Call it a tale of two vapes: a lung illness related to liquid vaporizer devices, believed to have killed six people in the U.S. and sickened hundreds more, is raising concern among firms that manufacture and sell dry herb cannabis vaporizers, which have not been implicated in the outbreak.
The slim, portable gadgets involved in the ongoing public health crisis are called e-cigarettes by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, but are known more commonly as vape pens, or simply vapes.
They deliver potent hits of vapour by heating up concentrated liquid forms of cannabis or nicotine, which may also include chemical-thickening agents. One such thickener, Vitamin E acetate, is suspected as one possible cause of the vaping-related illness, and has been found in some black-market vaping products in New York state.
Dry herb vaporizers work differently: they heat up cannabis bud in its plant form, turning THC and other plant-derived chemical compounds into inhalable vapour without setting the bud on fire. The cannabis accessories come in both portable and table-top designs, and are widely available across Canada.
Nima Noori, chief executive officer of Toronto-based vaporizer retailer, wholesaler and manufacturer TVape, believes the general public has trouble differentiating between the devices.
"I think the most important way to distinguish between these two different types of technology is the raw material that you put in it," he said. "(Cannabis oil) vapes work with chemically-processed derivatives. So in one, you're having tomatoes; in the other, you're having ketchup."
Despite the growing health concerns related to inhaling processed liquid forms of cannabis, cannabis oil vape pens have a convenience advantage over dry herb vaporizers, which require users to physically interact with cannabis bud by grinding it and packing it into a heating chamber. (They also require occasional cleaning.)
In contrast, cannabis oil vape pens tend to use pre-loaded, replaceable cartridges that attach to a reusable battery unit. Some vape pens are entirely disposable.
"When the consumer looks at these (cannabis oil) concentrate pens, the No. 1 reason that they go for them is convenience," said Noori, who compared vape pens to Keurig single-serve coffee makers.
Shauntel Ludwig, vice-president of operations with Las Vegas-based, dry herb vaporizer maker DaVinci Vaporizer, said: "There's a huge misconception that all vaporizers are created equal, and that they all work the same."
"In a way, I'm thankful that this (crisis) might actually push additional regulations," said Ludwig.
"But on the other side of things, because we are actually lumped into this vaporizer category, of course, I'm worried about additional regulation that's going to happen with that, that's going to affect how our products are displayed and how they're purchased, how peoples' perception of them is. And so we're really just trying to figure out how to get in front of it."
Lisa Harun, co-founder of Canadian dry herb vaporizer maker Vapium, said her customer service representatives have recently taken phone calls from customers asking whether the devices are safe to use.
She said she's not worried about the impact of the U.S. vaping-related illness outbreak on her company specifically, but does have concerns about how it could affect public perceptions of vaping in general.
"(We) don't want people to stop vaping," said Harun, who described dry herb vaporizers like Vapium's as "an investment in your lungs."
"I hate the fact that there are things on the market that are hurting people. This hurts the market overall."
Still, Harun doesn't believe vaporizable cannabis oils are inherently unsafe. Unlike in the U.S., she pointed out, legal versions of cannabis oil vape pens will be strictly regulated by the federal government when they hit Canadian store shelves at the end of 2019.
"It's a matter of the consumer understanding that, at least in Canada, Health Canada is putting together the regulations to protect the end consumer. And good manufacturing practices are the foundation of what we need for the longevity and the acceptance, understanding and further adoption of cannabis into peoples' lives."