by Morgan Fox, NCIA Director of Media Relations
In recent weeks, the reports of mysterious respiratory illnesses tied largely to unregulated cannabis vaping products, as well as some other products including nicotine vapes, have turned from a trickle into a steady flow. The most recent count is at over 1000 cases, including more than a dozen deaths. One of the most troubling aspects of this outbreak is that it is still unknown what exactly is causing these illnesses. Early research seems to be pointing to additives or thickening agents as the most likely culprit, but other causes are being explored such as the presence of pesticides and fungicides that create dangerous byproducts, faulty delivery devices, problematic consumption patterns, and pre-existing medical conditions.
One thread seems to tie all these cases together: almost all of them involved untested products that were produced and purchased on the illicit market.
At its roots, however, is the same thing that has caused most of the other problems associated with cannabis: prohibition.
Outdated federal policies are responsible for the existence of the underground market for this popular substance in the first place. Their dominance over this medically beneficial plant for nearly a century continues to block research, discourages states from regulating cannabis and making it legal for adults, prevents the federal government from establishing uniform safety standards or providing guidance to states that are implementing sensible policies, and make it harder for legal businesses to displace illicit operators around the country. This is in addition to the suffering and harm caused by the criminal enforcement of these policies, which disproportionately impacts low-income communities and people of color.
Unfortunately, some governmental agencies are glossing over these facts. Last month, Massachusetts instituted a four-month ban on all vaping products, and on Friday the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning urging people to stop consuming any vape products containing THC, despite THC itself and legal products generally not being implicated in these cases. Other states and localities are considering total bans as well.
The cannabis industry is deeply troubled by this outbreak, but we are also concerned that reactionary responses to it at the state and federal levels could make the problem even worse. Preventing the sale altogether of regulated and quality-controlled cannabis products could easily drive more consumers to purchase potentially dangerous products from the illicit market. The lack of competition from legal, licensed producers and retailers could also embolden irresponsible underground operators to drastically increase production in order to meet demand, as well as cut corners even further and make their products even more unsafe. Such reactions are a common response to tragedies like this, but they often cause more harm than good in the long run.
Rather, states should be reviewing their regulations regarding testing and labeling and should be in close contact with federal and state medical authorities so that they can incorporate the latest information into their regulatory response. Producers should also be reexamining their methods and avoiding the use of any additives that have so far been linked to these cases.
At the federal level, the best way to help fix this issue, as well as prevent further outbreaks from happening at all, is to end prohibition.
On October 3rd, NCIA delivered a letter to every member of Congress signed by more nearly 800 business leaders, advocates, and policy experts, which urges them to immediately work to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and work to regulate the substance at the federal level. This letter references a paper produced by NCIA’s Policy Council released on October 1 that suggests a regulatory framework for various cannabis products through existing federal agencies, most notably the FDA and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
The letter closes with: “It is clear that the American public wants quality-controlled cannabis products made available for adults and patients. The recent news is, unfortunately, yet another reminder that there is no time to waste. Our industry wants to provide the products voters demand with a tireless focus on improving consumer safety. While state regulators and licensed businesses appear to be doing an excellent job at keeping potentially dangerous products out of the legal market, federal descheduling and regulation will allow more research and help states continue to improve their regulatory activities and oversight, as well as provide universal standards for safety. We are ready to work collaboratively with federal lawmakers, the same way we have at the state level for over a decade. Please let us know how we can help move the ball forward on descheduling legislation. Lives are literally at stake.”
That pretty much says it all. It is up to members of the legal cannabis industry to continue to prioritize consumer safety and do everything in their power to make sure they are going above and beyond state regulatory requirements in this area. But it is ultimately up to Congress to end prohibition, regulate cannabis intelligently, and help us replace the illicit market to the greatest extent possible. With your support, we can continue to work with lawmakers every day to help make this a reality.