The wave of adulterated cannabis vape cartridges across the nation has reached Los Angeles.

On Friday, the Los Angeles Department of Public Health announcing one death associated with the use of contaminated e-cigarettes, and a further 12 reports of vaping-associated pulmonary injury.

On the same day first local fatality was announced, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published the initial results of their investigation into the rapidly increasing number of vaping-associated lung illnesses sweeping across the country. The CDC said since no evidence of infectious diseases has been identified in the patients they’ve looked at the “lung illnesses are likely associated with a chemical exposure.”

“We are committed to finding out what is making people sick,” said CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, MD, “All available information is being carefully analyzed, and these initial findings are helping us narrow the focus of our investigation and get us closer to the answers needed to save lives.”

The Food and Drug Administration has been involved in the CDC’s investigation since it kicked off on August t. The work of both agencies with local officials across the country has led to reports of lung illnesses possibly associated with vaping in 25 States. That’s up three more states from August when the CDC told the Washington Post they were tracking 200 cases. 

The CDC had put the official number of deaths reported at two, but as the update came out another person died in Minnesota, then another a few days later in Kansas. Deaths have now been reported in California, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Kansas, and Oregon

“Our laboratory is working closely with our federal and state partners to identify the products or substances that may be causing the illnesses and have received more than 120 samples from the states so far,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, M.D. “The FDA is analyzing these for a broad range of chemicals but no one substance, including Vitamin E acetate, has been identified in all of the samples tested. Importantly, identifying any compounds present in the samples will be one piece of the puzzle but won’t necessarily answer questions about causality, which makes our ongoing work critical.”

Local officials say the scale of the situation nationally, and now closer to home, made it critical to get the word out about the situation. “We are compelled to warn our 10 million residents that the risks of using these devices, with or without nicotine, marijuana, CBD or some street concoction, may now include severe lung injury,” said Dr. Muntu Davis, MD, MPH, Los Angeles County Health Officer.

City officials also noted on the reports across the country of patients showing up in emergency departments with similar symptoms such as coughing, difficulty breathing, fever, and may have vomiting and diarrhea.

“The increasing cases of severe pulmonary illnesses associated with vaping both nationwide and locally in Los Angeles County are alarming and underscores how much we still don’t know about the extent of harm that vaping can cause,” said Dr. Steven Dubinett, associate vice chancellor of UCLA and chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. “We join Public Health, the medical community, and other health professionals in warning residents about the use of these devices and the need for a concerted effort to address this outbreak.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just announced Monday his administration directed the New York Department of Health to issue subpoenas to companies allegedly selling and advertising thickening agents used in black market vaping products.

Constance Finley of Constance Therapeutics currently holds two patents for vitamin E as a viscosity agent in cannabis and hemp vape pens. She issued a statement on Linkedin explaining how the use of all-natural vitamin E came about and how they proved it was safe.

“To prove the safety of our concept we performed a “balloon study,” established by third party testing what came out of our vaporizers when inhaled; and licensees of our IP performed a third party test of our form of vitamin E in cannabis extracts and outside them to test the safety of vitamin E up to 750 degrees,” Finley wrote, “There was no toxicity or degradation in the vitamin E we use even at those extremely high temperatures.”

Finley also weighed in on what she believes is happening.

“The vitamin E cited in the New York Times article “The Mysterious Vaping Illness That’s ‘Becoming an Epidemic’” talks about the use of vitamin E acetate, a synthetic cheap form of vitamin E implicated in lung problems potentially, not the use of organic, naturally occurring vitamin E derived from sunflowers that Constance Therapeutics utilizes in our patented vape formulations.,” Finley said.

Leafly’s California Bureau chief David Downs has been leading the coverage of the crisis on the west coast as the story propagated from state to state in recent weeks. 

“This is unprecedented,” Downs told L.A. Weekly in a phone interview. “These contaminants had been building over a while. But we’ve never had this multiple location series of injuries.” 

Downs went on to say the problem is “very much a creature of the black market.”

