In an article published at leafly.com, former Massachusetts marijuana regulator Shaleen Title admits her state mishandled the 2019 EVALI health crisis (thousands were sickened, and at least 68 deaths resulted from the vaping-related lung injuries).
Ms. Title, one of the initial members of the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, frames Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s ban on the sale of all vaping products as “unlawful, ill-advised” and “one of the worst policy mistakes in all of cannabis regulation.”
During the health crisis, researchers found that states with legalized marijuana had a 42% lower incidence of EVALI cases. The lone exception among legal-cannabis states was Massachusetts, where the incidence of the disease was in the top 20% of all U.S. states.
The governor declared a wide-ranging four-month temporary statewide ban on selling all vaping products — nicotine and cannabis e-cigarettes, unflavored or flavored, licensed or unlicensed for adult or medical use.
Reports from multiple news outlets suggested an additive used as a cutting agent in illicit THC vape cartridges was the culprit. An investigative report traced the journey of a contaminated illicit-market vape cartridge across the globe. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention activated emergency operations to investigate the precise cause of the lung illness.
The Massachusetts ban went into place without any input from the state’s Cannabis Control Commission. Ms. Title was sure some basic questions were overlooked.
Many questioned whether it needed to apply to medical cannabis patients. Suggestions were made for an exemption for products that exclusively vaped cannabis flower rather than cartridges. But nothing changed. People using e-cigarettes to quit smoking were given free cessation resources during the ban, but 60,000 registered medical cannabis patients received nothing.
In politics, knee-jerk and drastic actions are misinterpreted as “decisive” – typically based more on politics than scientific evidence. The decision to ban all vape products in Massachusetts drove cannabis consumers to the illicit market, putting them at even higher risk of severe injury or death.
Ms. Title pointed out that this went against every principle of harm reduction and public health. But, as is all too familiar in politics, the decision-makers in the Baker administration were either unaware or deliberately ignoring the evidence linking the outbreak directly to unregulated THC vape cartridges.
The dangers of the illicit market contributed to an increase in cases and death count in Massachusetts. Businesses and advocates also pushed back. Multiple lawsuits were filed by both medical cannabis patients and by vape sellers.
A Massachusetts Superior Court Judge determined that the ban conflicted with the state’s cannabis commission’s regulatory authority. The judge stated that the longer the ban remained, the more patients would face undesirable choices: switching to opioids, living with severe pain, or purchasing from the illicit market.
The Massachusetts cannabis commission regained its authority to regulate marijuana products just as the CDC confirmed that vitamin E acetate was the chemical culprit. Ms. Title enacted a temporary quarantine to ensure the contaminant wasn’t present in any state-regulated cannabis vape products.
Undeterred by pesky facts and annoying science, Baker signed a ban on the sale of all flavored tobacco products. It seemed apparent that yet another politician was taking advantage of a legitimate crisis to advance an unrelated pet policy. Political opportunism is probably an inescapable fact of life. But when that opportunism comes at the expense of public health, actual people get hurt and die.
In retrospect, the evidence demonstrates that the Massachusetts ban led to more illnesses, bankrupt businesses, and unnecessary deaths. Recently, a federally-funded study on vaping-related lung injuries confirmed what experts have said for years: Legal, regulated cannabis is safer than products purchased in the illicit market. Not a single EVALI case in Massachusetts was traced to a regulated cannabis product.