Marijuana and Nicotine Are Trading Places as Prohibitionists’ Target

    I don’t much like Los Angeles. The obnoxious car culture, the clogged freeways, the lame public transportation system, expensive smoothie shops on every block, overrated “hot” chicken restaurants with lines around the corner, and Hollywood. But there is one thing about LA that I like a lot: legal marijuana. So when my cousin asked me to buy him some cannabis vaping cartridges during my trip there in October, I was happy to oblige.

    Tim* lives in Massachusetts. He has been legally using cannabis to manage depression for two years, and it’s helped him enormously. He asked for three 500mg THC cartridges. In LA it seems there’s a cannabis store on every corner. I like that. There was one three doors down from my scrappy Super 8 hotel in North Hollywood.

    But why would I be buying THC cartridges for Tim in California when Massachusetts has long since legalized?

    Because on September 24, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker used the pretext of a public health emergency to impose a four-month ban on all vaping productscannabis and nicotine.** Baker declared that it was in response to the outbreak of lung injuries and deaths from vaping. But vaping what?

    Over 84 percent of those impacted reported vaping adulterated THC cartridges bought on the illicit market. And that’s just the ones who were willing to report their illicit use. No e-cigarettes, which are regulated by the FDA, or legal cannabis products, purchased at dispensaries subject to quality control measures, have been convincingly linked to the outbreak.

    But Gov. Baker capitulated to the drug panic. His decision has removed access for thousands of medical marijuana patients like my relative and thousands of nicotine vapers.

    So I was on a mission to get three THC cartridges for Tim. Outside the store, black bars covered mirrored glass windows. I walked into a dark, small, empty waiting area with no chairs. A Dutch door swung open and a man asked to see identification. Then I was buzzed into the sales room and the familiar sweet smell hit my nostrils. Mini cannabis clouds dotted the air. Three young men stood behind glass cabinets that displayed bottles of bud and dozens of vaping devices.

    A security guard hovered, packing a very visible gun. The gun scared me but I knew why he carried it. Cannabis sales are still federally illegal, so most businesses can’t find financial institutions that will issue them lines of credit. And banks that handle marijuana money can be charged with money laundering. A current federal bill may change that. But for now, it’s cash-only, and dispensaries with thousands of dollars on the premises are potential targets for robbery.

    Political pressureswhich until recently would have required these agencies to whip up another round of “Reefer Madness”—now demand that they demonize nicotine vapes instead.

    Sam,* a burly guy behind the counter with a black skull cap perched on his head, expertly explained various products. We then discussed the outbreak of vaping lung injuries and deaths.

    Like many others I’ve heard, Sam insisted the cause was adulterated nicotine vapes. He repeated almost every media-learned lie about nicotine, flavors and vaping. For good measure, he argued, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that everyone should stop vaping nicotine. I tried to disabuse him of these notions as he sold me three Durban Poison THC cartridges and I handed him $70 in cash.

    The truth is, the profit-driven, heavily-taxed and over-regulated nature of Sam’s industry was at the root of vaping-related lung injuries. Despite legalization in California, almost 74 percent of cannabis purchased there is bought illegally. Hundreds of thousands of recreational and medical cannabis users find that legal products are just too expensive. Companies and governments that see legal weed as a license to print money create a de facto prohibition for poorer consumers, driving them to illicit markets. And we know that some products bought from bootleg dealers contain dangerous additives.

    The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) knew that people were being sickened by bootleg THC cartridges long before they were prepared to grudgingly admit it. What’s remarkable is that political pressureswhich until recently would have required these agencies to whip up another round of “Reefer Madness” in response to the outbreak—now demand that they demonize nicotine vapes instead.

     

    Drug Warriors’ New Obsession

    Not long ago, the feds would have jumped on the THC involvement in lung injuries and deaths to “prove” that legalizing cannabis was a dangerous experiment gone horribly wrong. They would have called for bans or restrictions on cannabis products and for more policing. They would have said, with smug certainty, We told you so.

