Gov. Kate Brown is poised to make a decision she says may shield thousands of Oregonians from a potentially life-threatening product.

The state’s cannabis farmers wish she wouldn’t.

The announcement by health officials last week of a second Oregon death in an outbreak of respiratory illnesses has pressed the governor to the brink of issuing a six-month ban on all vaping products. Some public health experts say that’s the responsible choice: Even if vaping-related illnesses remain rare, the fog surrounding their cause means Brown can protect the most people with a blanket ban.

“Given that we have a product that’s associated with deaths, it seems like it’s reasonable to stop sales of that product until we are clear whether there’s a way we can prevent further injury or deaths,” says Dr. Tom Schaumberg, a Portland pulmonologist.

In some states, governors might worry about outraging the tobacco lobby by banning Juul cartridges. But Brown has little reason to care about that: She’s a Democrat who isn’t up for re-election. Instead, she must weigh the public health benefits of a ban against the possibility of crushing Oregon’s beleaguered cannabis industry.

Take for example East Fork Cultivars, a cannabis farm in Southern Oregon. In the coming weeks, it will harvest and ship roughly a thousand pounds of cannabis to extractors that will turn the plant into oil used in vaping cartridges.

“We’re counting on that money to get us through the most expensive time for all farms, which is harvest season,” says Nathan Howard, who co-owns the farm with his brother, Aaron. “We are counting on those deals to go through–a lot of farms are.”

Oregon’s cannabis industry was already reeling from oversupply, which sent the price of weed into a nosedive from which it’s just starting to recover (“Too Much Weed,” WW, March 19, 2018). One bright spot was oil extraction–which  allowed producers with surplus flower to instead extract oils for vapes and edibles, giving them a higher profit margin.

Data shows the oils and extract market in Oregon constitutes about 30 percent of the cannabis industry’s $643 million in annual sales.

Both victims of vaping-related deaths used pens loaded with cannabis oil. That’s a blow to consumer confidence and to pot growers–who have never before confronted a death so closely tied to their product. Data from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission shows that concentrate and extract sales have dropped by roughly 20 percent from August.

A ban by Brown? That would be crushing.

“It would 100 percent impact everyone, from the dispensary all the way down to cultivation,” says Amy Margolis, a lawyer specializing in cannabis. “I’m certain I’m right. We’re a symbiotic industry, so it’s hard to find a product that doesn’t touch everything else.”

As Brown weighs her legal options, the entire cannabis industry–the farmers, the oil producers, the shops and consumers–holds its breath.

(Justin Tyler Norton)
(Justin Tyler Norton)

Most of the lung illnesses due to vaping have been caused by a buildup of fatty oil particles in the lungs, causing patients to suffocate. Health professionals are in agreement: Oils shouldn’t be inhaled in copious amounts into the lungs, because they aren’t equipped to dispose of fatty buildups.

Most health officials believe the deaths are probably caused by additives in the oil cartridges. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still haven’t narrowed down the suspects to any particular product–or even to only tobacco or cannabis vapes.

That means Brown faces pressure to make a decision–but with limited information.

Massachusetts banned all vaping products for four months, and four other states have or will ban flavored vape products.

The Oregon Health Authority presented Brown with six options to quell the illnesses. One of those is a six-month temporary ban on all vaping products. Brown’s office says it is consulting the Oregon Department of Justice about what it can legally do.

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