Is It Safe to Vape?

Anyone who says they know what’s behind the recent outbreak of a vaping-related lung disease is either lying, doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or wants to sell you a black market vape cartridge.

Even the top doctors and scientists in the nation admit they still do not understand the cause of the mystery lung illness that,  as of late last week, has killed nine victims and made at least 500 more sick with symptoms of chest pains, coughing, nausea, or fever.

The most frightening aspect to this outbreak is that, other than the fact that each of the victims had used an e-cigarette or vape pen to smoke either nicotine or cannabis, the cause is unknown. While one popular theory lays the blame on a thickening agent in the underground-market vape oils called vitamin E acetate, not every vape cartridge or pod that has made people sick contains this substance.

“We do not yet know the specific cause of these lung injuries,” the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says in their most recent announcement since a recent fatality. “The investigation has not identified any specific e-cigarette or vaping product (devices, liquids, refill pods, and/or cartridges) or substance that is linked to all cases.”

It’s even more alarming that the nation’s leading health protection agency has said that for the time being, people should just stop vaping anything, whether it’s Juul pods, e-cigarettes, or cannabis vape products.

“CDC recommends that you consider refraining from using e-cigarette or vaping products,” the agency says.

So is it safe to smoke your most trusted THC vape cartridge brands that you’ve been buying legally at dispensaries for years, without ever once getting sick?

“Since day one, we’ve been putting our products through testing that’s above and beyond the legal requirements,” says vape oil and pod manufacturer Jetty Extracts’ Director of Marketing and Business Development Luna Stower. “We test for potency, pesticides, heavy metals, molds, and other foreign contaminants.”

The big question for pot-smokers and cannabis vaping enthusiasts is how many people got sick from THC and CBD vape products, as opposed to using just plain nicotine vape pods like Juul or VaporFi. The answer is a mixed bag.

“Most patients have reported a history of using e-cigarette products containing THC,” the CDC says, having analyzed the histories of the hundreds of people who have recently gotten sick or died from vaping. “Many patients have reported using THC and nicotine. Some have reported the use of e-cigarette products containing only nicotine.”

In other words, both cannabis and tobacco vaping have been making people sick. But in many of these cases, the victim has smoked underground, black-market products they bought off the internet instead of from legal stores and dispensaries.

Vaping is a pretty significant part of the overall cannabis industry. Research firm BDS Analytics supplied SF Weekly an analysis estimating that vape sales constitute 30 percent of all legal, over-the-counter marijuana sales in California. That’s not as high a volume as the most popular product flower (or marjuana plant buds), which makes up 40 percent of all cannabis sales in the state.

But the vaping sector has taken a big hit from the lung illness scare. Seattle-based analytics firm Headset found that California vape sales have fallen by about four percent since the first lung disease death was reported on Aug. 19.

Marijuana vape users can take comfort in knowing there is little established link between this mysterious illness and legal, licensed vape pods and cartridges sold at dispensaries. Only one fatality was caused by a vape cartridge bought legally at a dispensary, and that was in Oregon — a state with far more lax lab testing standards that do not require testing for chemical additives, as California law does.

“If consumers shop outside of the regulated market, there’s really no way of knowing what might be in that cartridge or pod,” Stower says. “Things like artificial ingredients, cutting agents, and pesticides could be present. Jetty products are pure cannabis oil and terpenes with no cutting agents.”

As of late last week, the most recent death in California occurred in late September near Fresno. That victim’s family said he had been using a vape cartridge called Lucky Charms, whose fake packaging can easily be bought on the internet from Chinese sites like AliBaba, then sold on the illicit market with underground, home-brewed oils inside. Other black-market vape brands linked to the illness include brands like Dank Vapes and West Coast Carts.

This indicates the “safer” route for vaping — again, the CDC says to refrain entirely — is to use only products from reputable and legal companies, who have thus far not had their products make people sick, at least in California.

It’s impossible for a consumer to know how extensively a cannabis product has been tested and by whom just by looking at the packaging. But there are some indications that correlate to reputable vape brands.

Some vape companies’ packaging contains a sticker that lets you know the “batch number” of the cannabis used to make the oil, allowing you to pull up independent, third-party testing results for their product, or review state-issued certificates of analysis that show the product’s test results for pesticides, contaminants, or heavy metals.

Other cartridges’ packaging will list all of the ingredients in the oil. In cartridges like Jetty Extracts’ and those from  Oakland-based vape and tincture company Chemistry, the only two ingredients are cannabis oil and natural  terpenes, with no synthetic additives.

“We’ve been smoking cannabis terpenes for thousands of years,” says Chemistry Director of Flower Jimmy Levi. “When you know it’s 100 percent cannabis, you can just go off the history of the plant. When you’re volatizing other types of oils, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Again, the fashionable culprit in the lung illness debate so far has been vitamin E acetate. Many underground vape pen labs have used it as a thickening agent in their cartridges, as the substance has never shown any toxicity when taken orally or applied to the skin.

“What does that do when you smoke it in a pen? I don’t know,” Levi says. “The CDC doesn’t know.”

Federal and state officials are now jumping on the bandwagon to legislate some manner of solution to the vaping illness outbreak. Here in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom just pledged $20 million to crack down on the counterfeit vape market. President Donald Trump has decreed a nationwide ban on flavored vaping products, which may be an effective response to youth vaping, but might not successfully address the still-unexplained lung illness.

So until we have a reliable explanation for this mystery lung illness, if you insist on vaping cannabis, it’s probably a good idea to carefully examine the product packaging to see if there is any verification that some scientifically sound method was used in its production. Otherwise, when you visit a dispensary, maybe just pick flowers.

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