The Pennsylvania Department of Health says legal and regulated medical marijuana products available to certified patients enrolled in the state’s program are “safe and effective.”
The statement comes as health professionals — including those from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration — seek the cause of a nationwide lung illness outbreak linked to electronic cigarettes and vaping products.
Seven people have died of complications from a lung illness, the latest confirmed Sept. 16 by a public health agency in California, and 530 cases either confirmed or considered probable vaping illness cases across 38 states and one U.S. territory, according to a CDC update Sept. 19.
Most of the cases, though not all, involve patients who reported using illegal, black-market products containing THC, a main compound of marijuana that causes users to feel “high.”
“It is important to note that our medical marijuana program products are closely regulated through a tracking system and also through the inspection of products at approved laboratories,” Nate Wardle, press secretary, Department of Health, said. “These products are safe and effective for those who are part of the medical marijuana program.”
A common chemical link hasn’t been found for the lung injuries across all cases. Some involve patients who reported using only nicotine or a combination of nicotine and THC or CBD, another common compound of marijuana.
Pennsylvania has 17 suspected cases and nearly 30 additional cases that are being investigated, according to Wardle. Patients in each case suffered “serious lung injuries and have been hospitalized,” the Health Department said in a press release.
Most of the lung injury cases are male, and the average age is mid-20s, the release said. No cases have been associated with medical marijuana bought at a Pennsylvania dispensary.
“Our investigation is ongoing, however, the initial findings indicate that the reported THC product used by patients has not been linked to legally obtained THC. This is in line with what other states have found and CDC’s recommendation to not buy e-cigarette products off the street,” Wardle said.
Dr. Brooke Worster of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, is a certified physician for the state’s program. She specializes in cancer pain management and said she has certified more than 500 patients for medical marijuana use.
Worster called the outbreak “definitely concerning” and said more information is needed.
“It concerned me clinically about the safety and I hope more data comes out soon,” Worster said.
Dr. Jaya Sugunaraj, Geisinger pulmonologist, said too much is unknown about the chemicals included in vape products, the chemical reaction caused when the materials are heated with the reaction of metals used inside vape pens and other devices.
He drew parallels between the rise in popularity and marketing of vaping and smoking tobacco.
“When you apply heat and have vapor, those metals can disintegrate and be inhaled into your lung,” Sugunaraj said. “We need more data and more regulation.”
Sugunaraj said that “as a lung doctor, I would discourage my patients to use the inhaled form” of medical marijuana, adding he’s not a proponent of any form of medical marijuana.