Posted on September 27 2019
If you haven't heard yet, the state of Massachusetts has enacted a "temporary" 4-month ban on all vape products, effective immediately, and shop owners have already started filing lawsuits (more on this towards the end of the article).
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced the ban this week, citing a growing health crisis related to vaping. This ban caught everyone by surprise with no warning, and went into effect immediately. By Thursday police and town auditors were visiting stores and threatening to confiscate any product not pulled from shelves by the end of the day.
Next door, Rhode Island's Governor Raimondo also enacted a vaping ban, but much more narrowly focused: she banned the sale of flavored e-liquids.
These two bans attack two distinctly separate issues. We don't have a problem with the flavored e-liquid ban, and can see both sides of this story. In general, the sugary watermelon and "Fruity Pebbles" flavored e-juices are attracting underaged school children to addictive nicotine products, and that's not good for public health. The ban is a surgical strike and doesn't put anyone out of business or exacerbate the problem as a side effect -- it's limited in scope, to address a specific problem. We can respect that.
The Massachusetts ban, however, is an entirely different matter. The ban in Massachusetts was enacted with a blunt axe, by comparison, and is misguided at best. Not only does the complete and total ban of all vaping products cause immeasurable and unfair economic harm and hardship, it also does not address the core issue, and may in fact make it far worse!
The illnesses and deaths appear to be related to black market products that are watered down with cutting agents. There are a few reasons (some legitimate, some not) to use cutting agents in a vape product:
1. to "water down" an expensive oil, such as THC / cannabis oil, with a cheaper product to stretch supply and increase profits;
2. to make a thicker oil easier to vape (i.e. take a cheaper, less refined oil, and cut it down to make it vape-able, versus buying a higher quality oil that's more refined yet more expensive); and
3. to create big "clouds" in the case of nicotine e-liquids (usually the cutting agent is PG or VG in these cases).
The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) has not formally identified a specific issue or culprit, but early indications are that some of the identified cartridges have been found to include vitamin E oil as a cutting agent. Vitamin E oil is perfectly safe for oral consumption such as in oral CBD tinctures, but when heated it chemically changes to Vitamin E acetate, which can be harmful and even deadly when inhaled.
So, this makes perfect sense. Some idiot who doesn't know what he's doing (or doesn't care) is cutting expensive cannabis oil with substances like Vitamin E oil, and selling it on the black market. Similarly, I can see inexperienced people taking oral tinctures such as CBD oils, and vaping them not realizing what they're doing.
NBC News ran a test of 18 cartridges in California - 3 from dispensaries and 15 from the black market. All 3 dispensary cartridges tested clean. 13 out of the 15 blackmarket cartridges came back positive for pesticides, however - and one of the pesticides turns into hydrogen cyanide when vaped. This further reinforces our opinion that the problem is black market product.
In the State of Massachusetts (just like all of the other 33 cannabis legal states), there are strict guidelines for product manufacturing and related processes, which includes stringent requirements for lab testing. Tainted cartridges are coming from the black market, not from legal dispensaries that have lab tested their products and can verify purity. It's not from companies like JUUL and other national brands that also adhere to quality standards backed by lab testing.
This ban will push consumers to buy MORE products from the unsafe black market. It literally drives people away from the safe products, to the murky world of the black market where unsavory characters out to make a buck can simply order fully branded packaging from China sources and look legit. Make no mistake: it's black market, sub-standard product dropped into professional looking counterfeit packaging to appear legit. Chinese companies are constantly advertising empty branded cartridges and boxes in popular names like Brass Knuckles, Dank Vapes and Kingpen.
But banning sales from licensed, safe sources doesn't make sense. In the case of cannabis oils, they are medicine. People will not stop using them because of the ban. For pain relief, Parkinsons and MS relief, and more, people will find a way to get their needed medicine. In the case of nicotine products, they're highly addictive, so those users will not stop using them because of the ban either. They will either go back to traditional cigarettes (which are even worse than vaping) or get their JUUL pods and e-liquids on the black market.
Either way, this ban just drives people back to the original source of the problem!
Instead, we should be figuring out ways to stop the black market. You don't read about people dying from tainted homemade moonshine left and right, because alcohol can be legally purchased on almost every street corner or shopping plaza, easily and inexpensively. We trust the major liquor brands (and even local micro breweries) to follow the strict manufacturing standards and product quality product. People did die from tainted alcohol during prohibition, but since the end of prohibition this has not been an issue. Make lab-tested, safe products readily available via opening more dispensaries, faster, to mitigate this problem. Opening more dispensaries will create competition to drive down prices, bring the products to more communities increasing convenience, and offer stigma-free opportunities to buy easily and safely, which dis-incentivizes the black market. Then, counter-punch by enforcing tough laws and crack down on the black market. Third, increase education. Together, these tactics can eliminate the black market. But using the blunt instrument of a ban does not solve this problem, it actually makes it worse.
And all of this is not to mention the disastrous financial ruin brought on by this ban. Our friends and associates in the industry are in tears, laying off workers, closing shops and filing for bankruptcy. Pure vape shops are basically dead. The Governor just pulled the rug out from under them with no warning. Literally 100% of the product they sell has just been banned. Imagine the small entrepreneur who just quit his job and invested his life savings into opening a vape shop 3 months ago and is carrying $100k in inventory, lines of credit, rent and utilities and salaries. He now has zero options to earn an income, and has to close his doors and file for bankruptcy protection, losing everything and killing jobs in the process. We know owners who just laid off 21 people across their multiple locations. Many of these small business live paycheck to paycheck - they can't survive four months (and through Christmas) with no income. It's game over. I think this is unconscionable.
Smoke Shops, Head Shops and Hydro Stores that sell other products will survive, but the financial hit is devastating. In some stores, vape products produce 25% and even up to 50% of their revenues. Some wont' survive that hit. Others will survive, but at great economic loss, taking years to dig out.
The crazy part, too, is that the ban is not just on the liquids, which is the source of the problem, but also on all devices, parts, and accessories. Again, we believe this is overreach, and now extends the losses to equipment manufacturers and more.
The first vape store owner has already filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts Superior Court seeking a preliminary injunction on the ban. We've spoken with friends in the industry who had a meeting in Boston yesterday to prepare a larger class action lawsuit. This will get ugly (and fast) before it gets better.
For our part, we've started working with our retail partners to substitute raw hemp flower, pre-rolls and oral tinctures for CBD oil vape cartridges, and hope for a speedy resolution (although we aren't holding our breath).