The U.S. cannabis industry called out Congress this week to legalize and regulate pot to help snuff out illicit cannabis vapes amid the recent outbreak of vaping-related lung illnesses and deaths.
As of Sept. 11, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported 380 confirmed cases of severe lung illnesses and six deaths linked to the use of e-cigarette products. State health departments previously told the CDC there were more than 450 possible cases, and a large number of those have been associated with people using cannabis vape cartridges from the black market.
For example, New York state health authorities are investigating 34 cases that are all linked to people using cannabis-containing vape products from the underground before they became ill.
The outbreak of vape-related pulmonary illness and deaths prompted the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) to call on U.S. Congress to legalize cannabis in order to regulate vape products and keep consumers safe.
“These unfortunate illnesses and deaths are yet another terrible, and largely avoidable, consequence of failed prohibition policies,” Aaron Smith, executive director of the NCIA, said in a Wednesday statement.
Cannabis’ status as a federally illegal drug fuels illicit products, disrupts research and limits the ability to develop consistent regulations, Smith added. The NCIA wants to see cannabis removed from the Controlled Substances Act and be regulated similar to alcohol.
The cannabis industry group is also asking licensed vape cartridge makers to halt any use of thickening agents and recall products that contain them until more data is available. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently investigating vitamin E oil found in illicit vape cartridges, which is considered dangerous when heated.
The National Cannabis Roundtable, a separate industry association chaired by former U.S. House speaker John A. Boehner, also released a statement that said “a well-regulated cannabis marketplace is the most effective way to police bad actors and to get counterfeit and tainted products off the market to ensure and protect public health.”
“@FAaronSmith, executive director of the NCIA, said in a statement the illnesses and deaths are another avoidable consequence of 'failed prohibition policies.'” https://t.co/15DUMll3pj via @MJBizDaily #RegulationWorks
— National Cannabis Industry Association (@NCIAorg) September 13, 2019
Federal clamp down sparks industry concerns
But so far the U.S. federal government has only shown willingness to target the vaporizer industry as an answer to the vape-related lung illness breakout.
President Donald Trump announced this week his administration is preparing to ban flavoured e-cigarettes like mango and mint in an effort to protect children. The FDA is working on finalizing its guidance to remove all non-tobacco flavours from the market within the next 30 days.
The federal action targeting e-cigarettes has sparked concerns within the cannabis industry that it could lead to regulations curbing the sale of cannabis vaporizers across the U.S.
“There’s a lot of preliminary concern that this could be used to negatively impact cannabis-related regulations at the federal level when that process begins,” NCIA spokesman Morgan Fox told Marijuana Business Daily.
Cannabis vape products represent about 25 per cent of legal markets in U.S. states like California and Colorado, according to BDS Analytics. Data from Seattle-based cannabis researchers Headset shows almost 36 million vape pens or cartridges were sold in California, Colorado, Nevada and Washington state through licensed retailers over the last year.
But Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation (CTF), downplayed concerns about federal enforcement telling Marijuana Business Daily the worries are based on “conjecture and speculation.”
Levine and the CTF welcome federal legalization and in the meantime they are urging consumers to avoid purchasing vape pens and cannabis oil from the black market.
Canadian companies stand by legal vape products ahead of Cannabis 2.0 launch
In Canada, the U.S. outbreak of vape-related lung illnesses has drummed up similar concerns on how it might affect sales of vape products when they become legal and available in the country at the end of the year.
“It’s going to create some hesitation in the market,” Jennifer Lee, Deloitte Canada’s Cannabis national leader, told The Canadian Press.
Michael Armstrong, who pays close attention to the cannabis sector at Brock University, said it is too early to tell what exactly is making vapers ill in the U.S. But if the cause is found to not be from additives and vaping itself, “that would be a much bigger problem for the Canadian cannabis industry.”
Armstrong, however, said the U.S. investigation could present an opportunity for Canadian companies to prove regulated products are safer.
“It’s an opportunity for the legal producers to say, ‘OK, look, our products are tested. We have consistent manufacturing processes.’… Whereas with black market products, who knows what got put into those cartridges,” he said.
Megan McCrae, the board chair of the Cannabis Council of Canada, said the underground market for vape products in Canada is worth $1 billion. She believes most of the cases reported in the U.S. appear to be linked to cutting agents.
“Most of these issues coming out of the U.S. are related to black market product and what black market producers are doing to cut corners… This could hopefully help bolster legal channels,” said McCrae, who also works for Aphria (TSX:APHA) as its vice-president of marketing.
Quebec-based licensed producer HEXO Corp. (TSX:HEXO) is making a line of cannabis vape products and wants to reassure the public they will be safe.
“Legal extract product will be stringently tested for contaminants like heavy metals and solvents, which is not a process done with black market product,” the company said in a statement.
Organigram Inc. (CVE:OGI) is one of four Canadian pot firms to team up with vape giant Pax Labs to help develop sophisticated cannabis vape products.
“Although it’s going to be critical for us to ensure that we look at all of our input materials and we get specific analysis to make sure there are no additional contaminants in the product, we must remember we are in a highly regulated environment in Canada where consumer safety comes first,” said Greg Engel, chief executive officer of Organigram.
Engel, along with Aurora Cannabis (TSX:ACB), confirmed they would not use the vitamin E oil, known as vitamin E acetate, or any flavourings or dilutive additives in any of their vape products.
Though there isn’t enough long-term data to reveal the safety even of legal products, for the industry, proving their products are safe is paramount in order gain consumer trust and grow sales.
“I think it’s too early for us to comment on whether this concern over vaping is going to affect sales. But I can tell you that for us, the biggest priority is to ensure safe, consistent access for the consumer and you will get that from the legal market,” said Tim Pellerin, the general manager of Pax Labs for Canada.
Along with Organigram, Pax Labs also teamed up with Aurora, Aphria and the Supreme Cannabis Company (TSX:FIRE).