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How mainstream media botched the vape lung story

October 16, 2019
Former FDA head Scott Gottlieb called for legalization to solve the vape crisis, but Wall Street Journal editors blamed legalization for causing the crisis—over Gottlieb's own story. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

In 1989, a mysterious figure known as Dr. Lunglife sent High Times a set of detailed instructions for transforming a handful of easily obtained equipment into a low cost vaporizer. He included a guide to making a highly potent cannabis concentrate that optimized the contraption’s effectiveness.

Soon thereafter, the magazine published a letter to the editor from K.O. of Clarksville, Mississippi:

Just thought I’d let you know I built one of Dr. Lunglife’s vaporizers. Tell the good doctor that it has worked well for me. Now if I can just get a really long extension cord for the Hash Bash in Ann Arbor.


Vape pen lung injury: Here’s what you need to know

30 years of user data on vaping

Clearly, many cannabis enthusiasts must have started experimenting with vaporization around this same time.

People have been vaping THC for 20 years. Clearly it's not the THC that's causing these new lung problems.

Commercial products required a little more time to make it to market. The first Volcano vaporizer, made by Storz & Bickel, appeared in the US in 2003. The first pen-size vaporizers appeared around 2006. Cannabis vape pens hit the American scene starting around 2010.

That gives us—at the very least—a solid three decades of anecdotal user data to work with when evaluating any potential harms involved.

So when a rash of people started getting seriously or even fatally ill after using vape pens earlier this year, it was obvious that something other than cannabis must be the culprit. The overwhelming number of cases of VAPI, vaping associated pulmonary injury, have been attributed to counterfeit products produced and distributed illegally without any regulatory oversight whatsoever.

Tainted illegal THC pens are suspect

At Leafly, our reporting team tracked these dangerous counterfeit pens from production to sale. We found a supply chain operating wholly outside the law and with a blatant disregard for public health. Theories on what’s causing VAPI range from dangerous additives to poorly manufactured pens, or possibly some combination of the two. No evidence has emerged to show THC, CBD, or any other cannabinoid is to blame.

Peer-reviewed research on the relative safety of vaping goes back 15 years.

Meanwhile, we have peer-reviewed evidence favoring vaporizers over leaf smoking that dates back 15 years. In 2004, a clinical study of cannabis vapor versus cannabis smoke found that “vaporizers can efficiently deliver cannabinoids while eliminating or drastically reducing other smoke toxins.” This study came within the context of cannabinoid delivery to medical patients, some with compromised immune systems, who are looking for the healthiest possible delivery mode for their condition.

So no matter what the cause of the current deadly outbreak, it surely isn’t cannabis. To suggest that cannabis—in vapor form or otherwise—has suddenly turned deadly is utter nonsense. It’s also irresponsible.

Perhaps someone should tell the rest of the media.


Journey of a tainted vape cartridge: from China’s labs to your lungs

Worst of the worst: WSJ

I’ve seen plenty of examples of poor, misinformed, and downright false reporting on the VAPI situation. But nothing dropped my jaw with the force of an op-ed published last week by the Wall Street Journal.

Written by Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA head who stepped down earlier this year, the piece began with a weirdly Orwellian headline. Leafly’s David Downs, who’s been breaking real news on this story for the past two months, noted:

The word you seek is ‘tainted’

Still, at least the article’s first line is accurate: “Doctors have linked a tragic wave of lung injuries and deaths to the vaping of tainted marijuana concentrates.” But from there on out, it’s as if the word tainted doesn’t exist.

Gottlieb contorts logic and reason beyond recognition in a counter-factual attempt to conflate the regulated cannabis market in legal states like California with the unregulated illicit market in counterfeit vape pens that have been making people sick.

The former FDA head implies that THC is dangerous because tainted THC pens are deadly. Which makes as much sense as a former leader of the FDA claiming that H20 is dangerous because people in Flint are drinking lead-tainted water.


