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Vape Illness Panic Won’t Stop Canada From Rolling Out Legal Weed Vapes

Legalization 2.0 begins December 17. The timing probably couldn’t be worse.

by Manisha Krishnan
Dec 11 2019, 1:15pm

Photo by Zachary Tan / Unsplash

Google “vaping” right now and nothing good comes up.

The top three articles are about Toronto’s board of health calling for restrictions; B.C.’s vape tax; and pushback against Big Vape from U.S. lawmakers.

Flip to recent press releases from cannabis companies and you’ll hear a different story—one about innovation, safety, and standards.

The industry is gearing up for legalization 2.0 about a week from now, when sales of weed vapes and concentrates become legal. Right now, Canadians can legally vaporize dried flower but come December 17, specially made vaporizers and juices containing THC and CBD will start to become available.

From a public relations perspective, the timing probably couldn’t be worse.

The spate of cases of vaping-related illness in the U.S. and, to a lesser degree Canada, have sparked a panic amongst politicians and public health authorities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 people have died in the U.S. due to vaping-related illness and 2,291 people have been hospitalized. In Canada, there have been 13 cases, none of which have been fatal. Symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, vomiting, abdominal pain, and fever. One Ontario teen who was adding THC to his e-cigarette cartridges nearly needed a double lung transplant.

The reaction has been swift.

Apple has banned all vaping-related apps and Newfoundland and Quebec have just decided to ban the sale of legal cannabis vapes. B.C. has placed a 20 percent tax on all vape products. Nova Scotia has banned flavoured e-cigarettes.

To David Hammond, a public health professor at the University of Waterloo, the bans make “perfect sense.”

“They have some strong leads but they still haven’t been able to identify what constituents are causing people to die,” Hammond said.

The CDC’s analysis thus far suggests that the problem mainly stems from cannabis vape products, and in particular black market brands. The CDC also believes vitamin e acetate, an additive used to dilute vape juice, is associated with vaping-related illness. However, the organization notes “many different substances and product sources are still under investigation, and it may be that there is more than one cause of this outbreak.”

In the meantime, the CDC recommends not using any THC vapes, “particularly from informal sources like friends, family, or in-person or online dealers.”

Hammond, who has studied the rise of vaping amongst young people, said the amount of research on what happens when a person vaporizes cannabis extracts is “shockingly thin.”

He stressed that THC vapes are a completely different mode of drug delivery and Canadians need to be aware of that.

“When you manufacture chemicals for the purpose of inhalation, that’s a fundamentally different product,” he said. And it’s not only about the chemicals going into the vape but the chemicals that are produced from vaping, he added, noting that cigarettes don’t contain benzene, a carcinogen, but benzene is created from smoking.

While he said many of the vaping-related illness cases appear to be related to black market weed products, 10-15 percent are tied to nicotine products. Likewise, not all cases are linked to vitamin e acetate. Until we know for sure, Hammond said the safest bet is to avoid vaping concentrates.

“It would be an absolute tragedy if a single consumer died from one of these products in Canada.”

In an email to VICE, Health Canada said weed vaping products cannot “contain anything that may cause injury to the health of the user when the cannabis product is used as intended or in a reasonably foreseeable way.”

Colouring agents, sugars, sweeteners, mineral nutrients, and vitamins, including vitamin e acetate, are all banned.

However, the health authority’s website repeatedly states that the long-term risks of vaping are unknown.

Yet vaping weed remains extremely popular—vape products make up about 30 percent of California’s recreational cannabis sales.

Jordan Sinclair, vice-president of communications for Canopy Growth, said he expects vape sales to bring in the “lion's share” of revenue from the second round of legal products, including edibles.

Why? Mainly because they’re a convenient way to consume cannabis. You don’t have to bother carrying around flower or packing a bowl.

He said the vaping crisis has forced Canopy to “take a very close look at everything we’re doing,” which he believes is a good thing.

“The key here is that not all vape devices are created equal,” he said.

tweed products
Canopy Growth's line of vape cartridges. Photo courtesy Canopy

Canopy will begin rolling out its new vapes in January; the line will consist of vape cartridges with rechargeable batteries and disposable vape pens.

Sinclair said Canopy’s vape products include materials like surgical steel and borosilicate glass and have received third-party certification for safety.

He said it’s on Canopy to communicate that information to provinces like Newfoundland and Quebec, in light of their bans.

“Frankly they’re putting the onus on industry to provide the confidence they need to carry the products, so we’re working on that.”

Dan Sutton, CEO and founder of BC-based licensed producer Tantalus Labs, said he views the bans as a regressive knee-jerk reaction that will force people to keep buying from the black market.

“Here in Canada, because we love over-regulating the shit out of everything, the regulated vaporization market is actually a substantially safer choice,” he said.

Tantalus won’t begin to roll out its vapes until next year. Sutton said the focus is on quality hardware, and 100 percent cannabis inputs in the juice, meaning no fillers.

“I think if you’ve got a very strong cannabis oil and you’re an illicit vape producer, you might want to dilute it down so people need to consume more of the oil to get high. Just like stepping on drugs,” he said. “A high degree of purity is something that you can get from a regulated source.”

Michael Verbora, a doctor with medical cannabis company Aleafia Total Health Network, echoed Sutton’s thoughts about the bans being short-sighted. He said he’s frustrated by the lack of perspective on the vaping-related illness issue.

If a patient came to him and said they needed to choose between alcohol, tobacco, or a weed vape, he would recommend the cannabis product because it’s the least harmful.

“It’s really interesting how the media and sensationalization really brings so many people together to worry about [fewer than] 100 deaths,” he said. “If we were to proportionately react to the actual drugs that cause problems in society, I don’t know what we’d be doing for alcohol and tobacco. We’d be running to stores and ripping them off the shelves and burning them.”

Verbora said the harm caused by vaping does deserve attention, but he thinks Health Canada’s approach of assessing the information coming in makes more sense than calling for a blanket ban.

Hammond of the University of Waterloo said he’s not convinced Health Canada or the cannabis industry itself can be 100 percent certain that everything being put into and produced by legal vapes is not toxic. He said the industry can get to that point, and that it’s possible vaping will end up being a less harmful mode of consuming weed than smoking, but that for now, Canadians should stick to tried and true consumption methods.

“They can go get high as a kite in many different ways.”

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