Sales of marijuana oil vapes will remain prohibited in Massachusetts for now, after the Cannabis Control Commission on Tuesday ordered licensed shops and dispensaries to quarantine the products.
Under a recent court ruling, the commission had faced a noon deadline to either lift the ban on such vapes — though only for medical marijuana patients — or keep it in place. Its five commissioners at a meeting last week declined to endorse the ban on vape sales and instead kicked the decision to the agency’s executive director, Shawn Collins.
On Tuesday, Collins said in an order sent to licensed marijuana companies that commission staffers were still investigating whether oil vapes made by regulated operators are safe, and temporarily quarantined the products.
The commission said the quarantine was based on Collins’s “determination that these products pose an immediate or serious threat to the public health, safety, or welfare.”
However, Collins declined to uphold a ban on the purchase of flower vaporizers, a separate category of device, by medical marijuana patients. The general public is still barred from buying any type of vape, including flower vaporizers.
An emergency ban on all vaping products was initially imposed on September 24 by Governor Charlie Baker in response to a national spate of vaping-related lung illnesses that has sickened more than 2,000 Americans and killed at least 40.
Baker has said that the unusually broad ban — no other states have imposed one — is necessary because the exact cause of the lung illnesses remains unclear. Federal health officials have said most of the illnesses were probably caused by vitamin E acetate and other additives in illicit marijuana vape cartridges.
The commission order on Tuesday noted that a study by officials in Wisconsin and Illinois had concluded the vast majority of illnesses were linked to vapes obtained from “informal” sources — but also said the agency had yet to definitively determine whether any regulated vapes made by licensed Massachusetts companies contained vitamin E acetate.
Baker’s ban quickly drew legal challenges from nicotine vape manufacturers and retailers, plus medical marijuana patients who said they relied on vapes to treat severe pain and other chronic conditions.
Last month, Suffolk Superior Judge Douglas H. Wilkins ruled that Baker’s administration had unconstitutionally exceeded its authority by imposing the ban on vape purchases unilaterally and without holding public hearings — but allowed it to remain in place while officials take steps to formalize the ban as a legal emergency regulation.
In another ruling last week, on a request to lift the ban on vape purchases by registered medical marijuana patients, Wilkins said health officials in Baker’s administration had improperly trampled on the cannabis commission’s exclusive legal authority over cannabis products. He gave the commission a week to either uphold the ban or let it expire, though the ruling only applied to purchases by medical marijuana patients, not recreational consumers.
Up until the moment the Cannabis Control Commission announced its quarantine, many medical marijuana patients held out hope that they would be able to purchase vapes today.
Registered patient Frank Shaw, 66, of Ipswich, went to Brookline Tuesday morning to visit the New England Treatment Access dispensary at 12:01 p.m. to try to stock up on vape pods. Shaw, one of four medical marijuana patients who sued the state over the ban, said he struggles with severe chronic foot pain stemming from nerve damage. His burning pain grows so intense he can’t walk sometimes, he said, but three puffs of a cannabis oil vape relieves it.
For patients, Shaw said the ban and the uncertainty it’s caused around medical access has been horrible.
“They can’t get their medication that they need for their medical condition,” Shaw said. “It’s devastating to have to be forced to jump through hoops like this.”
Shaw said flower vaporizers don’t work as well for him as oil vapes do, and he hoped regulators would work to keep vitamin E acetate out of licensed products so they could safely be sold in dispensaries.
“This problem is from the unregulated market,” Shaw said of the vitamin E additives.
It was not immediately clear where and how medical marijuana patients might now purchase flower vapes, battery-powered devices that directly heat ground-up marijuana flower — industry jargon for the plant’s familiar buds — in a small oven without combusting it. Flower vapes have not been publicly linked to any of the cases of vaping-relating lung illness, and are sold without any marijuana included. Before the ban, they were widely available in vape stores and head shops, and less commonly at licensed marijuana shops and dispensaries.
Under Wilkins’ ruling — and because Collins did not quarantine such products — the ban on purchases of flower vapes by medical marijuana patients expires today at noon. But the commission only has jurisdiction over licensed businesses, and other retailers that once sold the devices are not trained to check for medical marijuana patient cards issued by the state.
To obtain a medical marijuana card, patients must be certified by a physician that has registered with the state to issue medical cannabis recommendations. The recommendation can then be presented to a licensed dispensary. Unlike recreational marijuana consumers, medical marijuana patients pay no tax on cannabis products and can purchase larger quantities of more potent formulations.
Dan Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86. Naomi Martin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NaomiMartin.