New battles are brewing over vaping, with nearly 40 deaths, more than 2,000 illnesses and a media debate that is swirling into a tornado of good intentions.
Colorado has been spared, so far, and it hasn’t been entirely good luck.
The state has been and appears to be intent on leading a regulatory fight over e-cigarettes, spooked by the newest player in the marketplace of vices.
We don’t know yet what we don’t know about vaping, but evidence is telling us more. Some of the illnesses have been linked to a black market thickener, Vitamin E acetate.
NBC News commissioned laboratory tests as part of an investigation that was released on Sept. 27. The investigation found that none of the three products purchased from legal dispensaries had heavy metals, pesticides or residual solvents.
Thirteen of 15 samples from black-market cannabis vape products were found to contain Vitamin E. Ten out of 10 products from the unregulated market tested positive for pesticides, including myclobutanil, a fungicide that can transform into hydrogen cyanide when burned.
The lesson here seems simple enough: don’t vape off the black market.
Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division put out final rules a month ago that ban Vitamin E acetate and other additives, a move Washington state is now following.
That deaths have the attention of lawmakers from D.C. to Denver, as President Donald Trump and Gov. Jared Polis say they’re eyeing crackdowns.
The West Foyer of the state Capitol filled up last April as the governor rallied his health care army. He sought a ballot measure to raise tobacco taxes and create a tax on nicotine used for vaping. The measure was tabbed to raise an estimated $300 million a year for health care and education.
Nearly the entirety of the news conference was spent on vaping and spending the new tax money. Polis said he hoped to use part of the money to help pay for full-day kindergarten and after-school programs.
“We have a moral imperative to reduce teen smoking and vaping,” the governor said. “We have a financial imperative for public health.”
The bill never got out of the blocks, as Democrats already had their hands full with proposed new taxes on legalized sports gambling, as well as keeping tax rebates to steer money into education and transportation.
Polis, however, pointed to a study last year by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found Colorado had the country’s highest rate of teen vaping, 26.2%, which was twice the national average.
Colorado lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, continue to wring their hands and look for something to do in this moment of crisis.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has called vaping “a public health fire alarm,” alleging teenagers who vape are “10 times more likely to end up addicted to more serious substances,” he told Colorado Public Radio.
Weiser is investigating e-cigarette maker Juul Labs Inc. over deceptive marketing.
A bill is in the works to raise the puffing age — for vaping and old-school tobacco — to 21.
And yet, the website Vice declared last month, “Colorado might be the only state having a rational response to vape panic.”
The main reason these events have not impacted legal cannabis products in Colorado is because of stringent pesticide requirements pushed by companies operating in the state that pointed out the problems with less-unscrupulous companies.
The Denver Post reported in October 2015 that Colorado regulators were pressured by some in the cannabis industry, including LivWell Enlightened Health, to delay efforts to enact regulations, ultimately resulting in a less-restrictive approach. It took three years — between 2012 and 2015 — before the state would act, moved by an outbreak of pesticide concerns raised by the Denver Department of Environmental Health.
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper has gotten grief from pot advocates for his lukewarm, if not chilly, attitude toward legal cannabis, but on the pesticide front and keeping people safe, he should be applauded.
Hickenlooper was proactive and took on big players in the cannabis industry to do it.
Hickenlooper has always said the issue of legalization was about health and safety. He weathered criticism for vetoing a bill last year that would have made autism a condition that qualifies for medical marijuana. He wanted a second opinion, more research, to assure public safety.
The reward for caution over vaping may be vindication for our former governor’s caution.
Alcohol’s devastating effects on people and society, however, will continue to get scant new attention. Perspective gets lost. Each of the 39 vaping-related deaths identified nationwide is one too many. Our politicians have a scattered record of solving crises littered with unfinished business. Opioids kill more than 130 people a day and guns killed nearly 40,000 Americans in 2017.
It appears doubtful that the science will catch up to the public policy that’s already on the table, in the meantime. Vaping deserves close examination, and one wonders if it’s a proxy war over cigarettes and pot.
Yet, ultimately, the critics’ questions will create a stronger case for federal standards surrounding cannabis, from banking to national legalization.