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A vape kit, available for authorized retailers, is displayed at the Ontario Cannabis Store in Toronto on Jan. 3, 2020. Vaporizers were approved by the department in 2014, a few years after it began paying for medical marijuana for vets.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Veterans Affairs Canada is considering adding disposable vaping pens to a reimbursement program that has spent more than $2-million on cannabis vaporizers for military vets since 2015, despite growing health concerns around those products.

More than five years ago, the federal department classified vaporizers as medical devices and began reimbursing veterans and former RCMP officers up to $300 for their purchase, to be used with medical marijuana. The program’s costs have grown significantly since then, up from $155,000 in 2015-16 to $616,000 in 2018-19 – paying for nearly 7,000 vaporizers since it began.

Vaporizers, which allow a user to inhale marijuana vapour instead of smoke, were approved by the department in 2014, a few years after it began paying for medical marijuana for vets. Newer vaping products have since come onto the market including vape pens that use a concentrate known as butane hash oil instead of marijuana flower.

Now Veterans Affairs is considering expanding the vaporizer program to include devices that use those cannabis oil cartridges, at a time when concerns around vaping-associated pulmonary illness are ramping up.

In the U.S., there have been more than 50 deaths in the past four months that officials suspect are tied to cannabis oil vaping products. Public health officials across Canada are investigating multiple cases of severe lung disease linked to vaping. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is urging people not to use vaping products, while Health Canada warns more tests need to be done.

“We need to have sufficient confidence in what’s in those oils, and making sure they don’t have acute effects in terms of serious lung disease," said David Hammond, a professor of public health at the University of Waterloo who researches vaping.

“We know so little about the chemicals that come out of THC cannabis oils that I’d be very reluctant if I was a health authority, or Health Canada or Veterans Affairs to be handing these things out at the moment."

Former soldiers who use the federal vaporizer program say they feel it’s still a safer alternative to smoking a joint and argue vaping – whether using oils or dried cannabis flower – remains a better way to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Fabian Henry, who started the Veterans for Healing organization in Oromocto, N.B., said his group has helped thousands of military veterans get prescriptions for vaporizers since the program began. He said Veterans Affairs began paying for the devices out of a concern over a potential liability after creating a medical marijuana program that had ballooned into an estimated $100-million in costs last year.

“Every vet who is getting on medical cannabis is using a vaporizer now,” said Mr. Henry, a former combat engineer in Afghanistan who also co-founded a company to increase access to medical cannabis for veterans.

“I called Veterans Affairs in 2014 and said I need a vaporizer so I’m not doing too much damage to my lungs. ... I said I could get a $1.99 pack of papers and smoke all this marijuana, but if something’s wrong with me you’re going to be liable.”

Veterans Affairs acknowledged the emerging health concerns around vaping, and said former soldiers or RCMP officers should talk to their doctors if they want medical advice. The department said it would consult with Health Canada on the safety of vaping pens before making any decision to add them to the reimbursement program.

“Vaporizing is considered less harmful than smoking as there are less by-products produced (such as tar), no smoke and it allows better control of the dose,” Marc Lescoutre, a spokesperson for Veterans Affairs, said in an e-mail.

“There are, however, still potential health consequences for veterans to consider when using this method. Vaping can expose people to chemicals that could harm their health. The department encourages veterans to discuss the risks of vaping with their health care provider.”

Mr. Lescoutre said the department was reviewing benefits offered to veterans and “consideration will be given to whether coverage should be extended to disposable vaping pens,” as part of an effort to keep the marijuana program as “up to date" as possible.

While oil-based cannabis vapes can now be legally sold in Canada, two provinces – Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec – have outright banned their sale. Nova Scotia will not allow flavoured versions, while Alberta is halting their sale until it can complete a health review.

Mr. Henry argues even with the health concerns, vaping remains the best option for veterans using marijuana on a daily basis. Edibles, which were approved for use by Veterans Affairs in October, aren’t as effective when it comes to treating mental health symptoms, he said.

With a report from Colin Freeze

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