At the end of September, about 24 hours after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf came out in support of legalizing recreational cannabis, he talked to a journalist on the street about the so-called vaping epidemic. This conversation followed a summer in which embattled vape giant JUUL faced criticism and legal exposure for allegedly targeting teenagers (a claim it has long rejected), and fell smack dab in the midst of a spike in vaping-related illnesses being reported around the country.
“The real problem with vaping is the illicit substances that are being introduced into the vaping,” Wolf said that day. “Again, bring it out in the open. Let’s deal with it.”
He appears to have been correct. In early November, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said that it had found a “very strong culprit” for the vaping-linked illnesses: vitamin E acetate, a compound sometimes used as a thickening agent in THC cartridges sold on the black market.
Now Wolf’s administration is more explicitly tying their push for legal weed to the need to respond to the ongoing vape crisis. It’s a unique strategy given that many states and localities, like San Francisco, have adopted bans on vaping products—decisions that public-health experts and others have warned could push more and more people to a black market and dangerous substances sold there.
Last week, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, tweeted an article about busts of illegal weed vapes, noting that the debate among local lawmakers was somehow a “toss up” between legalizing cannabis—which he said “brings regulatory control, controlled distribution, testing/purity standards, tax revenue, and ends racially biased enforcement”—and continuing to allow a “dude [to make] bootleg vape kits in his garage.”
Fetterman isn’t your typical politician. A populist progressive, he tends to make news both for his immense dedication to public service and his nontraditional appearance—he is almost seven feet tall and has tattoos of both the zip code and the dates of murders in the city where he was mayor. He has long been a proponent for legalization, but apparently helped change Wolf’s mind after traveling to all of Pennsylvania’s counties in just shy of 100 days. He said he found that a majority of residents who attended his listening tour—at least 68 percent—were in favor of legalization. (Wolf had previously stated that he first wanted to learn more from other states before embracing the new policy.)
Pennsylvania’s harm-reduction bent isn’t limited to weed. Safehouse, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia, was recently granted tentative permission to open up the country’s first legal safe-injection site in the city, following a lengthy court battle.
But Wolf and Fetterman are ultimately outliers: Pennsylvania seems to be the only state in the nation using the vape crisis as a reason to potentially legalize weed, advocates said, even though the Republican-dominated legislature isn’t too keen on the idea in general and the bill itself remains in limbo.
There are, really, no other examples of this strategy. To be sure, in October, Wolf joined the Democratic governors of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut at a weed summit—a sort of unified front—to discuss the specifics of legalizing recreational cannabis. But no other administration has yet taken such a nuanced approach, especially on the East Coast. (Colorado, as VICE previously reported, has reacted carefully to the vaping issue, moving to impose targeted bans on certain chemicals in THC carts, though it has, of course, already legalized recreational use of the drug.)
“It makes sense for states to legalize cannabis and strictly regulate it,” said Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University and a tobacco industry expert. “In particular, states should be requiring testing of all cannabis vaping liquids for vitamin E acetate oil, pesticides, and other contaminants. But this also holds true for e-cigarettes. States should not be banning e-cigarettes, but instead implementing strict safety regulations. I think this is the primary lesson from the outbreak.”
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However, several other states throughout the country, and those close to Pennsylvania, have not done so. They have had what critics of the war on drugs have labeled as knee-jerk responses to the problem: New Jersey, for instance, is pushing ahead to ban flavored vaping products, and the New York City Council just voted to ban those same products, too, as the state’s similarly proposed measure remains stalled in court. (As do those of other states, like Michigan.) Meanwhile, Massachusetts, a state with a relatively new recreational pot market, has taken arguably the strictest and most prohibition-like stance in the entire U.S.—with a ban on all nicotine and cannabis vaping products, according to the Boston Globe, that has forced residents to shop in nearby New Hampshire and Maine.
According to prominent activists and business owners in the vape industry, Pennsylvania isn’t necessarily a paradise, as it has imposed a heavy tax on e-cigarettes. Still, its ongoing, reform-minded action has left some advocates excited, or at least hopeful, that it could set a different kind of precedent.
“It’s remarkable,” said Gregory Conley, the president of the American Vaping Association, “that more Democratic governors have not used this spate of lung illnesses and deaths caused by illicit THC products to argue for a regulated and legal recreational marijuana market.”
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