Could Federal Legalization Solve The THC Vaping Illness Outbreak?

By Lindsey Weedston 10/25/19

Experts are starting to think that legalization may be the only way to find out the cause of the illnesses once and for all.

man vaping the
Photo via Flickr/smoketastic

Experts are increasingly looking toward federal decriminalization as a solution to the outbreak of severe lung illness and death across the U.S., according to a report by Vox.

Close to 1,500 people have become ill and at least 33 have died from the mysterious illness, which began to suddenly crop up in March. As researchers look into the source of the problem, evidence has begun arising that most of these cases involve illicit, black market THC oil cartridges.

Both national and statewide data have consistently shown that a strong majority of the patients of this lung illness had recently used a THC vaping product. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 78% of the reporting patients had used these products in the past while 92% of individuals from a similar survey in Utah had done so before getting sick.

Because the THC vape market has largely shifted from relying on dried flower to oils, most of the patients who had vaped cannabis had done so with the oil form of the substance. 

From Dried Herb To Processed Oils

“What’s changed is that people used to vape dried herb and now you have more vaping of pre-processed manufactured oils, which involve different ingredients,” said University of Waterloo in Ontario public health researcher David Hammond.

At the same time, data is showing that the majority of these products were obtained outside of legal sale. Most of them were “acquired from informal sources such as friends or illicit in-person and online dealers,” according to the CDC, and a New York Department of Health study found that the “vast majority” of their lung illness cases could be traced back to black market cartridges.

Regulators Need To Catch Up

THC products are often being developed faster than regulations can keep up with them, and authorities are having a hard time getting a handle on the black market that is likely responsible for the lung illnesses that have sickened so many.

“Federal agencies exert little oversight, and regulation is left to a patchwork of inadequate state agencies,” said former FDA commissioner FDA Scott Gottlieb for the Wall Street Journal. “The weak state bodies sanction the adoption of unsafe practices such as vaping concentrates, while allowing an illegal market in cannabis to flourish.”

With all this information coming together, experts are beginning to conclude that the most effective and reasonable path remaining is full federal cannabis legalization.

“What federal legalization would do is allow for a more uniform and predictable and clear set of rules that would draw on the experience and expertise of the federal agencies in regulating consumer markets,” said Northwestern University professor Leo Beletsky.

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at Twitter: