PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon regulators enacted a six-month ban Friday on the sale of flavored nicotine and cannabis vape products in stores and online statewide amid an outbreak of illnesses that has sickened nearly 1,300 people nationwide and killed 26, including two people in Oregon.
The Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which regulates the recreational marijuana market, voted unanimously to approve the temporary sales ban on the same day that the Oregon Health Authority, which regulates tobacco sales statewide, filed the ban with the Oregon Secretary of State.
Dozens of marijuana processors and vape manufacturers packed the commission room during the vote and some shouted out in frustration during a news conference when an official said the ban would only affect 10 percent of the cannabis vape market.
“It’s going to kill immediately 70 percent of my company’s revenue. It’s based off of what we consider faulty logic and faulty understanding” of the science behind adding flavor to marijuana vape pens, Jason Thompson, the sales director for Eugene, Oregon-based Sublime Solutions, said after the vote.
The ban applies to all nicotine and cannabis vapes that contain flavoring derived from anything except pure marijuana terpenes. Terpenes are organic compounds that give plants and fruits their flavor or scent — for example, the citrusy smell from an orange or the aroma of lavender. Vape pen manufacturers add natural and artificial terpene mixes to nicotine- or cannabis-containing oil to give the products popular flavors, from cherry to mint to candy cane.
Earlier this month, Governor Kate Brown ordered the temporary ban. Several other states, including Washington, New York, Rhode Island, and Michigan, have also imposed temporary bans.
The illnesses first appeared in March, with symptoms including shortness of breath, fatigue, and chest pain.
Federal investigators say that nearly 80 percent of people who have come down with the vaping illness reported using products containing THC, the high-inducing chemical found in marijuana. They have not traced the problem to any single product or ingredient. But investigators are increasingly focused on thickeners and additives found in illegal THC cartridges sold on the black market.
The Oregon Health Authority, which is investigating nine cases of illness in Oregon and two deaths, had asked Brown for broader six-month ban on sale and display of all vaping products, including tobacco, nicotine, and cannabis. The agency also urged Oregonians to stop using all vaping products until federal and state officials have determined the cause of the illnesses.
TJ Sheehy, manager of the OLCC’s marijuana technical unit, told commissioners before Friday’s vote that vape brands that contain flavor compounds are “completely unknown black boxes in terms of their contents” and that consumers have to “take on faith” their safety.
Oregon regulators test the marijuana oil in the vape devices for solvents and pesticides before the terpenes are added, but the companies that make the terpenes are outside the state regulatory system and the pens aren’t tested after the flavoring is added, he explained. Nicotine-only vape pens undergo even less scrutiny, officials said.
“Quite frankly, no one buying these things knows what’s in them,” Sheehy said, adding later that many contain so-called “fillers” that are dangerous to inhale.
The ban goes into effect Tuesday and lasts until April 11.
Disgruntled and worried marijuana entrepreneurs milled in the hallway after the vote and said the sales ban would crush their businesses.
Joe Bergen, general manager for two companies, Avitas Oregon and Hellavated, said his sales have already dropped because of the scare over lung illnesses and he’s had to reduce his workforce by nearly 20 percent.
Hellavated makes flavored marijuana vapes, while Avitas only makes vaping devices containing pure marijuana.
Hellavated will be “heavily impacted” by the new ban, he said, and it’s unclear if the OLCC’s move will help because the cause of the illnesses hasn’t been determined.
“One of the things this crisis has illuminated is that there is no long-term research on vaping and cannabis consumption, period,” Bergen said. “There needs to be more research into both those things.”