Crappy Vape Pens: The vape market is a particularly stark example of why tight regulation of the legal cannabis market is needed

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NO STANDARDS Illicit vape products have been found to contain vitamin E acetate.

Several months ago, when I started looking into delta-8 THC—which exists in a legal gray area that enables companies to sell, largely free of regulation, hemp-derived cannabis products that can actually get you high—I bought a few disposable delta-8 vape pens over the internet. I didn’t have to prove my age or anything. It was as easy as ordering books from Amazon.

The effects were … fine. As many observers have noted, the high was mild, and mostly free of anxiety—which can be a problem for me sometimes. But the pens themselves were crap. One of them stopped working within a few days, and it wasn’t rechargeable. Another one was hard to draw from: it took a mighty inhale to get the battery to kick in, and when it did, it immediately sent an enormous amount of vapor into my lungs and sent me into a coughing fit.

I was fairly careful about which vendors I bought from, as there are a lot of fly-by-night operators peddling delta-8 products. I went with companies that had been around for a while, selling CBD products and other hemp-derived stuff before they started selling delta-8. But the chintziness of the pens made me worry that they might be unsafe. Since delta-8 is largely unregulated, nobody was looking over the makers’ shoulders to make sure the products were up to standards. There are no standards.

So, of course, I started thinking back to the 2019–2020 outbreak of severe lung illnesses associated with illicit cannabis vapes. More than 2,700 people were hospitalized in the United States, and 60 people died from an illness dubbed EVALI—E-cigarette or Vaping Use-Associated Lung Injury—by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The precise cause hasn’t been confirmed, but the outbreak was almost certainly caused by shoddy production, most likely due at least in part to the use of vitamin E acetate in the oil. Vape pens and cartridges are fairly complicated products, and not something that some random mope in an Iron Maiden T-shirt should be making in his garage.

Regular cannabis vapes available at California weed dispensaries are safe, though of course breathing anything other than air into one’s lungs always carries risks. They are manufactured under strict regulations, and are tested to ensure they are free of contaminants. Most of these contain delta-9 THC, the kind we are all familiar with.

Delta-8 has skyrocketed in popularity thanks to loopholes in state and federal laws, and the fact that weed is illegal in many places. The federal government legalized hemp in 2018, which created a booming market in hemp-derived CBD products. That law forbids the sale of any hemp that contains more than 0.3 percent THC, but it specifies delta-9 THC. Companies selling delta-8 products saw this as an opportunity: the delta-8 THC is converted from hemp-derived CBD, and concentrated sufficiently to create a high. But—under the dubious legal theory they’re relying on—it’s just as legal to sell it as it is to sell CBD gummies or hemp shampoo. Hence the ease with which I was able to buy my crappy vape pens.

As much as cannabis companies in California might bemoan overregulation—and they sometimes have a point—the vape market is a particularly stark example of why tight regulation of the legal cannabis market is needed. It also shows how effective regulation is, and why legalization is needed from coast to coast: A new study done in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health and published by the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence has found that EVALI is markedly less prevalent in states where cannabis is legal for medicinal or adult use, where the incidence of EVALI is 42% lower than in states where cannabis is banned outright. The logic is simple: legal vapes are made according to strict regulations. “As additives in informally-sourced vaping concentrates could drive future EVALI cases,” the researchers concluded, “marijuana policy design should account for effects on mode of use in licit and illicit markets, to limit the scope of future outbreaks.”

That policy design would, ideally, come in the form of federal legalization and tight regulation.