Ban vaping? Beware the knee-jerk reaction

A young woman puffing on a vaping device. (Photo: Aleksander Yu, via Shutterstock)

 For decades, vaping has served as a viable alternative to meet evolving consumer preferences and medical needs. But in recent weeks, a public health crisis has emerged. State officials are working around the clock to develop potential solutions to address this critical situation – as demonstrated in Wednesday’s legislative hearings and ongoing discussions about the issue. But, too often, the conversation turns back to all-or-nothing approaches in the form of product bans on the state, county and local level.

This type of knee-jerk reaction is a mistake. And, it is a mistake that could endanger more Californians while doing nothing to stymie the ongoing crisis.

The data is making it clear that the illegal market is the primary driver of this nationwide crisis.

While there has yet to be a single thread that ties everything together, the Center for Disease Control has identified a repeat offender – counterfeit THC vaping products. Almost 90 percent of the THC products the CDC looked at from sickened patients were acquired from an “informal source” and nearly 70 percent were sold under the name “Dank Vapes”, a well-known counterfeit brand.

The data is making it clear that the illegal market is the primary driver of this nationwide crisis. Yet, the solutions being presented do nothing to inoculate this looming threat. Motions introduced in major cities, like Los Angeles, propose bans of legal products, an action that will no doubt drive consumers to the very place we should be protecting them from: the illegal market.

And, unfortunately for California, the illicit market is booming.

California’s illegal cannabis market is estimated to be at least three times the size of the legal, regulated industry with approximately 80 percent of the cannabis sold coming from illegal sellers. There are currently 873 licensed dispensaries in the state of California, but last month it was found that there were nearly 3,000 illegal retailers across the state that advertise publicly.

Shutting off access to legal products will not curb consumption.

All-out bans will only funnel Californians to the nearly 3,000 unlicensed stores and delivery services open and waiting to sell them counterfeit products that could contain dangerous, untested and untraceable contents or additives. This approach will not solve the current crisis and, based on the testing to date, could pose increased risk to consumers.

Not a single illicit vape that Cannasafe tested would have passed California’s stringent regulatory standards.

In a quest to find answers, many regulated and licensed testing labs have been investigating what is really in counterfeit products to try and determine the root cause of the ongoing crisis and provide regulators and consumers with information. What they have found has been nothing short of shocking.

Cannasafe, a trusted and regulated California testing lab, performed tests on 104 legal vape cartridges and twelve counterfeit vapes from the illicit market. All 104 legal products came out clean – no pesticides and no Vitamin E additive (a potential culprit identified in many of the cases across the country). The illicit products told a very different tale: nine of the twelve products tested from unlicensed and unregulated sources contained Vitamin E, one had trace amounts of heavy metals and all of them contained dangerous levels of pesticides, including a particularly hazardous chemical that, when heated, breaks down into the toxic compound hydrogen cyanide.

Not a single illicit vape that Cannasafe tested would have passed California’s stringent regulatory standards.

Our state’s legal cannabis market operates within a strict framework of regulatory oversight, scientific bodies and track and trace systems at the state and local level that establish multiple layers of consumer protection and regulatory accountability. Conversely, sellers operating outside of the legal market do not adhere to any of the state’s testing, tracking or regulatory mandates. Put simply, we do not know what is in their products and the testing done to date that has found dangerous additives in illicit products may only be the tip of the iceberg.

With the public health of the state and the country on the line, our next steps need to be driven by scientific, rational decision-making.

While we do not yet have the answer to what is at the root of these illnesses, we do have data and knowledge that the majority of the cases are stemming from the illegal market, which is the exact place a product ban would push consumers to. Rather than defaulting to potentially dangerous reflex responses, like an all-out-ban, now is the time for leaders to use the information we have available to develop approaches that will truly protect and enhance the near- and long-term safety of all Californians.

Editor’s Note: Javier Montes is the Vice President of the United Cannabis Business Association and managing partner of a licensed Los Angeles dispensary, Delta-9 T.H.C.

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