Vape pen lung disease has insiders eyeing misuse of new additives

Former FDA head says: legalize

Gottlieb’s argument is so all-over-the-place that it’s hard to dissect. But we shouldn’t ignore his proffered solution to the problem. Which is basically to legalize cannabis nationally: “The protracted hand-wringing over federal cannabis policy must stop,” he wrote. “The tragic spate of fatalities related to vaping of pot concentrates means the time has come for Congress and the White House to stop blowing smoke and clear the air.”

Hold on a minute. The Wall Street Journal headline says legalization is to blame for VAPI deaths. And yet the author calls for nationwide legalization.

How does that make sense?

Fed official doesn’t trust state officials

According to Gottlieb, the real problem is the discrepancy between state and federal law. “Federal agencies exert little oversight, and regulation is left to a patchwork of inadequate state agencies,” he wrote. (Actually, federal agencies exert no regulatory oversight of cannabis in legal states.) “The weak state bodies sanction the adoption of unsafe practices such as vaping concentrates, while allowing an illegal market in cannabis to flourish.

Gottlieb’s solution is to have the federal government decide who gets to consume what kind of cannabis. “The ship has probably sailed on legalization for recreational use,” he wrote. But regulation of the potency of THC compounds, the forms they take, how they’re manufactured, and who can make purchases ought to be possible…

 Let me see if I’ve got this straight. Gottlieb thinks banning legally produced cannabis concentrates—which haven’t sickened consumers—is the way to stop people from using illegal vape pens that have killed more than two dozen people and sickened hundreds?


The AP stumbles too

Had Gottlieb’s Wall Street Journal op-ed been an isolated incident, it would be easy to dismiss. But here’s how the Associated Press headlined a recent story by veteran journalist Mike Stobbe.

Again, the first sentence is technically accurate. But neither he nor his editors at the AP deign to include the word tainted. U.S. health officials said Friday that their investigation into an outbreak of severe vaping-related illnesses is increasingly focused on products that contain the marijuana compound THC,” Stobbe wrote.

 Later, the same article noted that CDC officials said they “didn’t know if the THC is the problem or some other substance added to the vaping liquid.”

This is where mentioning that millions of people have been vaporizing cannabis for three decades without any confirmed cases of VAPI would provide vital context. These lung injuries didn’t start turning up until this year. That information would be really helpful.

But no.

Where are the non-government experts?

Nor did the AP’s reporter—or other authors of similarly flawed work—reach out to experts who might have cut through the BS, explained the issue, and gotten to the heart of the matter. There’s an entire team at Project CBD, the California-based group considered the nation’s leading authorities on the suddenly-hot cannabinoid. They’ve been warning about the potential dangers of toxic vape oil additives, particularly thinning agents and flavoring additives, since 2015.

Martin Lee, co-founder of Project CBD, has said this about the current vaping crisis: “Let’s be clear: inhaling additive-free, artisanal whole plant cannabis oil with a well-made vaping device is just as safe, if not more so, than smoking organically grown cannabis.

Lee does share some concerns with Scott Gottlieb. Lee worries that vape pens have been too loosely regulated in legal adult-use states, particularly when it comes to the use of thinning agents. But he expresses that concern without shifting the blame onto cannabis, THC, or legalization—a false narrative Lee attributes to prohibitionists who are working “to spin the vaping tragedy to advance their own agenda.” Lee recently wrote.

“The solution isn’t to ban cannabis vaping across the board,” Lee added. “Such a misguided policy would be both impractical and counterproductive, boosting black market commerce and increasing risks for users… Rather… state health officials should implement a rigorous regulatory program that prioritizes public health and raises the safety standards for all edibles and food supplements.”

There you go, rest of the media. I fixed it for you.

David Bienenstock's Bio Image

David Bienenstock

Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.

View David Bienenstock's articles

  • GTG

    It’s just Vapor Madness, or Reefer Madness 2.0.

    Besides, at this point in history, I think we are all well aware of the “accuracy” and “truth” coming from the likes of NY Times & WSJ.

  • Highway 69

    Great article David.

  • Jimmy Dean

    We have literally sold over 100,000 vapes, likely well beyond of the course of the last 4 years with ZERO issues reported by any of our staff or regular customers. It would seem those that have the national platform are now attempting to gain control of the industry, now that we have established a legal framework for them. This agenda was foretold to me 3 years ago by an insider. he said when the states have x% of legal cannabis, they feds will act and place it all under the board of pharmacy. This may be the very agenda he was referencing, or at least some version of it. When things don’t make sense, follow the money.

