ALBANY — The number of vaping-related lung illnesses reported to health officials has now reached 200 cases in New York, a fact that could complicate the intense debate at the statehouse over Gov. Andrew Cuomo's push to legalize the adult use of marijuana.
The state's $6 billion budget gap heading into the 2020 legislative session sets the stage for lawmakers to look for new ways to raise revenue, with marijuana advocates suggesting New York could reap hundreds of millions of dollars from taxes on legal pot.
But health concerns now loom over the discussion.
A review of the latest state Department of Health data by CNHI shows the outbreak of lung ailments suspected of being caused by vaping has grown rapidly over the past four months.
The illnesses have been recorded in at least 22 upstate counties -- including Clinton, Niagara and Schoharie. The upstate counties with the highest number of reports are Erie, Dutchess and Monroe.
The New York data does not provide a breakdown of how many of the illnesses have been linked to the vaping of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, nor does it point out whether the vaping substances were purchased from stores, the streets or legal medical marijuana dispensaries.
Two of the New York illnesses resulted in deaths, according to the Health Department.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides more specific data on the factors involved in the nationwide outbreak of vaping illnesses. Its statistics show that 83 percent of the 1,183 patients who provided complete information on vaping products they used indicated they vaped THC, with 35 percent telling health officials they had used THC exclusively.
The CDC, which is conducting a national investigation into the outbreak, recommends people refrain from the use of THC-containing e-cigarettes, or vaping products.
At the statehouse, the proposed legalization of marijuana has divided lawmakers from upstate regions. The biggest hurdle is expected to be the Senate. Sens. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda,. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, and Jim Seward, R-Milford, have all indicated they are opposed to legalization of a substance whose possession remains a federal offense.
One of the groups that drove the effort to derail pot legislation in Albany this year, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, is already geared up for the coming debate at the state Capitol. In January, Cuomo is expected to include a proposal to legalize and tax marijuana in the proposed state budget.
"We think the data (on medical issues linked to marijuana) has gotten even worse since May," said Colton Grace, spokesman for Smart Approaches. "We're now looking at a national crisis with marijuana vaping."
A leading architect of the measure to legalize marijuana, Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, said illnesses suffered by those who inhaled THC or CBD vapes appear to be linked to products acquired on the black market, with heavy metals or Vitamin E used in the manufacturing process.
"We need a state-regulated and tested system so that when people go out and buy these products they know what they are getting," Krueger said. "If it is done right, there is no reason for this concern that the legalization of marijuana will make things worse. I believe it will actually make things better."
She said Colorado, the first state in the nation to legalize and tax marijuana, has strong regulations and has largely escaped the outbreak of lung ailments.
A Siena College poll released Nov. 15 found 54 percent of New Yorkers favor the legalization of recreational use of marijuana. The survey of 742 voters found the support strongest among those 35 and under, with 81 percent in that group backing legal weed.
While the legalization effort ran out of steam in the last session, the state did move to decriminalize small amounts of pot and expunge the court records of those convicted of offenses that have now been decriminalized.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com