Marijuana industry addresses vaping backlash
The once high-riding vaping industry now finds itself in crisis mode after reports of severe lung diseases linked to both nicotine and cannabis consumption.
Punctuating the bad publicity was last week’s announcement that the Trump administration — following in the footsteps of Aspen City Council and other municipalities — is looking to ban sales of flavored e-cigarettes.
In June, Aspen city leaders took the ban a step further, outlawing the sales of flavored nicotine products including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, e-cigarettes and vape pens. The majority of council supported the ban out of concern that Aspen-area youth are drawn to flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco products and are becoming addicted. The law takes effect Jan. 1.
Concerns have now reached the federal level.
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“We’ve got to figure out to how to regulate it and we’ve got to do it quickly, because there’s a whole generation of Coloradoans and kids all over America that are being told that this is somehow safe, and are getting addicted to this nicotine,” Sen. Michael Bennet, also a presidential candidate for the Democratic nomination, said at a town hall meeting in Aspen on Aug. 30.
The potential federal ban of flavored nicotine vaporizers, along with the city’s broader one, doesn’t apply to the legal marijuana trade, but the industry is watching. Aspen has seven dispensaries that sell recreational cannabis.
“At this point, we don’t know what this effect will be,” said Alex Levine, one of the owners of the Colorado-based Green Dragon pot shop chain, which has a shop in downtown Aspen. “If they ban flavored e-cigarettes, we don’t know how that will affect the cannabis industry.”
Complicating the matter is that marijuana is illegal under the federal system, he said.
On Sept. 6, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention said more than 450 cases of vaping-related illnesses were spread across 33 states, but Thursday it dropped that number to 380 cases in 36 states — including the U.S. Virgin Islands — after it changed its definition of the cases to those that are confirmed or probable.
Aspen Valley Hospital has no reported cases of patients with respiratory illnesses related to vaping, either THC or nicotine, according to Jennifer Slaugher, the hospital’s director of community relations.
Nationwide, six deaths have been reported so far, including one case in Oregon where a person died in July and had reportedly used a vaporizer containing cannabis acquired from a legal marijuana dispensary.
The FDA has said a potential common link — though the definitive cause is yet to be known — in the related illnesses is vitamin E acetate, a chemical also found in some of the oil used in marijuana vapes and used frequently on the black market.
Levine said marijuana vape oil sold by Green Dragon, which uses in-house products for vape products and also works with wholesalers, doesn’t have that chemical.
“In terms of compounds that are not good for you, like vitamin E acetate, we use none of those products,” he said.
Boulder-based Rm3 Labs is voluntarily taking measures to test for vitamin E acetate in cannabis oils, said company founder Ian Barringer. Rm3 is a state-licensed cannabis testing facility and laboratory.
“At this point basically we’ve not received any guidance from the federal level or state level on how to proceed,” he said.
But reports of vitamin E acetate — a cutting agent — being the potential culprit for the health ailments prompted the lab, which has some 300 clients, to start its own testing.
“We’ve pretty much taken upon ourselves,” Barringer said. “We have a number of clients that like to be ahead of the curve on quality control and consumer protection.”
Products testing positive for the chemical will be shelved, he said.
“It will get locked up in the state inventory and (the makers) can purge it and send it back to retest,” he said.
He added, “Frankly I don’t know if any manufacturers (in Colorado) include vitamine E in their products. These companies have to stand behind their products.”
Levine said the headlines about the ills of vaping haven’t meant a drop in sales of vaping products, but an increase in customer concerns.
“The consumers are coming in with all of these questions, now that they’ve heard of this issue, and they don’t understand,” he said. “We’re making a serious effort to educate them.”
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Wayne Hall took a job as an air traffic controller at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in 2003 thinking he would stay for a short time. Instead he stayed for nearly 17 years and was promoted up to the position of air traffic manager. He reflected on the experience upon retirement.