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Opinion: Pot is inessential, dangerous in a pandemic

Don Bailey and Luke Niforatos

This spring we’re contending with a virus unlike anything we’ve seen before.

But last fall a different epidemic swept the nation: the marijuana vaping crisis. Nearly 70 people died and several thousand were hospitalized with lung damage so severe, that victims lost years off their lives. In the midst of that epidemic, marijuana advocates pointed to the underground market as the culprit. Vitamin E acetate, which was found to be damaging to the lungs when inhaled, was associated with some of the vapes. “Legal” pot companies cried foul and asserted that their vapes did not contain such additives. But then the CDC confirmed large numbers of cases originating from products on their shelves.

Here in Michigan, stories about contaminated pot vapes continue to pop up. Michigan’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency (MRA), a group intended to keep the industry in check, found that “legal” companies in the state of Michigan were selling vapes with vitamin E acetate, even after the state issued a ban on the additive. In the late fall of 2019, while the CDC advised consumers to stay away from all vaping devices, the MRA recalled nearly 65,000 vapes from two Michigan-licensed companies. The vapes contained vitamin E acetate.

And then in February, 3,400 more vapes tested positive for vitamin E acetate and were recalled from five more Michigan pot shops. They had been on the shelves as recently as Feb. 5. A few more were added to that list in late March, just as the novel coronavirus began to take hold on our country. Sadly, we won’t see such recalls again:

Michigan won’t test vapes for vitamin E acetate if they were manufactured after November of 2019.

FILE - In this Aug. 28, 2019, file photo, a man exhales while smoking an e-cigarette in Portland, Maine.

These glaring issues stand in striking contrast to the current situation. Amid a global pandemic, the state of Michigan, beleaguered by product recalls and an ambiguous accountability system, considers pot “essential.”

Coronavirus has hit Michigan pretty hard. The virus is not only known for attacking elderly and vulnerable populations, but also for its impact on people with underlying health issues, especially those with respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Marijuana on its own is detrimental to respiratory and cardiovascular health. Smoking isn’t the end of it — the drug can weaken the immune system of users as well, making fending off a vicious virus even more difficult. While some components of marijuana may be beneficial in the form of FDA-approved medications, the largely untested pot vapes, joints, and candies that are sold in our Michigan stores are likely to harm virus victims.

The concerning connection between marijuana use and harsh coronavirus symptoms prompted health experts at the National Institutes of Health and the American Lung Association to issue warnings. The consensus among health officials is clear: Marijuana is particularly dangerous during this time. In Michigan, the danger may be two-fold: not only is pot bad for your health, but the Michigan pot you’re smoking or vaping might not have been tested for anything suspicious.

Even still, members of the pot industry and others, with curbside access to their favorite brands, were able to celebrate Hash Bash over a video conference earlier this month and then gathered again online for 4/20 festivities. Between the coughs, the clouds of smoke, and the paraphernalia glorifying the drug, one can’t help but wonder what the impact will be on public health during this pandemic.

Marijuana is not essential. Pretending it is poses an inordinate danger to our state as we face down a powerful and devastating virus.

Don Bailey is a four-decade veteran of the Michigan State Police where he spent most of his time in the narcotics unit. More recently, Bailey served on the state-appointed Medical Marihuana Licensing Board.

Luke Niforatos serves as chief of staff and senior policy adviser of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and its Michigan affiliate, Healthy and Productive Michigan.