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(Cherry Hill, NJ) — I just got back from Urgent Care Clinic because two weeks of coughing. hacking, and wheezing wasn’t resolving itself. I knew it was bad when I couldn’t talk on the phone without losing my breath unless I stood completely still.
While checking in, the lady asked what’s wrong and I said I was having trouble breathing.
So I let out a loud, demonstrable wheeze and she was like “oh my” and I was like “I KNOW!!!!”
Tuns out, I had bronchitis so they sent me home with antibiotics, steroids, and a fancy inhaler. Chest X-rays blessedly showed no signs of pneumonia, an ailment that’s particularly troublesome for people with HIV like myself.
I was relieved for a quick diagnosis and treatment but still slightly worried. I don’t smoke cigarettes and I’ve long since outgrown the asthma which haunted my childhood.
So what exactly made me sick?
To Vape (Or Not to Vape)
While waiting for ‘scripts at Walgreens, a NYTimes headline popped into my alerts: What You Need to Know About Vaping-Related Lung Illness.
This story isn’t new, but my bronchitis made the news much more salient.
“Coughing, fatigue and shortness of breath are warning signs for anyone who has vaped within the last 90 days,” the article said, a huge red flag for anyone. Especially someone who vapes a lot.
Like I do.
I contracted HIV at 19 and I’ve used medical cannabis , mostly as a criminal, the whole time. I also smoke recreationally. I’m 47 years old, don’t smoke cigarettes, rarely drink alcohol, and I’ve never gambled in my life. I don’t even drink coffee. But I like to smoke pot and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I started vaping because I thought it was healthier. I wanted to believe it was healthier. I’ll reflect on how much my own wishful thinking played into my choice to vape more and smoke less, but that’s another column for another day.
Medical Marijuana in NJ
When Phil Murphy became NJ governor in January of 2018, he inherited from Chris Christie the costliest, most mean-spirited medical cannabis program in America. Like many registered patients, I get my medical cannabis from the black market. Those dispensary prices certainly were a factor. But the Christie-era rule that sick people most justify their qualifying condition every 60 day is what really put me off. In more extreme cases, you had hospice patients jumping through hoops to prove there’re still actually dying.
I resented proving every 2 months that I haven’t been magically cured of a HIV. It was insulting and inconvenient and expensive.
And so I found another source on the black market.
Recently, Gov Murphy’s Department of Health relaxed the law to allow one year certifications, bringing NJ in line other states. But not all doctors jumped on board. My doctor, Marshall Lauer in Collingswood, decided to stick with the old rules. All those extra visits suited his bottom line so why would he change?
“I have a primary care doctor already, 6 visits a years is overkill, and I think deep down you know it” I begged but the answer was no.
And so I fired him.
“I’m never buying anything from an overpriced Jersey dispensary ever again,” I resolved to myself. I was mad but mostly I was hurt. I’ve worked my entire adult life to reform NJ’s crappy marijuana laws and I’m out in the cold while dispensaries get rich selling mediocre weed to sick people for $500/oz.
It’s a crappy feeling so please forgive me for wanting to take my ball and never come back.
Contaminated Vape Cartridges
It’s easily possibly to know the source of your black market cannabis flowers (aka buds.). In my case, I’ve known these plants since they were little baby seedling. And I’ll probably stick with black market buds at least until those dispensaries can match my nice hippie lady on price and on quality.
I don’t know for sure if my black market vape made me sick. But I’ll never buy an out-of-regulation vape cartridge ever again.
And I’ll avoid dispensary vapes until this gets sorted.
The NJ Department of Health’s has information on their website that’s mostly about e-cigarettes but included this encouraging caveat:
“Today, there have been no cases of vaping related lung issues that have been associated with product sold in New Jersey medical marijuana dispensaries. People should not buy products office streets or add substance is not intended by the manufacturer.”
Deputy Health Commissioner Jeff Brown has oversight of NJ’s medical marijuana program.
“The cause is still unknown so the US Centers For Disease Control is recommending people avoid all vape products until the cause is determined,” Commissioner Brown told InsiderNJ.
One suspected contaminate is Vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent common in skin care products but less benign when vaped.
“The (NY) state Department of Health said in a news release that ‘very high levels’ of the compound had been found in 13 samples from eight of 34 patients who have gotten ill in New York. The samples were analyzed as part of an investigation by the Wadsworth Center, a state laboratory.”
The doctors quoted stressed that Vitamin E acetate is only one piece of the puzzle.
That’s why I’ll stick with flowers.
Go ahead and call me old school but I won’t buy vape products of any kind in or out of regulation until there’s a little more proof that 1) that vaping isn’t making me sick and 2) that it’s actually safer than smoking the old fashioned way.
Phil Murphy’ Department of Health is creating an environment where black market consumers can come back into the fold. The regulations are infinitely more sensible now than under his predecessor. In the wake of my illness I found a doctor willing to certify me for a whole year.
But as long as medical cannabis is so expensive in NJ, the black market will always beckon.
NJ medical cannabis dispensaries are still selling vape cartridges as this goes to press. There’s no information or warning about the growing vaping scandal on any of their homepages.
Maybe they’re too busy counting their money?
When the Feds raided American’s first medical dispensaries back in the 90s, Jay Lassiter was there, fighting back and giving good press. What were *you* doing to reform America’s drug laws 21 years ago?