On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker held a joint press conference warning New Yorkers to avoid vaping in light of hundreds of people in 33 states developing lung ailments as a result of using e-cigarettes. Many of the cases have been linked to black-market THC vape cartridges, and in New York state specifically, 10 out of 18 cartridges associated with recent hospitalizations tested positive for the presence of vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent used in some black-market vape pens, which can be extremely toxic if inhaled.
During the press conference, Cuomo said that while all of the cartridges that tested positive for vitamin E acetate had been purchased on the black market, the recent spate of vaping-related lung ailments meant that New Yorkers should avoid vaping in general, adding that he intended to institute a ban of flavored e-cigarettes. “This is a frightening public health phenomenon,” the governor said. “And common sense says if you don’t know what you are smoking, don’t smoke it.”
Although recreational marijuana use is not legal in New York state, medical marijuana is, and it is legal for New York state medical marijuana patients to vape cannabis. When asked about what impact Cuomo’s vaping advisory would have on patients in New York state’s medical marijuana program, Zucker said that patients should consult with their health providers regarding whether they should use alternatives to vaping products.
But for medical marijuana patients in New York state, the “alternatives” to vaping are fairly limited. Under the current New York state medical marijuana program, patients are permitted to use marijuana in the form of “chewable and effervescent tablets and lozenges as well as topical lotions, ointments, and patches,” as well as via capsules, liquids, or oils via inhaler or vaporizer.
It is not legal for medical marijuana patients to use “smokable forms of ground plant material,” or to smoke or vape the marijuana plant itself. This ban is likely due to health authorities determining that the risks related to secondhand smoke were higher than those posed by other forms of marijuana ingestion, says David Holland, chief legal counsel for NORML Empire State and NORML NYC. Yet tinctures, lozenges, and oils come with their own shortcomings for medical marijuana patients. “When you have extracts and oils, you’re not getting the full spectrum of the cannabinoids of the plant,” that are found in nature, says Holland. “You may not be getting the full benefits of the plant you may have had, if you had otherwise left it alone.” Holland says that the Department of Health would be “well-advised to reconsider its guidelines” regarding flower in light of the vaping crisis. “Not only would you have access to the full components of the plant, but [smoking] would be an alternative to the black-market, potentially dangerous cartridges that are unregulated.”
When asked if the nationwide vaping investigation would prompt the governor to reconsider or revise medical marijuana program guidelines, including its current flower ban, Gov. Cuomo’s office demurred, saying it would not reconsider its flower ban. Although Gov. Cuomo’s “don’t do it” remarks seemed to imply that New Yorkers should avoid vaping in general, a spokesperson for Gov. Cuomo said, “As the Department of Health Commissioner has made clear there have been no adverse events related to vaping among certified patients in the New York State medical marijuana program since the investigation began. However, out of an abundance of caution, we are also urging patients in the program with any questions or concerns to consult with their health care providers on potential alternatives to vaping products while the investigation continues. Moving forward we will continue looking at different ways to improve the program for patients across New York.”
Generally speaking, Gov. Cuomo has been vocal in his support for marijuana legalization since his 2018 reelection, after Cynthia Nixon made it a focal point of her primary challenge. Though a recent push to legalize marijuana in New York state failed in the legislature, Gov. Cuomo signed a marijuana decriminalization bill last summer, which reduced the penalty associated with minor marijuana possession and expunged certain marijuana-related possession charges from New Yorkers’ criminal records.
The nationwide panic over e-cigarettes — specifically bootleg THC vape cartridges, which have been linked to many of the hundreds of cases of recent vaping-related hospitalizations in 33 states — has shone a light on the need for legalization and further regulation of the cannabis industry, advocates say. These vaping-related hospitalizations “are all the more reason to have a regulated market,” says Holland.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the health commissioner is named Jeff Zucker. His name is Howard Zucker. Additionally, this article previously stated that the Department of Health had determined second-hand smoke to be the problem with smokables; according to Gov. Cuomo’s office, that was established in the Compassionate Care Act.