Do you remember America’s Vaping Crisis - as it was coined at the time by American media? A lot has happened since 2019. The FDA officially ruled in June that JUUL products could no longer be marketed in the United States. This ruling impacts JUUL devices as well as four types of vaping pods, though the ban does not apply to consumer possession or use. While the main focus of this ruling has been on JUUL, and the reasons for the ruling are related to JUUL’s particular effect on youth, the impact is likely to be felt in cannabis spaces as well. In fact, this ruling may provide great insight into whether cannabis vaping will survive in the future as a major consumer market.
Vaping used to be very popular in cannabis spaces and elsewhere. For nicotine, vaping was outpacing cigarettes in popularity and it had seemed vaping might eventually do the same for cannabis. All of that changed when the “vaping crisis” took hold of public attention in 2019 and 2020. The vaping crisis was what the media called the period when a large number of people ended up in hospitals, and even died, after having used vaping products to smoke cannabis and non-cannabis products. To many in the government, it seemed that vaping would need further regulation or, as some government officials believed, to be stopped entirely.
These problems garnered a lot of negative media attention. The negative attention led to less interest in vaping, likely because consumers had no interest in the perceived risk of death. Whoever said all press is good press certainly wasn’t referring to marketing products that are used to inhale substances into consumers’ lungs. Before the pandemic wrestled away all of the attention on vaping, many wondered if vaping would ever recover from the vaping crisis. Now that question is still unanswered, and the uncertain future of vaping in the cannabis industry is slowly being formed by government regulatory giants once more.
Knowing the history of vaping cannabis prior to the pandemic and the vaping crisis can be useful to understanding whether vaping in the cannabis industry is a viable branding option going forward. This article will set up a timeline showing how consumers, the media, and the government felt about vaping products during each of those periods. Perhaps with some of that knowledge we will be able to deduce whether the cannabis vaping industry will rebound as a major consumer market.
Where the Cannabis Vaping Industry Was Before the Pandemic
The modern e-cigarette that JUUL was modeled after was invented in 2003 by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik, but that device was specifically meant for nicotine, not cannabis. But did you know that the history of cannabis vaping devices goes back much further than the history of the e-cigarette?
Cannabis vaping devices date back to the early 20th century, when Joseph Robinson patented the mechanical butane ignition vaporizer to be used for “medicinal compounds.” In that time, cannabis was widely used as a patent medicine, so this vaporizer would have been used for cannabis among other things. This patent for the early vaping device, published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 1927, was the earliest documented form of the vaporizer in the United States. Of course, these vaping devices were not to be legally used for cannabis vaping shortly thereafter because cannabis was then criminalized in 1937.
More recently, vaping cannabis became popular as part of the legal cannabis market in the 21st century. There were many reports, both scientific and in the media, about the phenomenon because many were unsure of the effects of vaping despite its rising popularity. Some touted “cannavaping” as a therapeutic alternative to normal methods of smoking cannabis, or raved about how vaping cannabis produced stronger effects than other methods. Others pointed nervously at how many people were vaping despite knowing so little about the possible consequences, and how many teens were illegally consuming cannabis through vaping. Though there were many contrasting views of the phenomenon, one thing was clear: vaping was rising in popularity amongst cannabis consumers. Some in the legal cannabis industry even said that vaping products accounted for 30 percent or more of their business by 2019.
Suddenly, the media exploded with reports of an outbreak of lung injuries across the United States, associated with the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products. The “vaping crisis” that started in 2019 was reported on constantly, and was at the forefront of the minds of policy makers. You may remember that this crisis was everywhere, though it may feel like a lifetime ago thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic which soon diverted all of the world’s attention away from the vaping crisis.
Most journalists at the time had never trusted cannabis vaping, and they did not hold back their criticisms in this era. The New York Times reported on the always apparent warning signs as “vaping cannabis grew in the shadows” in their article Marijuana and Vaping: Shadowy Past, Dangerous Present. Some journalists insinuated that vaping cannabis would always lead to this result eventually, it was only a matter of time (for example: link, link, link). This was the media’s opportunity to capitalize on the mistrust of vaping, and also cannabis products as a whole.
