The former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said this week that conflicting state and federal marijuana laws have created an oversight gap that is exacerbating an outbreak of vaping-related lung injuries, and he indicated that federal regulations may be necessary to resolve the issue.
Scott Gottlieb said in a series of tweets over the weekend and in a TV appearance on Monday that he is concerned about permissive state policies that allow for the use of cannabis by adults but at the same time pointed out that current restrictive federal laws are inhibiting regulators’ ability to oversee manufacturing of marijuana products. It remains to be seen what the former FDA commissioner would specifically propose to address the problem legislatively, however.
On Twitter, he acknowledged that illegal vape cartridges, including those containing THC and CBD, appear to be behind a spike in lung issues that have injured hundreds and killed at least five people throughout the U.S. in recent weeks. Experts believe the problem is associated with the use of unapproved ingredients such as Vitamin E acetate, which can be deadly when inhaled.
“We have a dangerous State-Federal conflict when it comes to THC,” he wrote on Sunday. “States legalize THC behind permissive laws but have little capacity or interest in properly regulating it, and for Feds, it’s still schedule 1. Then states point fingers when problems arise.”
It looks like there are at least three different manifestations of vaping-associated pulmonary injury: lipoid pneumonia, alveolar hemorrhage, and cryptogenic organizing pneumonia. Most will likely be related to illegal THC and CBD products and perhaps counterfeit nicotine e-cigs.
— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) September 8, 2019
“Permissive state laws on recreational THC and our conflicted attitude toward cannabis create a lot of risk,” he added. “These products and vape pens sold to aerosolize stuff other than nicotine (and thus probably not regulated by FDA) fall into dangerous gap where there’s no proper oversight.”
These are important questions based on the current information we have from these tragic case reports. We must also differentiate between illegal vapes and e-cigarettes; the latter which generally denotes a nicotine containing ENDS product that is subject to FDA regulation.
— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) September 8, 2019
During an appearance on CNBC’s Squawk Box, the former FDA head said that the “challenge with CBD and THC is that they’re not really regulated by anyone right now.”
“The states allow these things to be legally sold within states, but they’re not regulated by FDA,” he said. “FDA would only regulate a vaping product if it’s a nicotine-containing vaping product that’s derived from tobacco. That’s their legal hook. These are falling within a regulatory gap so states aren’t doing regulations.”
“I think we’re going to have a federal reckoning here.”
He said “states have passed laws that are far too permissive allowing recreational use of these products” and simultaneously, “it’s far too difficult to get access to legitimate products to do proper research.”
“I think we need a federal reckoning where we make it easier for people to get access to cannabis if they want to do legitimate medical research and try to make medical products out of these things. But these state laws that allow this widespread recreational use where it’s getting into the hands of kids and pregnant moms, that’s a real public health concern. In the states that have moved ahead, they’ve allowed all of these products to flood their markets, but they don’t have an FDA, they don’t have proper oversight, so these illegal vapes are getting onto the market.”
Though Gottlieb has not explicitly called for federal cannabis legalization, which would presumably empower FDA to exercise its regulatory authority in the same way it does for products like tobacco, he has repeatedly recognized that the status quo is not working and will continue to present challenges.
I’ll be coming up on @SquawkCNBC to discuss tragic lung injuries related to vaping what appears – based on available information – to be largely illegal products, perhaps containing THC and CBD. These products may fall in a regulatory gap, with nobody overseeing them properly. pic.twitter.com/l86DgtEYN0
— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) September 9, 2019
He said on Saturday that it’s “not clear FDA can regulate vape pen not sold for use with tobacco nicotine” and that “Congress may need to expand FDA’s authority.”
Legally sold nicotine based e-cigs are not harmless. But most of these severe cases, so far, appear to be symptoms that can occur when either oils or lipid-containing substances enter lungs. This points to illegal products that are being cut with dangerous chemicals as a culprit.
— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) September 7, 2019
Even if most lung-injury cases are traced to chemicals used to emulsify THC or CBD into illegal vaping “juices,” it doesn’t let legally sold, nicotine-based e-cigs off the hook. They must do more to ensure safety of their products by engaging review process and ending youth use
— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) September 7, 2019
Marijuana Moment reached out to Gottlieb and the American Enterprise Institute, where he’s a resident fellow, for comment, but no reply was received.
