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'Swift' or slow: Lung injury outbreak puts Michigan's marijuana rules in the spotlight

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — An outbreak of lung injuries tied to a popular way of using marijuana is testing Michigan's oversight of its burgeoning cannabis industry. One critic says the state isn't doing enough while others say regulators have been doing all they can.

This month, the first legal sales of recreational marijuana in Michigan drew long lines to retailers amid continued recommendations from health officials that residents refrain from using marijuana vaping products.

Recreational marijuana being sold at Arbors Wellness in Ann Arbor on Dec. 1.

Vaping, which involves inhaling the vapors of a heated liquid, is a popular way to use marijuana. But health officials have connected vaping to a national outbreak of lung injuries that began in June, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The combination of the first recreational sales and the outbreak of lung injuries has been a "huge undertaking" for state regulators, said Al Moroz, who manages Arbors Wellness, a marijuana retailer in Ann Arbor.

Don Bailey, who served on Michigan's Medical Marijuana Licensing Board and has been a vocal critic of the state's handling of marijuana policies, said state regulators have advanced the industry at the "speed of light" while slowly responding to health concerns.

"Public safety and the rule of law have been cast aside in the interest of profit," Bailey alleged in an interview last week.

But others in the industry and in state government say regulators are doing what they can amid difficult circumstances.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist told reporters last week that Michigan has taken a leadership role on activating alarms on flavored e-cigarettes and vitamin E acetate — an additive that's been used in marijuana vaping products and has been tied to the ongoing outbreak of lung injuries.

In September, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a ban on flavored e-cigarettes, but the restriction has been blocked by a court ruling.

Michigan officials began requiring testing for vitamin E acetate last month and last week recalled marijuana vaping products that failed the tests.

“As we understood what the risks were, as our professionals ... made a determination, then we took swift action in response to those recommendations,” Gilchrist said.

Nationally, the CDC has tracked more than 2,500 lung injuries tied to vaping and 54 deaths. New cases have been declining since peaking in September, the CDC said last week. 

Health officials have linked injuries to vitamin E acetate, which, because of its thickness, has been used as a cutting agent in THC vape cartridges. THC is the "compound of marijuana that produces the high," according to the CDC.

Vitamin E acetate usually doesn't cause harm when used as a vitamin supplement or in skin creams. But when inhaled, it "may interfere with normal lung functioning," according to the CDC.

A sample of vitamin E acetate is seen.

In Michigan, Lynn Sutfin, public information officer for the Department of Health and Human Services, said Friday that the number of lung injury cases in the state has been "holding steady" with an average of five reported each week.

Michigan has had 64 reported cases — 34 confirmed and 30 probable — Sutfin said. There have been two deaths in Michigan.

While the Whitmer administration has taken aggressive action on flavored e-cigarette products allegedly targeting young people, it took state officials longer to act on vitamin E acetate used in marijuana vaping products.

A bipartisan group of Michigan House members introduced bills to legislatively ban vitamin E acetate on Oct. 24. But the bills didn't pass the full House before lawmakers departed for their end-of-year break.

In early September, the New York Health Department publicly linked injuries to vitamin E acetate. New York also subpoenaed three companies that sold thickening agents containing it.

Among the three companies was a Michigan business, Floraplex Terpenes, based in Ypsilanti, which sold a product called Uber Thick. A past advertisement for Uber Thick said it would help "control the viscosity of your product." Although it's no longer for sale on Floraplex Terpenes' website, it previously sold for $3,499 a gallon.

State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, who sponsored one of the bills to ban vitamin E acetate, said the reality is government can be slow.

But Hammoud added, "I think people sense the urgency in needing to move on this very important public health situation."

The bills are before the House Judiciary Committee and its chairman, Rep. Graham Filler, R-Dewitt, said he expects to take them up soon.

"This is going to move, and it’s going to move pretty soon," Filler said.

Michigan State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn

On Nov. 22, the state's Marijuana Regulatory Agency announced the emergency rules to administratively ban the use of vitamin E acetate as an additive in the products and to retest all marijuana vaping products on sale in the state.

As a result of the retesting, the agency eventually recalled 64,724 cartridges that were found to contain vitamin E acetate. Of those, about 5,000 had already been sold, said David Harns, spokesman for the Marijuana Regulatory Agency. The recall focused on a provisioning center in Bay City, a provisioning center in Mount Morris and a grower.

"As this crisis developed, we worked closely with our partners in public health to look at data and determine the cause of the illnesses related to vaping," Harns said. "When the evidence supported a necessary course of action to protect the health and safety of the public from an imminent threat, we moved quickly to file emergency rules that allowed us to take all vaping products off the shelves until they were tested."

The recalled cartridges originated with medical marijuana caregivers, who had been allowed to supplement the businesses in the regulated industry, the agency has said.

The recall also was the first indication that vitamin E acetate had been found in products sold in the regulated market. Most individuals in the industry say that vitamin E acetate has primarily been used as a cutting agent in illicit products that fall outside of all state testing, making it difficult for consumers to know what's inside of them.

Moroz, manager of Arbors Wellness, said the fact the state caught the products that needed to be recalled was a "credit" to regulators. The state has had to deal with the first legal sales of recreational marijuana and the lung injury outbreak at the same time, Moroz noted.

"They have had a huge undertaking for a small department," he said.

As for how the outbreak of lung injuries has affected sales of marijuana vaping products, Moroz said public interest in vape cartridges hasn't dropped off.

A woman using a vaping device exhales a puff of smoke.

Some people are concerned about the injuries, but other customers believe the concerns about products in the regulated market are "overblown," he said, especially now that the products are subject to additional testing.

Joe Neller, co-founder of the Windsor Township-based marijuana company Green Peak Innovations near Lansing, said his team has "full faith" in the state's new testing requirements.

"As our industry continues to grow and evolve, ensuring every product on every provisioning center shelf is safe for consumption is paramount to preserving the public trust," Neller said.

Bailey, who served on the Medical Marijuana Licensing Board, said people should be watching the state's handling of the regulations closely because of how widely marijuana is used.

"Even if you're not a consumer, someone you know is," Bailey said.

Michigan had $4.7 million in recreational marijuana sales from Dec. 1, when the sales began, through Sunday, according to data from the state.