SALT LAKE CITY — After 26 deaths in the U.S., the mysterious lung illness is raising questions of the safety of vaping medical marijuana, with one state considering a six-month ban on all vaping, even for medicinal use.
Meanwhile, Utah medical marijuana advocates on Friday expressed frustration with a public health official urging everyone to stop vaping THC, even as the specific product causing the illness remains unknown.
Oregon’s liquor commission and health authority on Friday implemented the governor’s order calling for a six-month ban on flavored vape products. State health officials had asked Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to go even further, with a ban on the sale of all vaping products, including marijuana. She did not implement it. But she echoed what many officials nationwide are saying about vaping.
“No matter what the product, Gov. Brown agrees with the assessment of Oregon Health Authority: The safest course of action right now is not to vape. Her top priority with this temporary ban is to protect the public health of Oregonians, especially children and youth, who have been using flavored vaping products at increasing rates in recent years,” the governor’s office said in a statement to the Deseret News.
During the board’s meeting, the room was packed with marijuana processors and distillers, who criticized the initial request for a full ban as “overly broad and reactive.”
The number of vaping-related illness cases nationwide has risen to about 1,300 in 49 states after what’s now being called an outbreak began in March. The illness causes breathing problems including a cough, shortness of breath and chest pain.
On Wednesday, the Utah Department of Health reported the state’s first vaping death after a Salt Lake County man died from a lung injury linked to vaping. He had vaped THC and had not been hospitalized before his death, health officials said.
Health department spokesman Tom Hudachko on Friday called THC cartridge use a “common theme” among those with the illness, but said health investigators still don’t know what’s in them that’s causing the lung disease.
“We’re not saying it is THC, we’re not saying it’s not THC. But it appears to be something that is in THC cartridges,” he said
Because of how many similar cases have been linked to products containing the marijuana compound THC, the question arises of how states’ potential responses to the illness might affect the legal cannabis industry. And advocates are worrying about how their rights might be impacted.
Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, says he and other advocates are concerned with how the Utah Department of Health’s characterization of the death could lead to changes to the state’s new medical cannabis law, which legalizes vaping of cannabis products — but not smoking.
“It’s almost as if they’re using THC as some sort of scapegoat pending finding out what actually happened,” Boyack said.
As of Friday, the health department did not know if the man who died used a black market or genuine product, Hudachko said.
“We have some information on where individuals think that they’re getting their products, but we don’t know enough specifically about whether or not they’re vaping regulated or unregulated products. Our advice right now is to stop vaping any THC products while the outbreak is ongoing,” he said.
Desiree Hennessy, with the Utah Patients Coalition, said she has doubts about the health department urging people not to vape THC, “because they are just kind of hitting the panic button.”
“But they understand and we understand that there’s going to be people that have to vape their medication. And if they’re getting their medication from places they’ve been getting it from for a year or months, and they haven’t had an issue, then those products are probably the safe ones,” Hennessy said.
According to Hennessy, her group’s goal is safe access for patients, and as long as they’re getting their products from a medical cannabis dispensary, they’re safe.
Boyack said that cautioning others not to vape THC “makes it sound as if THC were the reason for the person’s fatality — by suggesting that the individual had recently used THC and that there was a THC product found in the individual’s room, while in the same breath saying that the person died.”
Such inferences are “especially concerning,” Boyack said, as THC has not been determined as a cause of the illnesses. Additionally, THC can remain in one’s body for a month or more after they use it, he said.
“For example, if a person has THC, let’s say the person used cannabis two weeks ago and then last night they fell asleep at the wheel and ran off a cliff and fell and died, you would be able to run that person’s blood analysis and say, ‘Oh my gosh, they had THC. Therefore, they were impaired and no one should use THC anymore because these car fatalities, or this single car fatality,’” he said.
Boyack said it “seems disingenuous to blame THC” without offering evidence. Instead, he said, health officials should wait until they know exactly which product is causing the illness before targeting any product.
For advocates, the vaping scare might bode ill ahead of the upcoming legislative session, when Utah lawmakers will again take a look at the state’s medical marijuana law, HB3001.
Sponsor Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said he expects the vaping issue to come up during the session.
“I know that the patients coalition and some others have indicated that vaping is an effective way to administer the medication. But then we’ve also got this challenge, of the troubling aspect of what’s going on with vaping across the country right now,” he explained.
Vickers also said that he understands many of the products that have caused the illness are believed to have been purchased from the black market. Legislators will need to see more data before deciding to remove legal vaping of cannabis from the law, he said.
“Right now it’s kind of an emotional thing, and I don’t really think it’s a good thing to make a decision based on emotion. We should make a decision based on concrete data and medical value,” Vickers said.
On Thursday, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, also announced he’s sponsoring legislation to ban flavored e-cigarettes and tax vaping products like regular cigarettes to fund a public awareness campaign about the dangers of vaping. He also sponsored a bill to prohibit the sale of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to anyone under 21 nationwide.
Contributing: Associated Press