Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Arizona Detectives Bust Illegal THC Vape Cart Operation and Butane Hash Oil Lab; CDC Continues to Go After Legal Manufacturers and Downplay the Role of these Black Market Marijuana Products

Two weeks ago, detectives with the Maricopa County Drug Suppression Task Force busted an illegal THC vape cart operation in Phoenix. They found more than 1,000 THC vape carts worth an estimated $55,000 along with a butane hash oil manufacturing lab and 300 pounds of mid-grade marijuana used to manufacture butane hash oil. The vape carts they found were packaged as the "Dank" brand, which has been associated with some of the recent vaping illnesses and deaths.

This is at least the second bust of an illegal THC vape cart manufacturing facility in as many weeks, as Wisconsin drug enforcement officials raided a similar operation in Kenosha County and found more than $1.5 million worth of illegal THC vape cartridges.

The CDC continues to claim they we don't yet know whether black market THC vape cartridges are involved in the outbreak at all, insisting that "We do not yet know the specific cause of these lung injuries." Instead of explicitly warning youth in no uncertain terms that THC oils are causing deaths, the CDC continues to invoke legally sold electronic cigarettes and to warn against any use of electronic cigarettes at all.

The CDC's official recommendation remains: "If you are concerned about these specific health risks, CDC recommends that you consider refraining from using e-cigarette or vaping products."

The Rest of the Story

Given the fact that close to 90% of cases and 100% of the deaths for which products have been reported are associated with marijuana vaping, it is inexcusable that the CDC fails to distinguish between the products being vaped. It is also inexcusable that CDC has failed to distinguish between the vaping of oil-based e-liquids (which are typically used in TC carts) and water/alcohol-based e-liquids (as are used in virtually all e-cigarettes).

The scare that CDC has caused is associated with a sharp decline in e-cigarette use and in fact, financial analysts are predicting that we are going to see an increase in cigarette consumption, especially if policy makers follow through with their plans to ban flavored e-cigarettes.

Even worse, there is no doubt in my mind that the CDC's botched warning is leading to more cases of severe respiratory illness. Youth are reportedly getting scared of e-cigarettes and are destroying JUUL pods, but they don't appear to understand that vaping marijuana is the real severe risk here.

Dr. Stan Glantz today tweeted that propylene glycol and glycerin might be the cause of the respiratory disease outbreak. This is ridiculous. These excipients have been used in e-liquids for the past 12 years without a problem. Moreover, if PG/VG were the problem, then there would be a huge number of cases occurring among adults, much less of a differential by gender, and much less of an age gradient in the reported cases.

The most important fact that is being ignored is that the bulk of these cases are presenting as lipoid pneumonia. Exogenous lipoid pneumonia is caused by oil inhalation. PG/VG are not going to cause an outbreak of lipoid pneumonia. But the widespread use of THC oils, which is running rampant among youth, could very well be causing this outbreak.

We don't have all the facts we need, but the pieces are all starting to fit together. And we know enough right now to explicitly warn youth against vaping marijuana. I remain convinced that the CDC's conflation of the problem of youth e-cigarette use and the problem of this respiratory disease outbreak is going to have devastating public health consequences.

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