based on data available from 860 of the 1,604 patients who have fallen ill with the disease, about 85 percent reported using THC-containing products, compared to about 10 percent who reported exclusively vaping nicotine-containing products,” Lena writes. „Many sick patients said they bought THC vape products on the black market, and those have come under increased scrutiny.
„The data do continue to point towards THC-containing products as the source of individuals' injury,” said CDC principal deputy director Anne Schuchat. Officials don’t know what about the products are harmful, „but we’re seeing THC as a marker for products that are risky,” she said.
As we wrote last month, illegal vape cartridges containing THC also contain significant amounts of vitamin E acetate. Because cannabis oil is expensive, producers use the acetate to dilute and thicken it without affecting its flavor or smell. But vitamin’s oil-like properties are associated with the kinds of respiratory problems many patients have reported, including cough, shortness of breath and chest pain.
So if it’s THC oil at the root of the injuries – and not vaping itself – that raises questions about what regulators can do to make sure the compound is safe. And the answer is: Not much.
While 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana use to some degree and many more allow its medical use, marijuana and marijuana-derived products remain illegal federally. That means the Food and Drug Administration can’t exert oversight over even the riskiest marijuana products – or even evaluate claims made by the manufacturers selling devices for cannabis.
The FDA is working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials at international mail facilities to trace the supply chain of potential illicit vaping products, Lena reports. But while THC remains illegal under federal law, the door is closed to federal agencies who might otherwise be able to evaluate how these compounds are manufactured and marketed.
The result, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote recently, is an „impasse.”
„Federal agencies exert little oversight, and regulation is left to a patchwork of inadequate state agencies,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. „The weak state bodies sanction the adoption of unsafe practices such as vaping concentrates, while allowing an illegal market in cannabis to flourish.”
„The recent lung injuries and deaths confirm the market has become a Wild West of potent and shadowy products,” he continued.
Look at Washington State. The state has a regulated cannabis market and it requires that vape products sold in stores be checked for potency, toxins and residual solvents. But there’s little state regulators can do when it comes to black market vapes often found to contain „cutting agents” like the harmful vitamin E acetate.
Marijuana legalization hasn’t occupied much time on the Democratic debate stages so far, perhaps because most of the candidates agree on it.
But Sanders, who has long supported legalizing marijuana, is leaning into the issue on the campaign trail. He released a proposal last week to legalize pot and expunge criminal convictions related to the drug, my colleague Sean Sullivan reports.
„Sanders' plan, which aims to overhaul an approach he argues has unfairly hurt minorities, calls for using executive power to reclassify marijuana as a dangerous controlled substance and passing legislation to permanently legalize the drug,” Sean writes. „It would direct federal and state authorities to review, vacate and expunge past marijuana convictions.”
Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who are polling ahead of Sanders, have also proposed sweeping changes to the country’s marijuana laws. Their proposals are emblematic of a broader shift among both Democrat and Republican politicians favoring more tolerant drug laws instead of more toughness.
Early on in the Trump administration, former attorney general Jeff Sessions signaled he would crack down on marijuana in a reversal from the Obama administration’s policy of turning a blind eye to states that had legalized it. But the administration ultimately changed little about its approach, and recently, President Trump didn’t rule out legalizing marijuana during his presidency.
„We’re going to see what’s going on,” the president said in late August. „It’s a very big subject. And right now we’re allowing states to make that decision. And a lot of states are making that decision.”
Meanwhile, the CDC is erring on the side of caution with its recommendations to the American public. Agency officials are continuing to recommend that people refrain from using all e-cigarettes even though most people who have fallen ill used products containing THC.