I knew I had to call the University of Washington after the man in Oregon died. The August death was part of a nationwide epidemic of people falling ill, and even dying, after using cannabis vaporizers and electronic cigarettes. Most of the cases appear to be connected to black-market pot vape cartridges, but this Oregon case was different. The state's health department said the man had purchased pot vape products from a regulated dispensary, meaning he may have gotten sick from the same type of vape products that are on sale in Washington's legal pot shops.
Are legal weed vape pens dangerous? Surely the University of Washington, the state's largest research institution, would have some answers. So I asked: Had anyone tested what happens when humans use the pot vaporizers available on Washington's shelves?
The university had a simple answer: No.
UW has not done any research on the health effects of vaporizing cannabis oil, according to the school's media affairs office. My request did turn up a few helpful and friendly toxicologists. They said they were gathering as much information about the vape health scare as they could, speaking with researchers across the country, and were able to provide some case reports and studies.
But UW's intentional policy is to not study the pot Washingtonians buy every day.
UW's administration has made it clear since 2014 that any researcher who wants to work with cannabis must first get approval from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Because the DEA legally defines cannabis as the most dangerous type of drug on earth, getting federal approval, according to Victor Balta, a UW spokesperson, "is complicated and expensive... That is why only a very few UW faculty apply for Schedule I licenses."
UW does have one researcher with a DEA license. But even when you get the federal government's approval, you can acquire cannabis only from the DEA, which means the legal pot on Washington's shelves is still off-limits.
Why doesn't UW let its researchers follow state law and work with our legal products? The administration says, according to a 2014 memo written by Mary Lidstrom, the vice provost of research, that if the university violates federal law, it will lose all of its federal funding. The university receives millions of federal dollars, so this would be a big deal.
But what if it didn't happen? Washington State also receives billions of dollars in federal funds, yet none of those dollars have been cut since Washington started collecting pot tax revenue five years ago. So if the state doesn't get its funding cut, why would UW? Lidstrom declined to be interviewed for this story.
Even if the DEA did cut funding because a UW researcher was studying pot, it would become a rallying point for changes to federal law and for more pot research.
Our state has made more than a billion dollars in tax revenue from pot, some of which funds UW itself. Multiple studies have confirmed that legalization has increased the number of adults consuming pot. Our state government is making money off of adults smoking pot. Yet our state's largest research institution refuses to take the brave step of actually studying what our state is selling.