However, the truth wasn’t that a vaping consumer would immediately perish; this wasn’t D.A.R.E. finally being proven right. The CDC reported that vaping products containing THC, particularly those obtained from informal and “black market” sources, were linked to most of the cases and played a major role in the outbreak. This receipt of product from informal sources as well as a potential toxin, Vitamin E acetate, seemed to be causing the outbreak. Unsurprisingly, it was not the shadowy past of vaping finally coming to light and providing evidence that vaping cannabis was killing people. Instead, it was receiving cannabis from unregulated sources, and the use of products not meant for inhalation in vapes, that appeared to be causing this vaping crisis. But it was too late to spread this information as the fear of vaping products had already taken hold of consumers.
Although vaping products had been one of the quickest growing segments of the legal cannabis industry, the hospitalizations, deaths, and media reporting destroyed sales. The vaping crisis led to sales of cannabis vape products dropping as much as 60% in some states. Nationwide, the legal cannabis industry lost 15% in revenue from the drop in sales of cannabis vaping products.
Before the pandemic, there were government hearings, lawsuits, and studies taking place to determine whether vaping was safe for consumers. It was unclear whether vaping would ever rebound from these events. All of this fear and movement in the industry never really reached its conclusion, however. Once the pandemic happened, everything was put on pause until recently. Now the FDA has banned JUUL for targeting children with their products and advertising, and the regulatory giant could turn its attention towards other vaping devices next.
So the questions remain: After three years of silence following the vaping crisis, has the cannabis vaping industry shown signs of a rebound? And, even if the cannabis vaping industry is rebounding, what will be the FDA’s response?
Is There a Future for Selling Cannabis Vaping Products?
First, cannabis vaping did rebound. Cannabis vaping rebounded in some key markets almost immediately, even. By October 2019, still in the midst of the vaping crisis, vape sales stabilized in most major recreational cannabis markets. The problem at that time was that more bans and sales restrictions were possibly going to go into effect with all of the negative attention on cannabis vaping. However, after three years of minimal action against cannabis vaping, there was no uptick in hospitalizations or deaths. It seems that the problem of vaping unregulated cannabis or products not intended for vaping was recognized and addressed, leading to fewer issues without a total ban on cannabis vaping.
In 2020 and 2021, vapor pens were the second largest category of sales in the cannabis industry by revenue, behind only flower. Vape pens netted nearly 2.6 billion in retail sales in 2021 across six states (California, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington) and vaping is still growing in popularity year over year. It is clear that vaping is still a lucrative market despite its lows, and it doesn’t look like that is going to change considering the demographics of cannabis vaping consumers.
Vape products are extremely popular with U.S. consumers younger than 35, with half of all cannabis vape consumers being under that age. For context, only 40% of U.S. cannabis consumers are younger than 35. The older demographics likely have a nostalgic love of, and are more familiar with, other forms of cannabis consumption - and are more likely to stay away from vaping for those reasons. However, as the current younger demographic ages, they are likely to continue to have an interest in vaping because of their familiarity, and the next generation of consumers are likely to still have an interest in vaping products. So, while vaping is popular now, vaping will likely continue to rise in popularity as cannabis consumers age and those demographics more interested in sleek, technological designs become the majority of consumers.
Second, the FDA could turn their attention to cannabis vaping products, and they might do so soon. In June 2022, the FDA banned all JUUL products leaving many to wonder where that leaves cannabis vaping. As you’ve seen throughout this article, cannabis is already in a slightly precarious position because of its history. It’s also federally illegal though it is legal in an increasingly-large number of states. This discrepancy of federal illegality and state legality may be what protects the cannabis industry for now.
Since cannabis is federally illegal, the FDA probably won’t try to add more confusion to the state patchwork of cannabis consumption regulations, including cannabis vape products. However, if cannabis becomes federally legal in the future, the new rules against JUUL could be an insight into how the regulation of cannabis vaping would occur. If nicotine vaping products are not allowed, then cannabis vaping products probably will be disallowed as well. But right now, cannabis vaping is a growing, profitable industry that operators may want to consider. However, any cannabis operator should keep an eye on the FDA’s position on vaping products.