This isn’t the first time that the former commissioner has punted to Congress on cannabis issues. Following the federal legalization of hemp and its derivatives, Gottlieb said that congressional action may be necessary in order to develop alternative regulations allowing for CBD to be introduced into the food supply or as health supplements.
What’s less certain is what kind of legislation would be able to expand FDA’s ability to regulate non-tobacco vape products while marijuana remains a prohibited Schedule I drug.
Legalization would very simply put cannabis within FDA’s realm, but the furthest Gottlieb has come to publicly supporting marijuana reform is stating that there are valid reasons to decriminalize the plant. That was for criminal justice-related reasons, however, and not public health or regulatory factors.
Congressional Bill Requires Legal Marijuana States To Consider Impaired Driving Policies
Democratic leadership in a House committee introduced a bill on Wednesday that includes a provision requiring legal marijuana states—and only those states—to consider ways to promote education about the dangers of cannabis-impaired driving while curbing such behavior.
The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee filed the legislation, which is also being cosponsored by several chairs of subcommittees under the panel. While the main thrust of the INVEST in America Act is aimed at promoting the completion of various long-term infrastructure projects, it also features language concerning cannabis policy.
Under the bill, a section of current law requiring that states establish highway safety programs would be amended to add a section stipulating that states “which have legalized medicinal or recreational marijuana shall consider programs in addition to the programs…to educate drivers on the risks associated with marijuana-impaired driving and to reduce injuries and deaths resulting from individuals driving motor vehicles while impaired by marijuana.”
Reform advocates support measures to reduce impaired driving, but there may be some who take issue with the provision given the implication that legalizing marijuana increases the risk of people driving while impaired. Research isn’t settled on that subject.
A congressional research body said in a report last year that concerns expressed by lawmakers that cannabis legalization will make the roads more dangerous might not be totally founded. In fact, the experts tasked by the House and Senate with looking into the issue found that evidence about cannabis’s ability to impair driving is currently inconclusive.
Beside that contention, the legislation seems to neglect to take into account that cannabis-impaired driving isn’t exclusive to legal states and that public education could be beneficial across all states regardless of their individual marijuana policies.
“It is somewhat absurd to draw a differentiation between states when it comes to the current legal status, because it is entirely feasible that every state will be legalized by the end of this decade,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “And regardless, I have heard rumors that some Texans consume cannabis despite its prohibited status.”
Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said in a press release that the overall bill “is our opportunity to replace the outdated systems of the past with smarter, safer, more resilient infrastructure that fits the economy of the future, creates millions of jobs, supports American manufacturing, and restores U.S. competitiveness.”
Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Chairwoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Chairman Dan Lipinski (D-IL) are also sponsoring the legislation, which is scheduled for a full committee vote on June 17.
U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Touts Legal Marijuana’s Economic Potential At Revenue Meeting
The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) on Tuesday again stressed the need to legalize marijuana in order to generate tax revenue for the territory’s fiscal recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D), who unveiled a revised legalization bill last month and pushed legislators to promptly take it up, discussed the projected economic impact of the policy change at a revenue conference.
During the virtual meeting, he pulled up a spreadsheet that breaks down estimates for annual cannabis sales from residents and tourists, as well as potential revenue from taxes and fees.
Cruise passengers and non-resident hotel guests will make approximately $43 million in annual marijuana purchases, the estimate from an independent firm states. Residents, meanwhile, are projected to spend about $38 million on cannabis each year.
“This doesn’t include what we would call the second and third turns in the economy in term of products being bought like lamps and fertilizer, jobs being created, dispensary jobs. None of that,” the governor said.
Watch the governor discuss marijuana legalization’s economic impact, starting around 3:10:35 into the video below:
In terms of revenue, the territory can expect to take in about $11 million annually from tourists, who will be taxed at 25 percent for marijuana products. Residents, who will be taxed at a much lower rate, will contribute about $3 million in taxes. All told, the territory is estimated to generate nearly $18 million in cannabis sales tax revenue per year.
Additionally, the analysis projects that USVI will receive $12.1 million from licensing fees and a cultivation tax. Point of sale permits for cruises and hotels will bring in another $3.6 million.
It all adds up to “a $33 million deposit in our treasury due to cannabis sales,” Bryan said, characterizing the projections as conservative estimates.
The governor said he wanted to highlight these figures to conference attendees “to show you quickly what this could mean to the territory should we have this enacted and we go to work.”