    But as far as public discourse goes—and we must remember that many thousands of people, primarily people of color, are still arrested and incarcerated for cannabis—marijuana is no longer the target of choice.

    When cannabis has been legalized for recreational use in 11 states and nine more could legalize in 2020, when medical marijuana is available in 33 states, when two-thirds of Americans now support legalization, Reefer Madness becomes an anachronistic, tough sell.

    The preferred option now is Vaping Madness, and another front in the war on e-cigarettes. Anti-vaping groups quickly used the massive CDC-fueled confusion and panic around the disease outbreak to ram through more bans on flavors and e-cigarettes.

    So the normalization of marijuana, coupled with the youth nicotine vaping panic sweeping across the country, has resulted in a strange phenomenon. These two wildly popular plant-derived drugs are trading places. The war on marijuana users is (far too slowly) winding down; the war on nicotine vapers is ramping up.

    While cannabis becomes ever more widely available, it’s use accepted and even celebrated, the opposite is the case with nicotine. State and city legislators are voting to ban e-cigarettes as fast as they can. Last week, New York City banned all flavored e-cigarettes. Relentlessly demonized, the nascent vaping industry is in danger of being put out of business or driven underground.

    Those who oppose vaping are taking pages straight from the Reefer Madness playbook. The most obvious is the kids and their developing brains. Leading anti-vaping funder Michael Bloomberg said on national TV, based on no evidence whatsoever, “Just think if your kid was doing this [vaping] and ends up with an IQ 10 or 15 points lower than he or she would have had for the rest of her life.” 

    Now 63 percent of adults in the US disagree with the statement that “vaping is healthier than traditional cigarettes.”

    Media duly supply fear-mongering headlines like, “’I Can’t Stop’: Schools Struggle With Vaping Explosion” and “Addicted to Vaped Nicotine, Teenagers Have No Clear Path to Quitting.” Stacks of junk science invent phony vape-related conditions like “popcorn lung.” Wait, which century are we in?

    Where public messaging goes, stigma follows. Now, according to an online poll, 63 percent of adults in the US disagree with the statement that “vaping is healthier than traditional cigarettes.” That number has increased by 16 points from a similar poll conducted in 2016.

    Here’s my example of how this plays out. I was recently in a vape shop in New York City, waiting for my friend to arrive. She’s a smoker and wanted to stop, and I was going to buy her an e-cigarette. As she was walking through the door, I heard a voice shouting at her not to, because vaping was “dangerous.”

    Angered, I went outside to confront this person. I was stunned to find that it was a small boy, probably around nine years old. I tried to explain to him that vaping was 95 percent safer than smoking. He replied, “You are delusional. Vaping is more dangerous than smoking cigarettes.” 

     

    Patterns From Prohibition History

    The Great American Drug Panic around marijuana in the last century has much to teach us. 

    The campaign to demonize marijuana centered on the safety of “the children.” The so-called Parent Movement–led by Parents Against Pot– was critical in the fight against marijuana decriminalization in the 1970s. Now, we have Parents Against Vaping E-cigarettes (PAVe). These parent groups are modern, secular versions of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

    Not that long ago, media published lurid headlines like “Deadly Marijuana Dope Plant Ready For Harvest: That Means Enslavement of California Children” and “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth.”

    Reams of junk science was funded and published by leading, US-government research institutions that claimed marijuana caused permanent brain changes, violence, schizophrenia, cancer, lung and heart disease and was a gateway to “harder” drugs. Most Americans took years to recognize those claims as lies.

    Last century’s marijuana messaging has to be one of the biggest scientific frauds ever perpetrated on the American public. People who used it were portrayed as “stoners,” deviants and criminals. But marijuana prohibition birthed a robust and innovative illicit marketmost notably in California. The Emerald Triangle in Northern California is still the largest cannabis-producing region in the United States.

    These days, cannabis products use vivid descriptors to give users a sense of what they will smell, taste and experience with a particular strain. My adult cousin Tim’s preferences include Jack Herer and Super Silver Haze, as well as the Durban Poison I bought him.

