OLCC Director Steve Marks addresses reporters following the OLCC’s unanimous approval of temporary rules implementing a six-month ban on all flavored vaping products as directed by Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order. (Oregon Capital Bureau)

Oregon's Liquor Control Commission and the Oregon Health Authority on Friday, Oct. 11, rolled out a ban on all flavored cannabis and nicotine vaping products in response to a growing number of cases of acute respiratory illness and death linked to vaping.

OLCC members unanimously approved temporary rules proposed by the Health Authority after a Portland meeting. The board was responding to Gov. Kate Brown's Oct. 4 order placing a temporary ban on the products.

OLCC's ban takes effect Tuesday, Oct. 15. The ban is expected to affect approximately 4,000 retailers statewide.

“We’re dealing with a national epidemic with a growing number of cases,” said Jeff Rhodes, the governor’s senior policy adviser to OLCC. “The latest numbers are 1,299 cases and 26 deaths, two of which occurred in Oregon.”

In Oregon, an outbreak of nine cases of acute respiratory illness caused the Health Authority and Brown to issue warnings in late September for Oregonians to stop vaping. Brown asked the OHA to propose options up to and including a temporary ban which she issued last Friday, Oct. 4.

According to OLCC officials, the agency will be making calls to manufacturers and retailers across the state this weekend to inform them of these rules and distribute point-of-sale signage for retailers to display notifying consumers of the ban.

The ban does not include tobacco-flavored tobacco or nicotine products. It also doesn’t include marijuana-flavored marijuana and THC products on the market.

“It’s important to note that most of these cases reporting vaping of THC products, some of them using exclusively THC products, but also some using exclusively nicotine products,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state health officer. “In working with the CDC, we still don’t have a definitive cause of this injury, or what ingredient or ingredients are causing it.”

The OLCC and OHA plan to create a work group in the next six months that will examine more closely the source of these illnesses.

Violators of the ban could be fined up to $500 per day per violation, officials said. Cannabis retailers found in violation of these temporary rules could also be subject to losing their OLCC license.

An exemption process

While both nicotine-based and marijuana derived vaping products are covered under the temporary ban, OLCC board and staff spent nearly the entire Oct. 11 meeting discussing regulations around the manufacture and testing of marijuana and THC vape products.

OLCC Chairman Paul Rosenbaum said the board was not trying to curtail marijuana extract manufacturers and retailers from making a living, but rather the board is “extremely cognizant of the fact that our responsibility is the public health and safety of the people of this state,” he said.

OLCC Marijuana Technical Unit Manager TJ Sheehy said that 10 percent of all marijuana vape products would be affected by the ban. Sheehy said there is currently no evidence that these respiratory injuries linked to vaping were caused by products that had been tampered with or sold on the black market.

The OLCC will setup an exemption process by Nov. 15. After that, manufacturers could apply to have flavored products sourced from natural botanicals exempted from the ban. That means flavored vape cartridges that use natural terpenes from fruits such as lemons could be back on the market with OLCC approval once that process is setup in November. 

Members of the marijuana extract industry, such as John Thompson of Eugene’s Sublime Solutions LLC, said the ban would effectively wipe out most of their business. “I just lost 70 to 80% of my general revenue,” Thompson said. “What will be found out, I guarantee you, is that these flavors have nothing to do with this problem.”

Thompson said that last year his company had nearly $5 million in revenue, meaning he’ll lose about $3 million to $4 million under the ban. Thompson said he was relieved that OLCC at least listened to industry leaders pleading that botanically derived non-marijuana terpenes should be given special consideration and a path to exemptions. Terpenes are unsaturated hydrocarbons found in the essential oils of plants.

According to Sidelinger, the Oregon Health Authority’s initial recommendations included a full temporary ban on all vaping products. After discussions, officials found it was more important to remove products that were most attractive to “new or naïve users.”

“That’s why we’re stepping up our effort to ensure others who choose to use a non-flavored product have options to get off vaping,” he said.

Rules adopted Friday include provisions allowing OLCC and the health authority to clear barriers for Oregonians wanting to stop smoking or using tobacco with nicotine cessation methods such as nicotine gum, patches and other products. The agencies will also implement a statewide prevention and education campaign followed by legislative proposals aimed at finding long-term solutions to reduce the public’s health risk as a result of vaping.

Laying off staff

OLCC licensed cannabis retailers are expected to be busy this weekend trying to sell or offload products covered by the ban. Ben Allmand of Diem Cannabis Dispensaries said Friday that consumers of marijuana vape products can expect to see “fire sale” situations at stores across Oregon. “For the most part it’s already started. We’re getting reports from dispensers around us that have knocked (prices) way, way down,” Allmand said. 

For Allmand, his biggest concern is the potential employment impact throughout the state. “I think we’re going to see a massive influx of unemployment. There’s going to be a lot of companies that are going to have to lay off entire staff,” he said.

Thompson echoed that sentiment, saying he’s likely to have to lay off half of his staff because there will be no work while they wait for OLCC’s exemption process for products that use naturally derived non-marijuana terpenes.

“It’s going to a take a month to get that (exemption) process in place, then weeks or months for any given flavor to go through that process,” Thompson said. “We’re looking at six to seven months before I would be able to have that approved and ready for production. I may not have six or seven months in business because of what just happened.”

OLCC Director Steve Marks said the agency wasn’t focused on the impact the ban would have on cannabis industry employment. “This isn’t the first decision we’ve made for regulating a licensed industry that affects their profitability or their businesses,” Marks said. “This is a private, competitive market and we’re meeting our responsibilities in regulating that market to protect the public.”

Support for the ban

The Oregon Medical Association, Oregon Nurses Association and the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems said they approve of Brown's temporary ban. "We strongly support the Governor's proposed regulatory, legislative and educational actions to address the current health crisis around vaping, including an emergency ban on flavored vaping products," the groups said in a joint statement Friday. "We have known for some time that vaping products — particularly those that are flavored — threaten to increase the number of youth addicted to nicotine. Given the increasing vaping-related illnesses and deaths over the last several months, urgent action is critical."

The American Lung Association also supported the move, calling it a positive step, but said more must be done to prevent kids from starting to vape. "Youth are attracted to flavored e-cigarettes," Carrie Nyssen, senior director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Oregon said in a written statement. "And the Lung Association encourages federal and state governments to remove all flavored tobacco products including menthol cigarettes, e-cigarettes and flavored cigars from the marketplace to prevent a lifetime of addiction and tobacco-related death and disease."

Oregon law doesn't allow sales of e-cigarettes or vape pens to people younger than 21. But according to Brown's executive order, a growing share of Oregon teens are vaping. Thirteen percent of Oregon 11th graders used e-cigarette products in 2017; in 2019, that share leapt to 23%.

Contact Reporter Sam Stites - [email protected] or 971-255-2480.