Vaping might not be so carefree.
Vaping might not be so carefree. Mike Force

[Originally published in our sister publication, The Stranger.]

Officials at the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) announced Wednesday that someone died in July from a “severe respiratory illness” after they vaped cannabis oil that was reportedly bought from a legal pot shop. OHA has not been able to confirm more details about the death, the vape product, or where the product was purchased, but the possibility that a legal cannabis vape pen killed someone is sending ripples of fear across the legal pot industry.

Jonathan Modie, a spokesperson for OHA, told The Stranger Thursday morning that investigators have not yet recovered the vaporizer or vape cartridge that the person allegedly used, but through interviews they learned that the person had recently bought a vape cartridge from a legal Oregon dispensary.

“We found out through that [interview] process that the individual had visited at least one recreational dispensary, possibly others here in Oregon,” Modie said.

The Oregon death comes as more than 200 people across the country have reportedly fallen ill from respiratory illnesses after they used electric cannabis and nicotine vape products. Authorities are still trying to understand how these vape pens are causing lung diseases.

OHA is describing the fatal condition as a “severe respiratory illness” that involves shortness of breath, cough, chest pain, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, fever, and weight loss. Modie said authorities are “pretty confident” that vaping was related to the Oregon individual’s death.

“Until we know the specific device or product or substance that is causing these illnesses, you don’t know absolutely, positively, for sure, but we’re pretty confident based on this illness and case definition that this was associated with vaping,” Modie said.

Modie said OHA is not releasing any more details about where in Oregon the person died or more details about their identity other than saying they were middle aged. Modie said there is a possibility that the person was vaping non-cannabis oils as well as legal cannabis oil.

“We want to know all of the products that may have been used,” Modie said. “But our understanding at this point is that the individual used a cannabis vaping product.”

This is Oregon’s first reported case and death related to vaping, but Modie said as the OHA expects to hear more reports as information spreads about the illness.

“We hope there aren’t other illnesses, we hope there aren’t other deaths,” Modie said. “That said… we’re trying to get the word out to [healthcare] providers to let us know about any additional cases, and we think that number will go up.”

Cannabis oil cartridges bought in Oregon’s legal pot shops must be tested for pesticides, residual solvents, and foreign contaminants, which is what makes this death so concerning. Up until OHA’s announcement there had been no reports connecting this vape health scare to legal, regulated products. It’s one thing to be worried about vaping black market cannabis oil that could contain any number of extremely toxic chemicals, from formaldehyde to butane, but it’s an entirely new worry if people are falling ill and dying from vaping regulated cannabis oil that should be free of residual solvents and dangerous chemicals.

Is vaping even the regulated forms of cannabis oil not safe? Are there other aspects of vaping, like the material cartridges are made out of or how the vaporizer heats up, that cause these illnesses? Prohibition prevents the federal government from trying to answer these questions, which is yet another reason why we need nationwide legalization so we can effectively study these new, wildly popular ways to get high.

Mark Pettinger, a spokesperson for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), which regulates cannabis in Oregon, said the OLCC is working with the OHA to investigate the death. He said OHA had not yet provided details on what kind of product the person used.

“We’ve been in touch with OHA and have told them we will assist in their investigation,” Pettinger told The Stranger Thursday morning. “The first thing is if they can provide us information on the type of product and whether it has a user identification that comes from our tracking system. That would potentially allow us to confirm if the product had been purchased from a licensed Oregon retailer. We just don’t know the source of the product yet.”

Pettinger said it will be difficult to track who made the vape product and what it contained if OHA is not able to locate any packaging or branding associated with the product that allegedly killed this person in Oregon.

Modie said any vape users who have similar symptoms should seek medical attention immediately. He also encouraged vape users to think about quitting.

“If you’re thinking about quitting vaping, now is a good time because until we know about this situation and the death in Oregon, people are at risk if they vape,” Modai said.