Commentary: Is THC vaping the new Typhoid Mary?

(Image courtesy of the Utah Department of Health) Utah's tobacco specialty shops were going to be required to post this sign in their stores beginning Oct. 7, 2019, as part of an emergency rule implemented in response to an increase in vaping-related illnesses. Most cases were tied to unregulated THC products, which are illegal in Utah. The state delayed the requirement until Oct. 21.

The recent “outbreak” of lung injuries reported nationwide has become a cause for concern, and health officials in Utah are pointing the blame at THC, a component of cannabis. The media spotlight and government alarm bells, however, seem a bit out of balance.

Remember Typhoid Mary? In the early 1900s, she was a New York City cook for seven different families. A woman in seemingly perfect health, the families she served contracted typhoid fever as she went from one to the next. Though she infected only a few dozen people in total, she was forced to spend nearly three decades in quarantine and became a popular sensation due to the controversy and fear.

Imagine how absurd it would have been for the government, in response to the typhoid problem, to suggest that people not hire cooks, let alone eat. This would have been a clear overreaction to a minor, isolated set of incidents.

But history clearly shows that we’re prone to overreact to things that sound scary and cause a few people harm, whether it’s the Disneyland measles epidemic, the Ebola scare, salmonella-laced spinach or so many more situations.

This appears to be the case with the vaping concerns in Utah. According to the government, a Utah resident who died last week was killed due to vaping. But they’re not revealing any other information about the person — their name, age, gender, location, etc.

Well, that’s not entirely true. The state epidemiologist, Dr. Angela Dunn, did manage to reveal that “THC cartridges were found on the death scene and THC was also found in the blood of this individual.”

The inference being made is that THC can kill you, else why go to such great lengths to describe the past THC possession and use?

This is hardly a scientific conclusion, and we believe it’s irresponsible of a public health official to be scaring the public on this basis alone. Indeed, Dunn further opined that, “The only way to protect yourself is to not vape THC.”

But the state’s own data don’t support this conclusion. In their detailed report on the issue, officials note that “since many patients self-reported the use of multiple products, [we were] unable to identify which product or products may have led to illness.”

They’re pointing blame broadly at THC, while the vast majority of these black market oils also had Vitamin E acetate, a cutting agent that should not be inhaled. Thousands of Utahns are vaping THC oil (without Vitamin E acetate) just fine — to say nothing of those vaping THC-rich cannabis flower, which also continues to be safe.

THC isn’t the problem. Something else is.

Public health is critical, and good information is imperative. But making broad recommendations against THC use is speculative at best and fear-mongering at worst. Indeed, the problem is so statistically small right now, in terms of the population of overall vape users, that it’s akin to telling people that the only way to protect yourself from getting in a car crash is to not drive. A problem experienced by a few does not suggest that the many will suffer the same fate — whether we’re talking about Typhoid Mary or some THC.

There are already some strident voices calling for banning vaping, at least among youth, based on these lung injuries. Before further overreaction, we need better understanding. This problem deserves a policy scalpel, not a political sledgehammer.

Rahm Emanuel once suggested that political operatives should “never let a good crisis go to waste.” We who care about patients being able to use THC medicinally, especially by aspirating it with a vaping device, must resist those who would exploit this statistically insignificant issue.

Of course, just because it’s statistically insignificant doesn’t mean it’s insignificant on its face. More investigation is merited to better understand what is happening, how to help those affected, and prevent it from recurring.

As a people, we scare easily. But THC is medicine for many in Utah, and the vaping method of administration is essential. Further, we’re on the cusp of launching a new medical cannabis industry in Utah — one that will be highly regulated, with THC products being heavily tested and inspected.

If black market products are to blame, as officials suggest, then banning regulated products is hardly the answer. Doing so will simply push people back into the black market, where they face potentially contaminated mixtures that lab testing and regulatory oversight — features of a legal market — could eliminate.

With compassion for those affected, we suggest a measure of prudence as we wait for more information about the true cause of these lung injuries in order to make evidence-based decisions. At this point, telling people not to vape medical cannabis is alarmist and premature. We’re smarter than that.

Connor Boyack

Connor Boyack is president of the Libertas Institute.

Desiree Hennessy

Desiree Hennessy is executive director of the Utah Patients Coalition.