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.Cough It Up

Delta-8 vape cartridges are potentially fatal and the government is moving too slow in creating regulations 

A few weeks ago, I bought a delta-10 vape cartridge online from a company in Florida. I wanted to try the hemp-derived form of THC, as I had tried delta-8 in the past. Both of them, and other, similar derivatives, are produced by chemically converting the CBD found in hemp into a form of THC that gets one high, but is widely seen as legal thanks to a loophole in the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp, a cousin of the marijuana plant.

I took a hit from the cart and had a massive coughing fit. My throat was itchy for about a week. I actually began to worry that I’d done permanent damage to my respiratory system. Thankfully, the cough subsided. I tossed the cart, and my days of experimenting with these products were over.

The problem is that these hemp-based, alt-THC products are entirely unregulated. One of the delta-8 carts I bought a few months ago made me cough, too. Others seemed OK, and I enjoyed the high, which tends to be milder than that afforded by delta-9 THC, which dominates the pot markets (both legal and illegal). But I’ve never had a problem with vapes and carts purchased from a licensed dispensary, which are rigorously tested before they can be sold.

Since the Farm Bill passed, a whole bunch of fly-by-night operators have popped up to peddle hemp-derived THC products (it should come as no surprise that a large number of them are based in Florida). Anybody can buy them. Their legality is in question, but for the most part the market for them operates without interference. (The Farm Bill legalized hemp and required that it could contain no more than 0.3% THC. But it specified delta-9 THC, giving these vendors—and consumers across the country, regardless of whether weed is legal in their state—the loophole they needed.)

Various regulators and legislative bodies across the country have tried to crack down on the sale of these products, but not much progress has been made so far. Last week, the Cannabis Regulators Association (CANNRA) sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to take action. “These products currently lack federal manufacturing, testing, and labeling requirements, and they pose consumer safety and public health risks,” the letter read. “In the absence of federal regulation, state government agencies have borne the brunt of the efforts to effectively regulate cannabinoid hemp products.”

Vaping is a dicey method of consumption even in the best circumstances. Breathing anything other than air into lungs entails some risk. We simply don’t yet know what harms vaping might cause. But when vapes are sold by licensed, regulated dispensaries, at least we know they were manufactured according to specific guidelines and don’t contain potentially dangerous contaminants.

In 2019 and 2020, an outbreak of lung disease caused by illicitly-sold vapes sent nearly 3,000 people to the hospital and killed at least 68. The most likely cause was the Vitamin-E acetate that was used in their manufacture. Presumably, even the marginal vendors of the hemp-derived products CANNRA is warning about have avoided using vitamin-E acetate, but short of conducting an analysis, there’s no way to know for sure. There’s no simple way to know anything about the products’ components or methods of production.

The Farm Bill is up for renewal this year, and CANNRA and other concerned parties see that as their chance to finally crack down. The group’s letter asked, among other things, that the 0.3% rule be made to apply only to the plant, and not to derivative products; that THC limits on finished products be imposed; and that regulation of agricultural and industrial hemp be separated from regulation of derivatives.

A major problem is that, even if states ban the sale of such products, the internet enables sales of them by anyone anywhere. It’s as easy to buy them as it is to buy toothpaste on Amazon. Hence the plea to Congress. “In the absence of federal regulation, state government agencies have borne the brunt of the efforts to effectively regulate cannabinoid hemp products,” CANNRA said.

In the meantime, consumers are best advised to buy their cannabis products from licensed dispensaries. 

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