    Not so long ago, such branding would have sparked outcry. Think of the children! Now, that seems ridiculous when we know that legal cannabis stores are strictly age-controlled. Not one antivaping organization is trying to ban fruit- or chocolate-flavored THC/CBD products, or arguing that such products target youth.

    Contrast this with the anti-vaping groups who declare that nicotine flavors are deliberately designed to “lure children,” so the only solution is to “clear the market of all flavored e-cigarettes,” or more accurately, ban all flavors. To that end, Michael Bloomberg recently gave $160 million to an initiative called, “Protect Kids: Fight Flavored E-Cigarettes.”

    Former smokers often use flavored vapes because they want to leave the taste of tobacco behind. The vape company Juul, continually attacked for its “kid-friendly” flavors, used to sell mango, fruit, crème brûlée, mint, menthol and cucumber cartridges until public pressure forced it to stop. Such options appear tame compared to cannabis products that attract no media attention: Purple space cookies, Blueberry Yum Yum, Mint Milk Chocolate, Fruity Pebbles OG, Chocolate Diesel, Strawberry Cough and Grape God.

    Tobacco, of course, has had a profoundly different trajectory from marijuana in the public consciousness, for two big reasons. First, it has always been legal to smoke it. Second, smoking it genuinely kills and disables millions of people.

    The history of “Big Tobacco” is nefarious and well known. To get smokers to quit, public health agencies and tobacco control organizations succeeded in passing smoking bans. In addition, they created national, multimedia campaigns that stigmatized smokers. As a result, people who smoke are now scorned and even hated. That stigma is now being transferred to people who vape nicotine.   

    Why is this ok?

    Associating drugs with marginalized populations makes it easier to demonize the drugs—and more importantly, to exert control over, and wage war against, these groups.

    We need to understand the origins of the prohibition of marijuana and other drugs. Associating drugs with marginalized populations makes it easier to demonize the drugs—and more importantly, to exert control over, and wage war against, these groups. We saw it in the last century with marijuana (Mexicans), opium (Chinese immigrants) and cocaine (African Americans).

    Consider now the populations who continue to smoke at high rates. (Privileged Americans, with fewer stressors and traumas, overwhelmingly quit years ago.) It’s poor people, people of color, people who use illicit drugs, veterans, LGBTQ people, people with mental health diagnoses. In this context, the success of the nicotine demonization campaign starts to make sense.

    The continued hegemony of the deadly cigarette seemed assured… until the invention of the e-cigarette. This revolutionary delivery device allows smokers to get nicotine without risking their lives. Millions have used e-cigarettes to successfully stop smoking and it’s safer than combustible tobacco by orders of magnitude.

    Instead of promoting these proven harm reduction products that will keep people healthy and alive, a powerful and well-funded “public health” campaign has emerged that is hell-bent on severely restricting them.

    Demonizing, banning and criminalizing drugs—no matter how dangerous, no matter how beneficial—is always counterproductive and wrong. It has never been more wrong than when applied to nicotine in a form with the potential to save a billion lives.

    This is the new drug war of the 21st century. 

     


    *Names have been changed to protect privacy.

    **In November, Gov. Baker signed legislation to restrict the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping products. The new law limits the sale of flavored nicotine vaping products, including menthol, to licensed smoking bars where they may only be smoked on-site. The same restrictions apply to all other flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes and flavored chewing tobacco. 

    Photos of a vape store in New York City and cannabis products in Berkeley, California by Helen Redmond.

     

    • Helen Redmond

      Helen is the senior editor of Filter. She has written about nicotine, mental health and drug policy for publications including Al Jazeera, AlterNet, Harper’s and The Influence. As an LCSW, she works with drug users in medical and community mental health settings. An expert on tobacco harm reduction, she provides training and consultation on mental health, nicotine use and THR, and in 2016 organized the first Tobacco Harm Reduction Conference in the US. Helen is also a documentary filmmaker.

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