“This is exactly like bathtub gin under alcohol prohibition. And this is exactly what we had with snake-oil before we came up with the Harrison Narcotics Act in the ‘30s or issues with food contamination before The Pure Food and Drug Act in the ‘60s,” Downs said, “America has a long history of needing to clean up the supply of popular substances. Now that’s come to this newly popular vape space.”

Downs emphasized the legal markets are less susceptible to contamination “but they’re not impermeable. They’re not fortresses.” He said all legal states are in different stages of cleaning up their cannabis markets 

“But we’re in the middle of a generations-long reckoning of contaminants in the cannabinoid supply chain. And this is part of it. There will be more to come.” Downs said.

We asked Downs his tips for consumers. 

“I’ve boiled it down to vape flower, take edibles, take rosin, and obviously shop licensed,” he replied, “If you’re going to vape, vape cool, vape pure, I can go into details but those are the easily rememberable things for people to do.”

One of the places hit hardest by the crisis is those producing high-end vape carts that are heavily regulated in the state of California. Much of the wider language in media has painted the issue as something impacting all cannabis vaporizers, and not just illicit manufacturers rumored to be using certain cutting agents with ingredients banned in California. 

We reached out to some of the states leading extractors to get their take on the crisis.

“The families at Raw Garden take seriously the responsibility to provide you with the highest quality products at an accessible price. We are in total control of everything we do in farming and production from the minute we plant our proprietary seeds in the organic soil of our own farms, through harvest, extraction, and finished products. Exacting quality control through the entire value chain is the most important element of our process,” Raw Garden told L.A. Weekly. 

Everything Raw Garden produces is completely derived from cannabis flowers.  

“We believe in accountability. Part of the reason that we are a Clean Green Certified farm (100 percent organically based practices), have some of the tightest quality controls in the industry, and had the first Clean Green Certified concentrate (since 2011), is because we believe that you (and our families) deserve nothing but the purest cannabis products,” Raw Garden said. 

Field Extracts is one of the boutique legacy extractors from the medical era dealing with the current scare. Despite winning every cannabis award of note over the years, the new wave of bad press hits home for a business producing some of the most coveted and clean vape pen cartridges on the planet. 

Field Extracts founder and namesake was quick to point out how many times flowers and oils are tested in the supply chain in California. 

“Not only do we have to pass the first round of testing before we even run anything into any kind of concentrate that would go in a cartridge, then you’re going to have to test it at any point it turns into a final product,” Field told L.A. Weekly in a phone interview. 

He said if you’re buying from a licensed dispensary you’re likely not going to run into the adulterated products that are harming people. “Obviously that cut is not allowed in California-sanctioned cannabis. The problem is you have people bootlegging real brands.”

Field says those on the black market can buy the products that have led to the crisis. “They’re running it and they’re giving it to whoever.” We asked if “whoever” is people who don’t have access to the market? Pointing to how hard the Midwest seems to have been hit in all of this.

“Well yeah, but not even the people who don’t have access to the market. Those who choose to buy from whoever they feel like,” Field replied, “For one it’s a problem of people taking advantage of their consumers whether it is in the legal market or not. These people I think to some degree or another are trusting who they are getting their stuff from. And two, you got these people that don’t even know.” Field said he’s sure you don’t have to look too hard to find bootlegs of his products.

As for the state’s wider regulations, Field called them very thorough. He pointed to the BCC taking action against Sequoia Labs in Sacramento as a clear sign in people’s face of the scrutiny all laboratory spaces would be under with all the recent regulations. 

“We all need to be on the up and up, and do everything correctly. Work with companies we can trust. Because otherwise our livelihood is going to be taken away,” Field said. 

We asked Field what he would say directly to consumers to assure them how safe regulated products are?

“I would say for whatever reason if folks are continuing to buy products, especially vape cartridges of any sort, on the black market; they’re definitely is proof now they’re taking a chance with their health and safety,” he replied.

Field spoke on taxes, supporting friends, not wanting to go in a dispensary, and all the other reasons one may choose illicit cartridges. “Whatever the reason is. Now you’re gambling with your health. If you decide to go walk into a licensed dispensary, I think you’re going to find that whatever your budget is, whatever your liking is, you can find a product that suits you that’s safe.”

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