Cannabis consumers should put down the vape pen until we know for sure what's going on with this fatal lung illness 

To vape or not to vape?

"I've been thinking about getting one of those vaporizers, but it would be a shame after all these years of smoking weed to kill myself with one of those now."

A guy named Wesson spoke words to that effect to me while standing in line Saturday at the Gage Cannabis Co. provisioning center grand opening in Ferndale. Among other things, Wesson and I talked about the vaping crisis that has killed several people and sickened nearly 400 others across the country.

We spoke for a good while because the line was long and it took well over an hour for us to make it to the bud room. Wesson is near 80 years old. He says he started smoking weed at Highland Park High School in 1954. For that age, he didn't seem to have any trouble standing out in the hot sun waiting to get in. It helped that cold bottled water was distributed by Gage employees, who were also handing out swag bags to folks in line.

My main reason for going to the opening was to hear what the folks working there had to say about the vaping issue and their products if I just walked in as a customer, not as a journalist. When I asked, I was told that the problem is with black-market cannabis vape cartridges, not the state-licensed and inspected brands for sale in the store. The Gage employee went on to say that the source of the problem appears to be with vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent used by black-market cannabis vape cartridge producers. That concurs with other media reports.

Reactions to the news are rippling across the country. Last week, the Greenhouse of Walled Lake ran a vape cartridge buyback program for five days. During that time, the store exchanged cartridges that had come from untested sources for what are considered safe, state-licensed and state-tested ones. There have been reports that dispensaries in Oregon are taking vape cartridges off their shelves. At the same time, both Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Trump administration have ordered bans on flavored nicotine cartridges to curb teen vaping, though these products have not officially been connected to the lung illnesses.

Outlets and investigators are scrambling to find out what's causing shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, weakness, fatigue, and death among some who have used vape pens. Anyone who has recently used a vape and experiences these symptoms should go see their doctor.

"Until we know more about it and are sure what's in there, we need to at least advise people of the risk and probably not recommend it at this stage," says Dr. Nina Robb of Integrity Medicine in Southfield. "On the other hand, there are patients who need to vape. ... I am advising patients to only vape dry flowers until we know something about it."

Old-fashioned dry marijuana flower doesn't come in vape cartridges and requires an entirely different kind of machine to vaporize. Patients should also be aware that there are numerous ways to ingest cannabinoids without vaping or smoking. They come as edibles, tinctures, and ingestible oils at most provisioning centers. In some cases, topicals might be useful.

This is the first big scare of the legal marijuana era. It's real, people are getting sick, and some have died. That means someone is criminally liable. But it's not the "reefer madness" bullshit we've been getting for so long. It has to be dealt with in a forthright manner by the industry and the underground culture. For some companies, the formulas for their products are highly guarded secrets. There's going to be some push there, as the public needs to be assured that the products are safe.

Marijuana Business Daily distributed a chart last week showing vape sale drop-offs in California, Nevada, Colorado, and the state of Washington after the Aug. 19 report of a death allegedly caused by a vape pen. A related story said that, in California. "approximately one out of every eight dollars spent on vapes has shifted to other products such as flower and pre-rolls."

The anti-marijuana group SAM has taken the opportunity to distribute information claiming that "there are now hundreds of cases of severe respiratory illnesses with six deaths linked to the vaping of high potency marijuana." This is their opportunity to capitalize on people's fears rather than trying to figure out what exactly the problem is.

How this is handled both in the legal sense and the community responsibility sense is going to make a difference as to how the industry is perceived going forward. The industry is already under heavy scrutiny. But this may not be a problem in Michigan at all. There are reports of illnesses linked to THC vaping in Wisconsin, California, Illinois, New York, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington state, but not yet in Michigan. Michigan Regulatory Agency spokesman David Harns previously told Metro Times that he was not aware of any lung illnesses connected to legally purchased vape cartridges. However, people are aware and alarmed that something is going on. At the same time, vape cartridges are still for sale.

I don't know if Wesson broke down and bought a vape pen and a cartridge at Gage on Saturday. My guess is no. He may yet, but it's going to take a bit to convince him that those things are safe. For my part, I like vape pens and have used them off and on to good effect. But I think I'll hit pause on that use for a bit to see where this all goes.

The Gage experience

Gage is another example of the newer breed of provisioning centers we've been seeing crop up in recent months. There's more light, and they're cleaner and roomier than the other ones that hit the scene just after Michigan legalized recreational adult-use marijuana. Gage is slightly different in that an attendant guides customers around the room to stations where products are displayed and can be inspected. The attendant notes your orders on a pad, and then customers can then pick up their items at a cashier station.

Although they had high-THC Rick Simpson Oil, there wasn't any high in the CBD, the non-psychoactive component of marijuana that is believed to have healing properties. An attendant noted what I was looking for and told me they would get some. Their CBD isolate was a little on the expensive side. Instead, the attendant recommended a mid-range flower strain known as "White" that has 18.2 percent THC. I procured an eighth of it and was quite pleased with the effect.

Correction: Our Sept. 10 Higher Ground column should have noted that C3 industries intends to spend $15 million in Michigan but has raised $25 million overall.

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