Matt Driscoll

People are dead from vaping. It’s time for Washington cannabis industry to get legit

It’s a professional industry gathering. It’s a party.

It’s all of the above.

It’s the annual Lemonhaze Cannabis Convention and Comedy Festival, scheduled to return to Tacoma next week.

As The News Tribune’s Debbie Cockrell has reported, convention organizers hope to make this year’s event the biggest and best yet. Brian Yauger, the convention’s organizer, described it as “where the industry comes together and products go to launch.”

There will be comics. There will be coveted networking opportunities. There will be education for budtenders, product unveilings and, over two days, thousands and thousands of attendees.

There will also, undoubtedly, be the elephant in the room (or, in this case, the Tacoma Dome):

The mysterious vaping-related illness that, to date, has sickened hundreds and killed dozens across the country.

It’s a subject, according to Yauger, that Lemonhaze isn’t shying away from — which is good, and also kind of obvious, considering the business implications of panic. A panel discussion, moderated by a long-time journalist and featuring a lineup of surely smart, thoughtful people, will tackle it head on, Yauger says.

The 90-minute discussion — billed as “the controversy in vaping panel” — promises to tackle “the science behind the problem.” It will also, according to its description, attempt to answer the question, “Why the media made this one of the biggest stories of 2019.”

When it comes to the science behind what’s happening, I have no idea. Neither do you — at least not yet, or at least in enough specifics to make any informed, blanket proclamations. Thankfully, there are folks in lab coats searching for an answer. Let’s hope they crack the case soon.

But the second question — about the media?

Yeah, I have a pretty good idea about that one.

The attention the story has received is because of the seriousness — and the unknowns.

This is about the hospitalizations and the deaths.

Yauger acknowledges he has “no idea which direction (the conversation) will go,” though he expects it to be well-attended. As the event’s organizer, he’s not taking a firm position, he says, he just thinks it’s an important discussion to have, and he hopes the panel he’s assembled will provide attendees with valuable information and perspective.

So do I, because it provides space for the cultivation of an industry response that so far feels lacking — especially if, for some, this is being framed entirely as some kind of public overreaction or media oversimplification.

Al Olson is the long-time journalist tasked with moderating the Lemonhaze vaping panel. I don’t know him beyond his bio, but as someone who says he’s followed the story intently, I listened to what he had to say.

Olson says that — removed from whatever it is that’s specifically making people sick right now — there are certainly steps the legal cannabis industry can take to be even better and safer. That might go beyond, even, what current state regulations call for, he adds.

Olson also believes “99 percent” of industry types are taking the situation seriously and firmly believes the lesson in the illness ultimately will be found in the dangers of the black market and unregulated products.

That’s why Olson says he’s been disappointed with the way the national media — and even some local media outlets — have often displayed what he calls a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the current vaping crisis.

But Olson didn’t duck the obvious.

“The industry,” he says, has an opportunity “to take a leadership position on safe and healthy products.”

“That should go without saying,” Olson says. “That’s the no-brainer in all of this.”

I agree.

Look, I have no doubt legal vape makers are struggling, losing money and feeling targeted. I have no doubt that is frustrating, and I can sympathize if well-meaning people who have been playing by the state’s regulatory rules are angry — especially with their chosen livelihoods in play.

Here’s what we also know: People are scared and rightfully so. There are questions that deserve answers — lots of them.

In the spirit of fairness, the situation calls for prudence, science and rational decision making. For the legitimacy of the burgeoning industry, it also calls for a response that reflects what’s at stake.

Sadly, conspiracy theories and finger pointing aren’t going to cut it.

Under the directive of voters, the state has gone about creating a legal market and a legal distribution chain of manufacturers and suppliers. It’s built all this from the ground up in a matter of years, establishing rules, regulations and a whole host of important safeguards in the process.

That’s a significant undertaking, and it would seem foolish to assume we’ve got everything — including all the science involved with heating oil into vapor and then inhaling it — completely figured out.

Doesn’t it seem possible — or even likely — that what we end up learning about vaping extends beyond a simple villain and a simple narrative?

In other words, even if the state’s legal producers and sellers end up vindicated in the immediate crisis, doesn’t it seem possible that we find out vape makers and state regulators could all do better at the same time?

So, that question about why the media made vaping illness and death one of the biggest stories of 2019?

It’s the wrong one to ask.

Instead, Washington’s legal cannabis industry should take the opportunity to earn the trust voters have placed in it. That should include a vocal promise to provide the safest products possible — today, and moving forward, with everything we learn from here on out.

Then do it.

After all, you want pot to be legit?

Then the industry should act legit, especially when the going gets tough.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.