  • John Thomas

    Good article. – But we need to consider the news about the deaths of two people in Oregon who suffered respiratory ailments after using “tested and legal” vape products with THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.”

    Not only is this important information, an intense focus on the few deaths from these legal vape products could provide us valuable information on the source of the contamination.

    • could be that the supplier was getting this carts from CA, and not knowing that they were originating from a chinese source, or other non quality manufacturer of likewise carts.

      • President Gas

        Every single vape cart is made in China…. all of the regulated brands and the non regulated brands …. from the same factories in fact. I’ve been there many times.

    • Wesley Hein

      John Thomas: The OR cases are still being investigated and remember that the Oregon individuals were, unfortunately, dead before they could be interviewed. State authorities had to piece together their purchases afterward (via interviews with friends / relatives) and we do not know what else they consumed and if they consumed untested products. In California, CDPH just released a report indicating that they have investigated 78 cases of VAPI. In 77 of them, individuals confirmed they had consumed illicit vapes (e.g. Dank Vapes, counterfeits, etc.) and only one case does the individual not acknowledge consuming such a product. I don’t have to tell you all of the reasons that someone might not want to tell a government official that they purchased an illegal product from an illegal source. Thus, in the largest cannabis market in the world, where millions and millions of people consume cannabis vapes, we maybe have a single case of VAPI that isn’t from the illicit market. It’s absolute madness (in the words of Business Insider) that authorities would call for a ban and this isn’t about public health, it’s about prohibition 2.0.

  • justadbeer

    Sooooo – Fake News

  • John Griswold

    Please send a copy of this to the Governor of Massachusetts…

  • medicine mann

    this article reeks of advocacy journalism, containing assertions too broad or unsupported by scientific evidence to be credible. after mentioning the mysterious dr. lunglife’s note to high times in 1989, you assert:

    “Clearly, many cannabis enthusiasts must have started experimenting with vaporization around this same time.”

    from my point of view, that’s a wildly unsupported conclusion. as a resident of humboldt county california, normally thought of as on the cutting edge of marijuana production and use, i never saw much in the way of vaping til around the time the volcano–or actually the less pricey alternatives that followed–appeared maybe 15 years ago. did i know folks who vaped? sure. but the early vapers simply turned actual bud into a vapor, and no highly concentrated product was involved. the concentrated forms called dabs, wax, hash oil, etc showed up later, when folks used a blow torch to volatize some cannabisubstance in a glass vessel, or on a nail. that does not come close to supporting the conclusion that:

    “That gives us—at the very least—a solid three decades of anecdotal user data to work with when evaluating any potential harms involved.”

    throwing the vaping of bud into the same pot as vaping the concentrates now available seems at best quite iffy. i see maybe ten years or so, and anecdotal evidence such as dispensaries reporting few complaints from customers as totally suspect and unreliable–if the anecdotal evidence has any value at all. clearly, inhaling vapor would seem to be better for you than inhaling smoke with all of its charred particulates. i would certainly point out that many vapers heat their substances hotter than needed to create vapor–so they do “smoke” while they “vape.” hotter settings create smoke in addition to vapor. i would also report that vapor(not overheated) always caused me the relatively same level of respiratory discomfort as smoking a joint. i had thought that vaping would be much easier to tolerate, but have not personally found that to be the case. if you’re looking for anecdotal evidence, i’m not the only one i know who’s had that reaction. not that we’ve been afflicted with the mysterious VAPI, but…

    so if you follow my arguments, your conclusion that:

    “So when a rash of people started getting seriously or even fatally ill after using vape pens earlier this year, it was obvious that something other than cannabis must be the culprit.”

    seems kinda off-the-wall–imho. there’s nothing obvious about it. it’s not that i think that mainstream media provides us with useful and straightforward reporting most of the time. au contraire. but i’m not particularly ready to get my “real news” from advocacy journalists either.

    fyi, i have spent more than 30 years writing and broadcasting for the alternative press.

