Burying one’s head in the sand is rarely an effective strategy for dealing with a problem.
But that’s exactly what Vermont’s top officials are doing when it comes to the emerging epidemic of vaping-related lung disease that has hospitalized hundreds nationwide. Vermont’s Department of Health has confirmed one case so far, and is investigating several more suspected cases. At least 13 people have died in the U.S. as a result.
While public health officials both in Vermont and nationwide continue to investigate, a common thread has emerged in nearly all suspected cases: unsafe adulterants added to cannabis vaping cartridges by unregulated manufacturers selling into the unlicensed “street” market. In particular, an additive called “Honey Cut” has recently become a popular and cheap way to dilute and thicken the cannabis oil that fills these cartridges. This additive contains Vitamin E oil, which is safe when applied topically, but which is extremely dangerous when inhaled into the lungs.
What has been Vermont’s response to this emerging crisis? Dr. Mark Levine, the commissioner of the Department of Health, has thrown his hands in the air, as if nothing can be done, and implored Vermonters addicted to nicotine to stop vaping. In a recent episode of Vermont Edition, the state epidemiologist focused on the trend of increasing teen nicotine vaping — a serious problem in and of itself, but one that’s entirely unrelated to the present outbreak of lung disease. Mirroring the reaction from regional and national policymakers, Gov. Scott has called for a ban on flavored nicotine vape fluids — products which have made tobacco companies billions of dollars by hooking kids on nicotine — while ignoring the growing public health crisis caused by an unsafe, illicit-market supply of THC vaping cartridges.
This is sheer folly and is only likely to make the present lung disease crisis worse while potentially driving people already addicted to nicotine vaping towards the same dangerous “street” market responsible for these lung injuries in the first place.
THC vaping is both popular and legal in Vermont — but the supply is dangerously unregulated. Nationwide, nearly 1 in 4 cannabis consumers vape THC. With roughly 80,000 Vermonters using cannabis in any given month, we infer that approximately 20,000 Vermonters vape THC. Aside from the state’s small network of medical cannabis dispensaries, which serve the roughly 5,000 registered patients statewide, the sole source of supply for this product is the unregulated “street” market — where God-knows-what is mixed into the cartridge in order to maximize profits, consumer safety be damned.
To effectively address this problem, Vermont must quickly move to regulate cannabis cultivation, production and sale. We must replace the widely available supply of untested, potentially adulterated vaping cartridges with a safe, regulated supply. We must replace unaccountable, anonymous manufacturers with licensed manufacturers who follow strict rules on what can and cannot be put into people’s lungs, and who can be found and held responsible for violating those rules. We must give cannabis consumers a safer choice.
This will not come without a change at the top. The tone is set by Gov. Scott who, for years, has chosen to ignore the very real public safety risk posed by an unregulated cannabis supply, and has focused, instead, on unfounded fears about impaired driving and teen cannabis use — despite overwhelming evidence that regulating cannabis has not contributed to or worsened either of these problems in any regulated-market jurisdiction. Gov. Scott has buried his head in the sand, and now Vermonters are being sickened as a result of policy inaction.
Governor, it’s not too late for you to do right by the tens of thousands of Vermonters put at risk by the unregulated cannabis market. The Legislature has bent over backwards to address the concerns you’ve raised with cannabis regulation — passing a comprehensive drug dependence prevention bill which you’ve signed into law, requiring municipalities to affirmatively “opt in” to allowing cannabis stores to open, and proposing to allow police officers to administer oral fluid tests instead of blood tests when probable cause exists to suspect impairment. In light of the clear and growing threat unregulated cannabis vaping products pose to our collective safety, it is incumbent upon you to now call on the Legislature to pass S.54.
Dave Silberman is a Middlebury attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate.