The Mass Department of Public Health has never been a friend to medical cannabis patients. In 2013, the DPH created regulations that effectively killed the state’s medical cannabis caregiver program. Back then, along with activist Michael Malta and other patients, I staged a demonstration outside of its office to protest the sabotage.
Our complaint at the time: Taking away caregiver permissions, which allowed certified home growers to service a handful of registered patients, would give an effective monopoly to the state’s medical dispensaries, which would predictably in turn lead to high prices, mediocre quality, and less selection of product. In hindsight, we were absolutely right. The DPH completely ignored us, though, never responding to our emails or requests for meetings.
In the time since, the department has continued to ignore requests for comment—nothing on removing patient fees (which the Cannabis Control Commission recently waived at long last); no comment on powdery mildew at certain facilities; no response regarding issues with the DPH patient database that apparently left some patients exposed to unlawful police inquiries. Nada …
… Until last week, when Steve Smyth, director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Safe Spaces for LGBTQ Youth Program, engaged me on a mutual friend’s Facebook page. It was your typical social media dust-up, starting with an original poster who was thrilled that Gov. Charlie Baker had just banned the sale of all vape products for the next four months, citing public safety concerns. I posted sentiments that were similar to what Mass Cannabis Control Commission member Shaleen Title and other critics of the ban have noted, namely that the measure is likely to cause additional and greater harm by pushing more patients and consumers to the illicit market, where counterfeit vapes and bootlegs are a common and known danger.
Smyth wasn’t having any of it. He wrote, “that myth that the ‘dangerous ones’ are on the black market was a manufactured story. There have been multiple cases of death and severe illness from Juuls. Not fake Juuls but the real ones. How do I know? I work for DPH in injury prevention. Poison falls under that umbrella. We see the real stats. Not the media ones.”
For reasons including its complete lack of transparency—as Smyth acknowledged, the DPH is working with a different set of information than it allows the public to see—as well as past behavior, many medical patients have very little faith in the DPH. Relatedly, a lot of patients are disgusted by the high cost and low quality at some medical dispensaries, so much so that some of us are either buying on the illicit market, or driving to purchase meds in Maine. Unlike around here, where Budweiser-caliber products can often go for $375 an ounce, Maine dispensaries offer significantly better prices and, most importantly, extraordinary craft cannabis.
So, how does Maine do it? While Massachusetts lags behind? It’s the thousands of licensed medical cannabis caregivers who provide a service that Mass regulations have banned.
Smyth doesn’t see where I’m coming from: “What the hell does the cost of weed in Maine have to do with determining what’s dangerous about those vapes? People will always choose to go to ‘the black market’ to save pennies on the dollar. You have zero proof that the poisonous pods are on the black market. You have no proof that people will find them illegally because of a temporary ban. Everything you just rambled on about is pure speculation.”
No proof, huh? That’s an interesting claim, considering that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which Smyth’s employer, the DPH, along with boss Gov. Baker, is in cahoots with on this whole vape ban and cited in its public memo on the topic last week, warning, “Anyone who uses an e-cigarette or vaping product should not buy these products (e.g., e-cigarette or vaping products with THC or CBD oils) off the street, and should not modify or add any substances to these products that are not intended by the manufacturer.”
I may not have the super secret information that state employees like Smyth have access to, but I do have anecdotes and observations to cite. With 19,000-plus members, Boston Trees is the most popular Commonwealth-based cannabis subreddit, and a quick search of the sub reveals hundreds of posts about Mass medical patients going to Maine for craft cannabis at around half the price.
But according to Smyth, we’re not very bright for driving all that way.
Meanwhile, back to vapes, Naomi Martin of the Boston Globe noted the lack of data coming from the state on the vape “crisis,” and covered how the FDA has been somewhat more forthcoming, identifying the specific problem of THC vape cartridges laced with vitamin E. “Many of the samples tested by states or by the US Food and Drug Administration as part of this ongoing investigation have been identified as vaping products containing THC, and further, most of those samples with THC tested also contained significant amounts of vitamin E acetate,” according to the FDA. “Vitamin E acetate is a substance present in topical consumer products or dietary supplements, but data are limited about its effects after inhalation.”
As I see this playing out, the culprit is likely to be illicit THC cartridges—the same cartridges that the DPH, however inadvertently, pushed people to use by letting big cannabis take over. On the black market, of course, there are zero regulations.
According to the CDC, “No single product or substance has been linked to all lung injury cases. More information is needed to know whether a single product, substance, brand, or method of use is responsible for the outbreak.”
With so much action occurring under the radar, it won’t be easy for researchers and regulators to get that critical info they need.
Follow Mike Crawford on Twitter @mikecannboston and subscribe to his email newsletter at midnightmass.substack.com. You can listen to The Young Jurks at anchor.fm/theyoungjurks or wherever else podcasts are streamed.
Mike Crawford is a Massachusetts medical cannabis patient and founder of The Young Jurks and midnightmass.substack.com. You can listen to The Young Jurks on iTunes or wherever else podcasts are streamed. This article was produced with support from Midnight Mass and The Young Jurks, where your contributions are greatly appreciated and help us deliver more local coverage.