    • President Gas

      I can assure you … when I was attempting to pitch my disposable vape pen in 2011 to all of the dispensaries in the Bay Area …..I was greeted with either full on laughter OR a willingness to accept the product. The one’s that accepted it and gave it a chance sold all I could make. To them and those … I will be forever grateful. Those that accepted and embraced it were one out of fifteen.

  • medicine mann

    did you decide not to print my comment from several hours ago? that’s pretty cowardly

  • President Gas

    Look …..I started an e-cig company back in 2009 and developed and rolled out the very first disposable pen with THC in California in 2011. I’ve been in this business ever since. I can say with 100% confidence the issue is in the additives and not the hardware. The key takeaway is not merely the additive used but the “quantity” of it that started to appear this summer. With a typical raw distillate, to keep it reasonably potent, a formulator can only “cut” the product by a total of around 25% including terpenes. At that level, you’ll have a cartridge that’ll test out around 60%-70% give or take. At those levels of additive, nobody will get sick …. never.The carts that were making their way around the country with thick Vitamin E oil in them were cut at 200%-300% meaning that up to 75% of the liquid in the carts people were vaping in fact was Vitamin E oil. It as then and only then that people began to get sick. Those carts by the way would only test out at 25% potency which explains why you haven’t really seen these carts show up in the regulated states as experienced users would not tolerate such a weak cartridge. The other narrative that’s completely false is the blame being placed on the hardware. The fact is … all hardware comes from China and ALL carts including the millions upon millions of units that are sold for nicotine liquid are all from the same various suppliers in China. It’s not the hardware.

  • President Gas

    Jimmy Dean’s point is a valid one. He’s been doing this for 4 years. I have been doing this business for 10. Up until just this year, there has not been a single reported case of lung disease such as this occurring in either the e-cig market nor the cannabis market. Is it just a coincidence that super thick cutting agents only began appearing at terpene suppliers this year ? No it is not ….

  • President Gas

    4,500 youths in America every year from alcohol related deaths. Why aren’t they banning flavored alcohol? 3,600 people die EVERY DAY from tobacco related illnesses.

  • President Gas

    He doesn’t care. The FDA has had it out for vaping the minute it came into the US in 2009. Remember who made those ridiculous claims that vape carts had Anti-Freeze in them in 2009 ? Yep … your good ole’ trustworthy FDA that’s who.

  • President Gas

    Nice try but completely incorrect. I have 10 years of personal data to back that up.

  • President Gas

    For such a long winded observation into the author’s report .. you don’t even make a single conclusive argument into what you feel is an incorrect stance. In other words .. what’s your beef with what David’s assessment? I am more of an authority on this subject than anyone you know so fire away with any questions on the subject.

  • Whether it’s alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, or even opiates, prohibition has always made matters worse.

    The drug war has harmed millions while helping no one, except for those who’ve been cashing in on it.

  • Alyson MacMullan

    Excellent article. You did a great job breaking it down.

  • Jason King

    The issue is not cannabinoids, or tainted cartridges, or additives. It’s the terpenes. Terps are volatile solvents and the levels of terpenes in hash oil are much higher than anything humans have ever inhaled before. Our respiratory systems are not designed for that. Ask any essential oil practitioner, they all say – NEVER use essential oils pure, always dilute them. (and certainly don’t inhale them directly into your lungs!) I’ve been dabbing very high quality live resin for a couple years, using an enail at the proper temperature, and have had to stop. My throat and lungs have been left raw, irritated, and compromised. Weeks later, it’s all healing, slowly… Back to good ol fashioned flowers for this guy. (once my respiratory system is all healed up from too many dabs!)

  • President Gas

    OK then how do you explain away 10 years of e-cig users … the same users that take an average of 400 hits per day from their e-cig device and none of them coming down with any of the effects you mention? There’s 10 million of these people in the US by the way. You know what they are vaping? A mixture of 90% propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin. There’s simply zero data to back up your “projections” … none.

    • Yosef Chaim

      we’ll see

  • President Gas

    Simply more conjecture based on zero evidence. What paper was this ? USA Today? Please …..