A top official with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just called out cannabis prohibition as a major factor that’s slowing down the government's response to the recent spike in life-threatening illnesses caused by vaping.
In a recent hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat explained that her agency is working with state health departments to help determine exactly what is causing this sudden outbreak of illness. The CDC found that while a large number of these illnesses seem to be brought on by THC oil vapes, the vast majority of these products were bought on the black market.
During the hearing, Senator Lisa Murkowski mentioned that her home state of Alaska is the only state that hasn’t reported incidents of e-cig and vaping-associated lung illness (EVALI), also known as vaping-associated pulmonary injury (VAPI). “In our state, retail marijuana is commercialized, it’s tested by our state laboratories,” she said, according to Marijuana Moment. Sen. Murkowski then asked Schuchat whether the CDC was providing information to state cannabis regulators on how to test vaping products for potentially dangerous additives.
Schuchat responded that the CDC was, indeed, trying to coordinate interstate efforts to test cannabis vapes, but explained that the federal prohibition of cannabis creates “some challenges with shipment of specimens” for testing purposes. “I think it’s just delaying it, I don’t think it’s stopping it.” Several lawmakers argued that these delays are unacceptable, considering how fast this illness has been spreading in the past four months.
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As of last week, there are at least 2,052 confirmed cases of EVALI. And, according to the CDC, 39 people have died as a result of the illness. Scientists have theorized a number of possible causes for this illness, ranging from heavy metal contamination to toxic gases released by illegal pesticides, but researchers now believe Vitamin E acetate is the likely culprit. This additive, which is banned from legal cannabis products in most states, is often added as a flavoring agent to black market nicotine or weed vape carts.
Many lawmakers argue that legalization is the most effective solution to the crisis. But there’s a solid crew of people holding opposing beliefs, ultimately arguing that the crisis could provide new motivation to ramp up the ongoing war on weed. At the same hearing, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) asked Mitch Zeller, director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products if his agency has “jurisdiction over THC products and, if so, what is the authority?”
Zeller responded that the FDA would focus on discovering the supply chain for these products rather than cracking down on individual users. “If we can identify the responsible party — because with THC we’re talking about an illicit compound, so it’s not like someone is going to step forward and say, ‘yeah I did it ’— if we can find the responsible party, if we can do the product analysis that shows that the THC is present, with or without these oils that seem to be making it worse, then in theory we could use authorities that we have under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act,” he said.
This comment immediately caught the interest of notorious prohibition group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, who posted Zeller's quote on social media, noting that the FDA “admits the agency has the authority to crack down on THC supply chains.”
Fortunately, many legislators from both political parties recognize that prohibition causes more problems than it solves. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) noted that the vaping crisis “seems to be primarily deaths and horrific medical problems from vaping illegal products,” Marijuana Moment reports. “What we’re going to do in response to that is make more vaping illegal. It seems kind of counterintuitive. It seems if you make more things illegal, maybe you get more people vaping illegal products and you have more problems.”