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MARIJUANA MOMENT

CDC official pushes back against congressman linking legal marijuana to vaping deaths

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention principal deputy director Ann Schuchat testifies during a hearing on Oct. 16.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention principal deputy director Ann Schuchat testifies during a hearing on Oct. 16.Zach Gibson/Getty Images/Getty Images

Marijuana Moment is a wire service assembled by Tom Angell, a marijuana legalization activist and journalist covering marijuana reform nationwide. The views expressed by Angell or Marijuana Moment are neither endorsed by the Globe nor do they reflect the Globe’s views on any subject area.

A top official with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasized Wednesday that the majority of vaping-related injuries associated with THC-containing cartridges are being traced back to the illicit market, rather than state-legal cannabis shops.

During a hearing before the House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, US Representative Andy Harris, of Maryland, argued that the spike in vaping issues throughout the country demonstrates that states prematurely implemented legal marijuana markets, putting consumers and young people in particular at risk.

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But that’s not quite an accurate reflection of what preliminary data has shown, CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat responded.

“Is the feeling that the states have gone ahead basically approving these THC-containing substances through regulation when they were basically unhealthy?” Harris asked. “They basically didn’t have the scientific information about whether this was safe, but they were approving these compounds. Is that right?”

“I mean they were legally sold, is that what you’re saying? They were legally sold, they ended up hurting our children, and these are when the states claim, ‘Don’t worry, it’s all safe, we’ll regulate it,’’” he continued. “We don’t have the knowledge to know what’s safe and what isn’t, do we?”

While there are knowledge gaps, Schuchat explained, legal dispensaries don’t appear to be the main source of contaminated products.

“Let me clarify, for the lung injury outbreak, while the vast majority report using THC-containing pre-filled cartridges, they report getting them from informal sources or off the street, not necessarily from licensed dispensaries,” Schuchat said. “So far that’s what we found, but we’re still gathering data.”

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Harris also asked the official whether the roughly 8 percent of adolescents who report using THC-containing vaping products are using them for medical or recreational purposes, seemingly assuming that those individuals obtained them from state-legal sources and not the illicit market.

“We probably ought to study the use of marijuana a little bit more before we go willy-nilly and make it available recreationally throughout the country,” Harris said. “There’s a big discussion about medical versus recreational, are these 8 or 9 percent, are they using it because they have the usual indications that people claim for medical marijuana or are they just using it recreationally? What’s your feeling, doc?”

“We don’t have data. There’s a lot of anecdote,” Schuchat responded. “But one thing I would say is there’s a lot of debate out there about whether legal status makes things better or worse in the states because some of our concerns right now are about the counterfeit and black market, whether the substances that are in products that are completely unregulated by the states are riskier than the products that are regulated by the states.”

“I don’t think we have good data either way, but that’s a discussion that’s happening,” she said.

Former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has also discussed regulatory limitations associated with having a state-by-state approach and argued that states are ill-equipped when it comes to enforcement. Gottlieb said last week that the federal government should be involved in regulating state markets when it comes to policies on THC potency and permitted methods of consumption, for example, though he argued that vaping cannabis should be banned outright.

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There have been rare instances where individuals who experienced lung problems reported purchasing vaping products from a licensed dispensary, including a case in Oregon that led to a man’s death, but regulators have stressed that it remains unclear whether those legally obtained products are at fault.

The CDC released a report last week that recommended people abstain from using vaporizer products that contain THC, noting the prevalence of cases where the compound was involved. The agency added that the “possibility that nicotine-containing products play a role in this outbreak cannot be excluded” and therefore it “continues to recommend that persons consider refraining from using e-cigarette, or vaping, products that contain nicotine.”

Read the full story on Marijuana Moment.