PORTLAND — At the Little Amsterdam Wellness Dispensary in Southwest Portland, store manager Monica Gayda said she’s contacted all her vape product vendors to learn what’s in their products — especially if they contain the additive Vitamin E acetate.
“We’ve kind of put a halt on ordering flavored distillates as of now … Every single one of our vendors sent us a letter, calling out specifically the vitamin E (addtive), that they do not put in their cartridges. Test results included. I have them posted in our med room in case any customers want to see them,” Gayda said.
The number of Oregonians sickened by the mystery vaping illness has now climbed to eight. Two people have died. In Washington, seven have been sickened and Gov. Jay Inslee is planning a ban on flavored vape products. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown also is looking into a six-month ban of all vaping-related products.
Gayda said she’s not seeing a big drop in sales because of this illness, but customers are choosing different products.
“I’m seeing a lot of people drop their flavored distillates for a healthier selection.”
Kind Leaf in Pendleton removed more than five dozen vaping products from its shelves in early September. Owner Brandon Krenzler said it was about consumer safety.
“We found a number of them contained non-cannabis ingredients,” Krenzler, such as stabilizing oils, terpenes and artificial and natural flavors, yet the labels did not specify what the additives were. Lab tests in some instances revealed vaping products had other impurities, including fungicides.
“Even though they may pass state standards,” he said, “we don’t allow those on our shelves.”
Additives are used for flavor or to change the viscosity of vaping liquid. If it’s too thick, for example, the vape pen can’t vaporize it efficiently. The terpenes — essentially flavors derived from flowers — caught Krenzler’s attention in particular. He said he was concerned products from plants could affect people with allergies, and he said the lack of research into the consumption of terpenes raises a red flag. Some products were 25 percent terpene. He asked how much terpene from a particular flower is safe to consume?
Without sufficient information for an answer, he said Kind Leaf yanked down goods that were not 100% cannabis because those carry the least amount of risk to consume.
“Even if it comes out that only one brand used one chemical that caused the deaths, we still would not carry the terpene derivatives until more research says its safe,” he said.
Gayda said people still buy cartridges containing THC — that’s the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. But they’re favoring products that don’t contain anything else. She calls them “fresh frozen” cartridges.
“So fresh frozen is you hack the plant down right there. You freeze it, and then you steam distill it, or you turn it into a concentrate and it goes right into the cartridge. No additives, just plants,” Gayda said.
Gayda said she has two friends who’ve vaped for years, and who were sufficiently rattled by this illness that they threw away their cartridges and went for chest X-rays. They were both fine.
She said she’s also had customers bring in black market products — to check. They had no labels and were bought with a credit card. Federal law doesn’t allow cannabis sales on credit cards, so that tells Gayda they were bought on the black market.
“If something doesn’t have a label on it, a test result, a date it was made — don’t buy it. … It doesn’t matter what price it is, if you think it’s the best deal of your life, it may be the worst decision of your life,” Gayda said.
Some black-market brands are now being linked to the illness, like Dank Vapes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes Dank Vapes as a class of largely counterfeit THC brands with common packaging.
The CDC has changed its messaging to further emphasize the role THC may be playing. CDC head Dr. Anne Schuchat outlined some of their research.
“On the national level, out of 514 patients with exposure histories, we found that 77% reported using THC-containing products, or using both THC-containing products and nicotine-containing products,” Schuchat said.
Only 16% of the patients said they’d used just nicotine. But Schuchat stressed, questions still remain and they don’t know what’s causing the illness — so they’re still recommending people not vape anything.
That recommendation is dishonest, said Paul Bates, who owns Division Vapor in Southeast Portland.
He said it’s clear to him that the problem lies with people vaping THC, not nicotine.
“I certainly believe that they’re letting the misinformation stay in the minds of users. And that’s dangerous,” Bates said.
He thinks health agencies have been looking to ban e-cigarettes for a long time, and this illness has just given them the excuse they needed.
Bates said he may well also file a lawsuit if Brown imposes a moratorium.
“It would depend on the nature of the laws and the nature of the bans,” he said.
A lawsuit is no idle threat from Bates. He’s already battling Oregon in court over packaging rules.
He also believes prohibiting vaping won’t work — because it didn’t work with alcohol or cannabis.
Last week, the Oregon Health Authority gave Brown a list of six ways the state could prevent vaping problems. It included a six-month moratorium, an ad campaign and more tobacco-cessation efforts.
Brown’s office issued a statement saying it’s getting feedback on those ideas and any decision will prioritize health.
The Washington State Board of Health will vote on its flavored e-cigarette ban on Oct. 9.
Krenzler said that would be a good step because it protects the consumer without shutting down the industry. He also said this crisis is a moment for the cannabis industry to show its best side, such as making moves to use clear and informative product labeling.
And while the state has to take action because of the liability risk, he said, an outright ban on all vaping related products would open the doors to the black market.
“If it’s illegal, it becomes dangerous and profitable to the wrong people,” he said.
Legitimate business owners in the burgeoning industry might feel enough financial hurt from a ban to work in the black market just to stay afloat, he said. But plenty of people in the industry once operated in the black market, he said, and they would not be afraid of going back to what they knew.
East Oregonian reporter Phil Wright contributed to this report.