Surprise! Ex-FDA head wants FDA to regulate pot

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Scott Gottlieb wants you to know that marijuana legalization is behind the recent spike in the number of cases of lung damage and deaths linked to vaping — that and the federal government’s decision not to challenge state laws legalizing marijuana.

He thinks it’s too late for the feds to turn back the legalization movement — 33 states have legalized either medical or recreational marijuana or both — but it is still possible for the federal government to assert its supremacy over the states and strictly regulate the emerging marijuana industry.

“Even if we were to federalize it (control over marijuana) and allow some form of recreational use, we could limit what can be sold, the potency of what could be sold, the forms in which it can be sold,” he told CNBC News, adding that he didn’t think that THC vape products should be allowed.

Gottlieb isn’t your standard-issue drug war dead-ender. Until a few weeks ago he was head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

He aired his views on marijuana legalization and vaping in an Oct. 10 Wall Street Journal op-ed and in a subsequent CNBC interview.

As a result of state-level marijuana legalization and the federal decision not to challenge it, Gottlieb wrote in the Journal, “a large pot industry has bloomed in recent years, and a dangerous market in cannabis concentrates, such as the ones responsible for the vaping deaths, has proliferated.”

Gottlieb wrote that health officials in Wisconsin and Illinois found that 87% of those injured by vaping “had vaped tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive in marijuana, from prefilled cartridges purchased from ‘informal sources’ during the three months before they developed symptoms. A majority of the victims said they used THC every day.”

 But in the next paragraph he repeats the finding that “dodgy suppliers” are known to add ingredients to thicken the THC concentrates in vape pods, and that “these emulsifiers, including vitamin E acetate, can be deadly if inhaled into the lungs.”

“The liquids can also contain pesticides and other contaminants that, when heated, produce gases that can directly injure the lungs,” he added.

What should we make of this?

The fact that millions of people smoke marijuana every day without getting the sort of lung damage that was showing up in vapers, strongly suggests that THC isn’t the problem. If it was, the “vapers’ syndrome” would have appeared in the ’60s when marijuana use took off. The fact that most cases also involved cartridges obtained from “informal sources” suggests that the vaping epidemic is the result of tainted counterfeit vape cartridges and pens, not the result of legally produced and sold vape products.

In other words, the epidemic isn’t much different from deaths caused by illegally produced rot-gut booze sold during prohibition. (Such booze frequently contained methanol, aka wood alcohol, which is poisonous in all concentrations instead of ethanol, aka grain alcohol, which is the active ingredient in all alcoholic beverages.)

Illegally produced alcohol and bootlegging were the product of prohibition, not the result of its repeal.

It is the same with vaping. One of the big attractions of cannabis vaping is that, compared to smoking, vaping is more discreet. That makes it attractive in places where marijuana and smoking are still verboten — like the 39 states where recreational pot is still illegal, and high schools everywhere. And with that many no-pot zones, it’s not surprising that an illegal market (and vape bootleggers who sometimes sell tainted products) functions alongside the legal one. It will die out when legal marijuana and marijuana products are ubiquitous. In blaming vaping sickness on marijuana legalization, Gottlieb is trying to turn cause and effect inside out.

Interestingly, Gottlieb thinks marijuana should be removed from the Controlled Substances Act and strictly regulated by federal agencies — like the FDA (natch).

Federal agencies, he told CNBC, could put “tighter controls on the medical claims, holding them to a higher standard and allowing some form of recreational use, probably for products that are lower concentration that are only delivered in forms that posses less harm than vaping e-liquids.”

Ah yes, turn marijuana regulation over to the adults at the FDA, who will bring order to the “wild West” (Gottlieb’s term) of state-level regulation.

It sounds pretty plausible, until you realize that the adults at the FDA are the folks who approved every opiod from Emperin 3 to fentanyl. When it comes to pot, maybe they ought to try benign neglect.