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Six with lung illness linked to regulated marijuana vapes, state says

A woman used a vaping device.
A woman used a vaping device.Tony Dejak/Associated Press/Associated Press

Six Massachusetts patients with probable — but not confirmed — cases of vaping-related lung illnesses reported using regulated products from state-licensed marijuana companies, state health officials revealed Thursday night.

The patients represent a small fraction of the 90 probable and confirmed cases of vaping-related lung illnesses flagged so far by the state Department of Public Health, but mark the first time state authorities have explicitly linked the lung illnesses to cannabis vapes purchased at legal stores and dispensaries.

The disclosure comes days before Governor Charlie Baker’s administration is set to lift a statewide ban on the sale of vaping products, a measure he imposed in September in response to a nationwide outbreak of vaping-related lung illnesses, which has sickened nearly 2,300 people and killed 47, including three in Massachusetts. The state Cannabis Control Commission has since imposed a separate moratorium on marijuana vape sales, which is likely to remain in place.

The health department posted the latest vape data on its website late Thursday, but did not provide a detailed comment.

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Health officials declined to say which licensed producers, products, or retailers were implicated in the six cases, leaving cannabis consumers and medical marijuana patients in the dark about the safety of vapes they may have purchased from legal retailers before the ban.

The health department did release a list of vape products linked to the illnesses, including a number of apparent illicit brands such as “Caligold” and “Dank.” However, officials would not say whether any of the names on the list represented regulated products.

It’s unclear if the health department will turn over more detailed information to the state Cannabis Control Commission, which last month quarantined all legal marijuana vapes while it tests products. The agency in September also tightened its rules so producers will be required to disclose more information about vape ingredients.

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The commission, which regulates medical and recreational marijuana in the state, said Thursday that it is reviewing the announcement by health officials.

“Immediately, the Commission will use this new data toward its ongoing investigation into whether marijuana products manufactured by Massachusetts licensees contain substances or contaminants of concern and thoroughly explore the origin of the products identified by DPH,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

The health department data is a surprise: It comes amid a growing consensus by researchers, government health authorities, and other experts that dangerous noncannabis additives used almost exclusively in illicit marijuana vapes are primarily to blame for the lung ailments.

Still, health officials have cautioned they remain unsure about the exact cause. A small proportion of cases appear to involve patients who only used nicotine products, though self-reported data is notoriously unreliable, and health investigators are not always able to confirm the type of product used.

The late-night release by the health department follows weeks of intense pressure — from consumers, medical marijuana patients, vape companies, and state cannabis regulators — to be more forthcoming about which products are to blame.

The Baker administration has previously said it would end the vape sales ban on Dec. 11, when a state health board is expected to pass regulations implementing a new state law. The law imposes the nation’s toughest restrictions on the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping products.

David O’Brien, the president of the Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association, called on the state to immediately disclose which licensed operators were potentially implicated in the six cases potentially tied to regulated products.

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“The industry wants to know if there’s cause for alarm so we can address it,” said O’Brien, whose group represents marijuana companies. “If they think the companies have an issue, they should tell the companies at least, and tell the [cannabis commission].”

“I’ve not heard of any other cases [in other states] being linked to regulated products,” O’Brien added.

According to the latest state data, 22 of the 90 people linked to the illness consumed vape products that were not purchased at licensed Massachusetts cannabis retailers. It was unclear whether they used illicit vapes or regulated products from other states with legal marijuana.

Health officials have interviewed patients in 49 of the 90 cases in Massachusetts.

The US Centers for Disease Control, which is coordinating the federal response to the vaping health crisis, defines “confirmed” cases as those in which doctors know the patient was vaping at the time of illness and have ruled out other potential causes of lung symptoms, such as infections. In “probable” cases, doctors may have detected another possible contributing cause, such as an infection, but nonetheless believe vaping played a role.


Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com.