“Of course, it’s going to take some work to get this done,” he said. “But we need to get this measure done as quickly as possible in order to start impacting our economy in a very positive way.”
Bryan has previously said that beyond helping to offset some of the financial damage that COVID-19 outbreak has created, establishing a legal cannabis market would provide funding for the territory’s retirement system for government employees.
After he first proposed the policy change and directed the legislature to take up the issue in a special session late last year, several legislators voiced opposition to specifics of the proposal.
Some questioned the notion that tax revenue from cannabis sales could make up for the significant deficits running within the retirement program, while others argued that the legislation as drafted did not adequately address social equity. Another issue that arose concerned licensing, with lawmakers worried that small businesses on the island would be left out.
The governor’s revised marijuana legalization bill, which has been transmitted to the Senate for action, would ban home cultivation for recreational consumers, allow cultivation for medical cannabis patients, increase the number of members of the government’s Cannabis Advisory Board and limit non-residents to purchasing up to seven grams of flower per day while residents could buy up to an ounce.
There would be no tax on cannabis sales for medical patients, a 7.5 percent tax for residents and a 25 percent tax for non-residents.
In order to own a marijuana business, an individual must have been a resident of USVI for at least 10 years. For micro-cultivator business, the threshold is five years of residency.
A special “cannabis fund” would be established under the proposed legislation, with 20 percent of marijuana tax revenue being allocated to fund the Office of Cannabis Regulations, a cannabis testing program, job training, substance misuse treatment and grant programs for business incubation and micro-lending.
The bill also provides for automatic expungements for prior marijuana possession convictions, encourages research into the benefits of cannabis and recognizes the rights of individuals who wish to use or grow the plant for religious purposes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved USVI’s hemp plan last month.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Virginia Governor Says Marijuana Decriminalization Partly Addresses Racial Inequity Inspiring Mass Protests
The governor of Virginia said on Tuesday that the passage of marijuana decriminalization legislation this year represents an example of how his state has addressed racial inequities that are inspiring mass protests over recent police killings of black Americans.
In a speech, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said that while he cannot personally attest to the pain that the black community is grappling with, there are steps lawmakers can take to reform policies that disproportionately harm minorities. That includes removing the threat of jail time for cannabis possession—an offense more likely to be enforced against black people despite comparable rates of use among white people.
“Through 400 years of American history—starting with the enslavement of Africans, through Jim Crow, massive resistance and now mass incarceration—black oppression has always existed in this country, just in different forms,” he said. “I cannot know how it feels to be an African American person right now or what you are going through. I cannot know the depth of your pain. But what I can do is stand with you and I can support you, and together we’re going to turn this pain into action.”
That action has meant “reforming criminal justice,” he said. “It meant decriminalizing marijuana.”
The governor, who faced severe scrutiny last year after he admitted he was in a yearbook photo showing people wearing blackface and dressed as KKK members, also cited expanding access to Medicaid and increasing the threshold for felony larceny as examples of ways the state has addressed racial inequality during his administration.
Northam signed a marijuana decriminalization bill last month and it goes into effect on July 1. Under the legislation, possessing up to one ounce of cannabis will be punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time and no criminal record. Current Virginia law makes simple possession punishable by a maximum $500 fine, up to 30 days in jail and a criminal record.
Later in the Tuesday press conference, Shirley Ginwright, a member of the Virginia African American Advisory Board that Northam established, thanked him specifically for approving the cannabis decriminalization bill.
“So many of our students and our young black men and women were getting caught up in the criminal justice system because of marijuana, something that wasn’t killing them,” she said.
The governor isn’t alone in connecting the outrage over police killings of black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to cannabis prohibition enforcement. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also recently said racial disparities in marijuana criminalization is an example of a systemic injustice that underlies the frustration of minority communities.
Last week, 12 House members introduced a resolution condemning police brutality and specifically noting the racial injustices of the war on drugs.
The measure came one week after 44 members of the House sent a letter to the Justice Department, calling for an independent investigation into a fatal police shooting of Taylor in a botched drug raid.
Berner, a rapper who owns a marijuana dispensary that was looted in Los Angeles over the weekend, also seemed to echo Booker’s sentiment, stating that the damage to his shop to looting pales in comparison to the underlying racial injustices that prompted the protests.