This is a copy of an article originally published December 25, 2019 in the Wall Street Journal by their Editorial Board.
The Vaping-Marijuana Nexus
Another unintended consequence of celebrating pot use.
As marijuana use has become more socially accepted in the United States, those pushing for legalization should examine the recent harm that vaping has inflicted on thousands of people, many of whom were using marijuana products.
A surge in vaping related lung illnesses this year caught the medical community by surprise, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting more than 2,500 lung illnesses and 54 deaths. Politicians are targeting e-cigarettes, but the CDC reported last week that marijuana is so far the greatest common denominator.
This is another reminder that America is undertaking a risky social experiment by legalizing and especially destigmatizing cannabis, and the potential effects are hard to foresee or control. The same political culture that is in a fury over legal opioids, and is trying to bankrupt drug companies as compensation, seems to have no problem celebrating a drug that may be damaging young brains for a lifetime.
In October the CDC reported that 86% of 867 patients with available data had used products containing THC shortly before the onset of their symptoms while 64% reported using nicotine products. Only 11% reported using exclusively nicotine e-cigarettes. The CDC has also found that Vitamin E acetate, which is often added as a thickener to marijuana vaping fluids, is a “very strong culprit.”
Democratic Governors such as New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom, who have supported legalizing marijuana, are attacking nicotine e-cigarettes while ignoring the striking links to marijuana. Yet pot products unlike those with nicotine are only lightly regulated by the 11 states where cannabis has been legalized for recreational use.
One vaping-related death last month was linked to a device purchased from a legal pot shop in Oregon. A state audit this year found only 3% of recreational marijuana retailers had been inspected, and state marijuana production is seven times higher than consumption. The implication is that most pot grown in Oregon is exported to states where it is illegal.
One argument for legalizing and regulating pot is that it would shrink the black market, but there’s little evidence that it has. The California Department of Food and Agriculture found that only 16% of the 15.5 million pounds of marijuana produced in the state each year is also consumed in the state.
An audit by the United Cannabis Business Association this year turned up 2,835 unlicensed dispensaries in California—more than three times the number that are licensed. The California Department of Public Health since June has linked more than 120 cases of lung illness to recently purchased vape-pens including many bought at unlicensed shops.
Teens can’t legally purchase pot in any state, but a survey by Monitoring the Future this month found that youth marijuana vaping has nearly tripled since 2017. While overall pot use has remained flat for the past two years, daily use has increased by two-thirds. This is especially troubling since chronic use of marijuana in adolescents has been linked to cognitive impairment, anxiety and psychosis later in life.
About 95% of heroin and cocaine users report first using pot, and studies show that marijuana users require more opioid medication to cope with pain than non-users. Like all drugs, marijuana has different effects on different users that are still not well understood. While some say pot helps them relax, it can cause paranoid tendencies in others.
Older generations don’t realize that the pot grown and sold today is on average four to five times more potent than what they smoked in college. There’s also a misconception that pot is no more addictive than alcohol. About 40% of people who used pot in the last month used it daily compared to 10% of alcohol drinkers.
Political leaders and cultural trend-setters have removed the social stigma around pot use, so it is socially acceptable even where it remains illegal. Rarely can you take a walk in New York City without marijuana smoke wafting into your nostrils.
While tobacco and e-cigarettes are denounced, smoking a joint is chill, man, and young people get the message. A mere 30.3% of 12th graders this year said smoking pot regularly was risky, down from 77.8% in 1990 and 52.4% a decade ago, according to the Monitoring the Future study. Teens say pot is less risky than e-cigarettes (38%) and easier to obtain (78.4%) than regular cigarettes (72.4%).
A large business lobby is now pushing for pot legalization. The rash of vaping deaths and illnesses shows that pot is more dangerous than people realize, and Americans should pause on the rush to legalize until we understand how much medical and social harm it is doing.