Opinion: Gray-market cannabis shops open door for vape crisis 2.0

Image depicting vaping fumes
Image of Sasha Aksenov
Sasha Aksenov

While New Yorkers sit at home and patiently wait for the adult-use cannabis market to get up and running, the gray market is flourishing.

And it’s flourishing to the detriment of consumers.

It might seem at first as if these pop-up shops and cannabis food trucks make everything so much more convenient.

They offer products from across the country and many recognizable name brands, but do consumers really know if these products are authentic or if cannabis is even safe?

Of course not.

The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have wiped out people’s memories along with their taste buds.

Vape crisis

Just a few years ago, this country experienced a vape crisis in which more than 2,000 Americans were hospitalized with lung illnesses associated with vaping and 60 people died, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Its investigators found that the cause of the crisis was linked back to illicit products that contained vitamin E acetate.

The vast majority of products that caused the vaping-associated lung injury (EVALI) crisis were products obtained on the street that contained this additive.

Vitamin E acetate is used by bad actors to dilute THC vape cartridges to increase their profits. It would stand to reason that this practice has not gone away.

So why would regulators not take more action to protect their fellow New Yorkers from a potential serious health risk?

Thriving gray market

Ever since the legalization of cannabis in New York in April of 2021, the gray market has been allowed to thrive.

Operators do not worry about the police potentially breaking down their doors until regulations are enacted, and until then, they have the unofficial license to sell whatever they want.

Cease-and-desist letters were sent a few months ago to these operators telling them that, if they don’t stop, they will not be eligible for licenses when the time comes.

However, the members of the state Office of Cannabis Management don’t seem to get it.

Not everything is about money; what about the safety of consumers in the meantime?

Vape products are just like every other gray-market product – zero visibility into what goes into that oil, not to mention the zero thought given by consumers about how that oil interacts with the various materials in their vaporizer that turn this product to vapor to allow it to be inhaled into the lungs.

Consumers should not have to rely on the good nature and honesty of the gray market for those details.

Consumers need to be able to have conversations with knowledgeable, reputable, legal dispensaries that can provide them with the ingredients used to make their favorite extracts.

Possible contaminants

They need to know what materials might leach products such as bisphenol A (BPA) at higher temperatures and if their extract tends to be more basic or acidic. These factors can cause serious health risks for patients and consumers.

Another serious concern is the possibility of lead contamination.

Traditionally, the material used is a brass alloy called H59, which contains a little more than 2% of lead.

So now manufacturers will say they are using a “lead-free” product, which is another misconception, as they are mainly using a brass alloy called H59-B1 or B2 that contains only .5% lead but can still leach.

And any other finishes on these materials, such as gold or black electroplating, might also contain lead.

Patients and consumers need to be aware of the risks associated with the products that they are inhaling.

Many adult-use and medical markets have accepted unbranded hardware as a norm; many don’t give it a second thought if the box clearly identifies the product or not.

New York regulators have been lauded for putting together a revolutionary cannabis market when it comes to social equity programs and taxation; they shouldn’t be taking a back seat in the safety department.

It is time for New Yorkers to be able to rely on their regulators to put their safety first, to recognize that the grey market is just a sweeter sounding term for the illicit market and instead of an enforcement problem, they are going to end up with a much larger health problem if they don’t act soon.

Sasha Aksenov is chief innovation officer and co-founder of the New York-based Blinc Group. He can be reached at alexander@theblincgroup.com.

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