Opponents of legalizing marijuana in Minnesota are seizing on the recent outbreak of vaping-related illnesses and teen nicotine addiction to urge caution on the cannabis front — even as advocates of legalization ramp up their campaign ahead of next year’s legislative session.
“I hope this slows down the rush by [Gov. Tim Walz] and House Democrats on recreational marijuana,” said state Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, the majority leader. “If they see the correlation, that might at least slow down the process.”
State Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the outbreak of illness is more reason to push for a legal but rigorously regulated cannabis market. Winkler, who is the majority leader of the House, said Minnesota should prohibit the sale of both nicotine and cannabis to anyone under 21 and focus on product safety for adult users. “The vaping problem is one of under-regulation and people not knowing what they’re consuming,” said Winkler.
The science on vaping and lung injuries is unsettled, and the torrent of sometimes confusing news about vaping threatens to complicate the efforts of marijuana legalization advocates. And it’s coming at an inopportune time: With cannabis legalization marching steadily across the country, Minnesota advocates began a major push over the summer to make legislative headway in 2020.
Vaping is a popular way to ingest THC — which is the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis — both in states like Colorado and California, where marijuana has been legalized, and in Minnesota, where it remains illegal.
Many of those suffering lung injuries — more than 1,600 nationwide — vaped both nicotine and THC. But data suggest that a significant factor could be pre-filled THC cartridges, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Research from Mayo Clinic suggests that vaping-related lung injuries are due to people inhaling toxic substances — akin to workers who breathe fumes from chemical spills, or World War I soldiers exposed to mustard gas.
Much data continues to point toward THC-containing products as the source of “the vast majority” of vaping lung injuries, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, deputy director of theCDC, speaking in a recent news briefing.
But the toxicity could be coming from additives, which are unknown because they are often black market products of unknown origin.
“ ‘Dank Vapes’ appears to be the most prominent in a class of largely counterfeit brands, with common packaging that is easily available online and that is used by distributors to market THC-containing cartridges with no obvious centralized production or distribution,” said a recent report from the CDC.
Leili Fatehi, campaign manager for Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation, which favors legalization, said the current black market conditions are at fault.
“Prohibition has not kept kids safe,” she said.
A new survey showed a quarter of Minnesota 11th-graders reported using e-cigarettes in the previous 30 days, a 54% increase from 2016, which suggests they’re getting their hands on nicotine despite the requirement they be 18 to buy it.
Fatehi allowed that policymakers should be enacting a stronger regulatory regime over vaping products, be they nicotine or THC.
“It’s worth considering that vaping is a bad delivery device, period. Smoking or inhaling anything is likely to have some kind of health consequence,” she said. “But vaping is different because of the addition of oils and solvents, and it doesn’t seem like there’s a robust regulatory system at the federal or state level to identify what those ingredients are.”
When it comes to crafting a good regulatory system, Fatehi said, “We don’t advocate sticking one’s head in the sand.”
Winkler, who is the DFL floor leader, said he expects a major push for a legalization bill when the Legislature convenes in February. He has been holding a series of events around the state to get public feedback and meeting with Walz administration officials to share ideas about potential implementation issues. Legislative research staff are gathering data and statutory language from other states, while other lawmakers are weighing in.
Winkler said he is not sure yet where the House DFL caucus stands, although his authorship of a bill suggests momentum for a vote next year — a major breakthrough for legalization advocates. “I will say with certainty there will be a comprehensive bill that will be the most thoughtful approach in the country,” he said.
Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, who lost a son to opioid addiction, said the vaping epidemic has only reinforced his opposition to legal marijuana. “We don’t need more things that expose people to artificial highs when they cause so much damage,” he said.
But Winkler said prohibition hasn’t worked: “We’ve been trying it for decades without success.”
Star Tribune reporter Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.