International Cannabis Business Conference

The Great Vape/Vitamin E Scare of 2019

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A Brief History of Vaporizers

Vaporizers didn't exist before 1989. That year a mysterious character named Dr. Lunglife submitted two articles to High Times that were published. They provided diagrams for making your own portable weed vaporizer - the kind with a dome and a hose.

Vaping was alway a weed thing until the tobacco industry got a hold of it. The Volcano vaporizer - the pyramid shaped device that utilizes turkey storage bags to contain the vapor - never was used for tobacco.

But when the tobacco industry, shamed by the high death totals from its products, turned to vaping as an alternative to smoking, that's when problems started to happen. Those disgusting devices that emit clouds of vapor are supposed to be safer than smoking. But you're still inhaling its deadly product, nicotine. There is no evidence that e-cigs are safe, just that perhaps they are "safer" than cigarettes. They'll still kill you, but perhaps not as fast or not as many people. That's an improvement I suppose.

Rather than sneak a cig in the bathroom or in some hidden spot around schools, now teens are getting addicted to the popular e-cig known as Juul. Plenty of adults are hooked on these little black sticks too.

The news of five deaths due to vaping either e-cigs or cannabis pens and more than 450 cases is confusing. Authorites don't know what's causing people to die or get sick, just that it's happening after people use these devices. 

"This outbreak is akin to bathtub gin under alcohol prohibitions. It's generally a creature of unlicenced markets where consumers have no legal alternative."

Eleven states have legalized marijuana. Thirty-three states have broad medical marijuana laws. Vape pens are legally manufactured and sold in most of these states. The cannabis oil in the cartridges that's vaporized when connected to a battery and inhaled is generally safe since its required to be tested for toxins, mold and pesticides.

But, still the vast majority of Americans don't have access to these legal, safe products. In the other 39 illegal states, the black markets are thriving. No longer content to smoke joints or take bong hits, consumers want the convenience and discreetness of vape pens. Since they're illegal in most of the of the U.S., bootleg manufacturers have sprung up around the country. These oil cartridges are not tested and are being found to contain diluents and flavorings that can cause lung damage and possible death.

"These unfortunate incidents reinforce the need for greater regulation, standardization and oversight of the cannabis market."

David Downs, whose coverage of this controversy has been top notch, wrote at Leafly on Sept. 6:

"This outbreak is akin to bathtub gin under alcohol prohibition. It is generally a creature of unlicensed markets where consumers have no legal alternative. It’s akin to recent Spice/K2 poisonings, as well as unregulated CBD market poisonings. The first reports came out of the prohibition state of Wisconsin, which has 34 cases, and Kings County, CA, which has banned legal access to tested cannabis, alongside 60% of local cities and counties. California has 62 potential cases and one death (all illicit market-related). Illinois has 53. New York also reports 34 cases. By contrast, Oregon has one suspected death. Colorado has two suspected cases. Washington has none."

Letter from CCIA to the California State Legislature

The California Cannabis Industry Association's executive director Lindsay Robinson sent a letter to the state legislature on Sept. 9. It reads, in part:

"While investigations are ongoing and a cause has not yet been identified, it's important to note that no cannabis vaping products purchased at licensed cannabis businesses have been linked to these illnesses. In fact, the California Department of Public Health is currently attributing illnesses in California to untested products purchased from the illicit market.

"California's regualted cannabis and cannabis products are rigorously tested for residuals, toxins, solvents, pesticides and heavy metal above and beyond the testing required for any other manufactured product sold in California. Consequently, when consumers purchase cannabis on the illicit market, they are subjecting themselves to a number of potential health risks.

"California consumers deserve to know the difference between regulated and illicit cannabis, and the possible detrimental health impacts of using unregulated cannabis."

More Industry Reaction: NORML, NCIA, Bloom Farms

I agree with Downs and the CCIA as well as with NORML deputy director Paul Armentano that lack of cannabis regulation nationwide is a cause of this problem.

"These unfortunate incidents reinforce the need for greater regulation, standardization and oversight of the cannabis market – principles which NORML has consistently called for in the cannabis space," he stated on Sept. 5. "Consumers must also be aware that not all products are created equal; quality control testing is critical and only exists in the legally regulated marketplace."

National Cannabis Industry Association executive director Aaron Smith added: 

"These unfortunate illnesses and deaths are yet another terrible, and largely avoidable, consequence of failed prohibition policies. Current federal laws interfere with research, prevent federal regulatory agencies from establishing safety guidelines, discourage states from regulating cannabis, and make it more difficult for state-legal cannabis businesses to displace the illicit market. These policies are directly bolstering the markets for untested and potentially dangerous illicit products... It is now the responsibility of Congress to end prohibition and regulate cannabis without delay."

California vaporizer manufacturer Bloom Farms issued the following statement:

"We're closely monitoring the reports of vaping-related illnesses. All Bloom Farms cannabis formulations contain only 100% cannabis oil and cannabis-derived terpenes. We don't add cutting agents (like Vitamin E acetate) or any synthetic agents to our products. In addition, we always test our products to ensure they meet each state’s strict cannabis health and safety standards.

"We encourage all of our valued customers to purchase only compliant, tested products through licensed cannabis retailers. If you own illicit vape cartridges or have acquired cartridges without knowing their origin, we urge you to throw them away immediately."

You can certainly blame some of the vape deaths and lung issues on the U.S. government for failing to end federal cannabis prohibition, which has been going on since 1937. In the meanwhile, if you live in an illegal state, stick with flower. No one has ever died from inhaling that.

Vitamin E acetate looks like cannabis oil.

The Vitamin E Acetate Problem

It's being reported the Vitamin E acetate is commonly used as a diluent in cannabis oils. While glycols are viewed as harmful diluents, little is known about Vitamin E acetate at this point other than it is apparently slipping through tests in legal states"Just like prohibited pesticides, we need a prohibited diluents list as well as requirements to list ingredients," says Brad Bogus, VP of the testing company Confident Cannabis

Also known as alpha tocopheryl acetate (ATA), Vitamin E oil is used in skin care products, foods like cereals and juices, multi-vitamins and supplements. According to Healthline, the potential risks of taking high doses of ATA (more then 1,000 mg) are dizziness, fatigue, headaches, blurred vision, abdominal pain, diarrhea and nausea.

"When inhaled, Vitamin E acetate becomes grease-like and coats the lungs, which damages them."

The symptoms in most of the 450 reported cases of vape-oil poisoning are coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, fever and weight loss.

Clearly, ATA should not be used as a cut in cannabis oils. "When inhaled," FilterMag reports, "Vitamin E acetate becomes grease-like and coats the lungs, which damages them."

BuzzFeed interviewed Sven-Eric Jordt, a toxicologist at Duke University School of Medicine, who said about Vitamin E: "If inhaled at sufficient amounts, it could certainly cause respiratory problems, maybe even lipoid pneumonia. It is an antioxidant, and may burn and disintegrate when heated in an e-cigarette, releasing toxicants.”

According to US Recall News, "Many believe it’s only a matter of time before Vitamin E acetate will be linked to all of the vaping illnesses and deaths throughout the U.S."

This article was originally posted on September 7. It was update on September 10.

Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of, editor-in-chief of Freedom Leaf, co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness, and the former editor of High Times.