Safety of Vaping Cannabis Oil Challenged as Hospital Cases Continue

Kenzie Bruce
Vaping is marketed to both tobacco and marijuana smokers as the safer alternative to smoking. But as hundreds of cases of vaping-related illnesses pop up across the country, state and federal health officials are gaining traction in their messaging about the unknown dangers of vape products.

"Vaping products contain more than just harmless water vapor. They are marketed as a 'safe' alternative to smoking, but the long-term health effects of vaping are still unknown," the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment notes on its website.

As vaping receives criticism from government officials, much of the heat has been directed at nicotine vaping — allowing marijuana vaping products to escape largely unscathed. However, vaporizing marijuana products now covers a larger span than just the plant's flower, with THC and CBD oil vape cartridges rising in popularity thanks to their convenience — and that's where recent reports of danger come in.

On September 4, the New York Times reported that one of the two deaths linked to vaping-related illnesses occurring in recent weeks happened after a person consumed a legally purchased cartridge containing THC oil from an Oregon dispensary. Oregon health officials declined to name the brand or store associated with the product that the now-deceased individual was vaping, according to ABC News, adding that they're still figuring out what, exactly, led to the person's death.

"We don’t yet know the exact cause of these illnesses — whether they’re caused by contaminants, ingredients in the liquid or something else, such as the device itself," said Dr. Ann Thomas of the Oregon Health Authority Public Health Division said in a release. But the problem isn't just in Oregon.

Just one day later, September 5, the Washington Post reported that Food and Drug Administration officials found oil derived from vitamin E in numerous samples of cannabis oil that had been consumed by some of those that have fallen ill across the country, including cases in New York, where marijuana sales are still illegal. After testing nicotine products that could have been linked to the recent health issues, the FDA found nothing unusual, according to the Post.

According to the CDPHE, vitamin E oil can be used as a thickening ingredient in vaping liquids. The Post article notes that health officials warn that inhalation can lead to the "kinds of respiratory symptoms that many patients have reported: cough, shortness of breath and chest pain."

As states with both regulated and illegal cannabis sales grapple with seemingly toxic vaping products, Colorado cannabis industry representatives point to the state's regulatory framework as a reason that products are more trustworthy here.

"Manufacturers in Colorado have pumped out hundreds of millions of cartridges in the market with literally no adverse effects like those in the papers that you’re reading," says Kevin Gallagher, founder of the Colorado Cannabis Manufacturers Association, a trade organization for cannabis extraction and infusion companies.

According to Gallagher, any legitimate concentrate manufacture shouldn't have to worry about vitamin E if they're not cutting corners. "Do due diligence on where you are sourcing your ingredients. If you are cutting your vape cartridges with anything other than cannabis-derived entities, you'd better do your darn research," he warns.

The CDPHE says it is aware of the discovery of vitamin E oil in vaping samples across the country, but still views the vitamin E link as a lead, and not a definitive answer.

"We continue to work with the CDC and FDA to look at all possible links to the illness, including nicotine, THC, CDB, synthetic marijuana and other compounds. At this point, a potential link to vitamin E oil is preliminary, and it would be premature to issue warnings before we know the cause of the illness," Elyse Contreras, an environmental epidemiologist for CDPHE, says in a statement to Westword.

The department has not yet determined the exact product that caused the two confirmed cases of vaping-related illnesses in Colorado, but is advising against purchasing cannabis e-cigarette products off the street or modifying or adding to products that were bought legally in a store.

Although marketed as a safer alternative to smoking, questions remain about the safety of vaporizing plant matter and oil. Smoking is the devil we know, but public health officials want tobacco and marijuana users to show caution with vaping.

"There has not been enough research to know if using a vaporizer is safer than unfiltered smoking of marijuana," reads a section of the state health department's frequently-asked-questions guide to marijuana and methods of use. The section points to studies that have produced mixed results, with some showing potentially less-hazardous effects of vaping marijuana when compared to smoking, while others point to concerning side effects that health officials have seen in these vaping-related illnesses across the country.