AILSA CHANG, HOST:
After dozens of vaping-related deaths, officials continue to debate how to regulate vaping, especially around young people. But older adults have also been drawn to vaping, some assuming it's a better way to consume marijuana. Marlene Harris-Taylor is with WCPN in Cleveland. She reports on a Navy veteran who turned to vaping because he couldn't control his chronic pain. And then he got sick.
MARLENE HARRIS-TAYLOR, BYLINE: So where are we going, Paul?
PAUL LUBELL: Down the basement, into my bedroom.
HARRIS-TAYLOR: U.S. veteran Paul Lubell is taking us to his bedroom to see some pictures from his days on a Navy helicopter rescue team. Now 59 years old, he proudly shows off a pic of his younger self posing with one of the choppers. Do you
miss those days?
LUBELL: I do. It was fun, indestructible. And I was good at what I did. Everybody wanted me.
HARRIS-TAYLOR: Lubell says in trainings and offshore rescues, he sometimes jumped off the helicopter, smacking into the water. That could have been the genesis of some of his back pain. He's had two back surgeries and suffers from stenosis in his neck. Every day, he says, is a struggle. He's tried many medications, looking for relief from chronic pain, including opioids like hydrocodone. But that's not an option now.
LUBELL: The VA is not a friend of opioids at all, not unless you're coming out of the hospital for surgery or something like that.
HARRIS-TAYLOR: After he couldn't get opioids anymore, Lubell tried marijuana for his chronic pain. And he found the most relief from vaping THC. He started out by purchasing the cartridges from a friend.
LUBELL: When I say it took away pain, it was almost instantaneous. It made me capable of doing my daily activities.
HARRIS-TAYLOR: He described the vaping cartridge as a tiny stick that screws on top of his vaping pen. When he inhales, it pulls the THC and other liquids in the cartridge over a heating element. When he exhales, it creates a cloud in the air, which is different from when he smokes marijuana other ways, he says.
LUBELL: It doesn't have a stench to it. You could do it out on the streets. Again, it doesn't have that - what's the word I'm looking for? - stigma.
HARRIS-TAYLOR: Lubell ended up in the emergency department at Cleveland's veterans hospital in July.
AMY HISE: He had this cough that was persistent. He just looked very, very sick.
HARRIS-TAYLOR: That's Dr. Amy Hise, who was on the team of physicians that treated Lubell at the VA.
HISE: He was put on very strong broad-spectrum antibiotics. And yet, he continued to have fevers. He continued to feel unwell. He had very flu-like symptoms.
HARRIS-TAYLOR: Lubell seemed to improve and was released, but then he grew ill again in late August. This time, both the doctor and her patient had heard the CDC reports about vaping-induced lung illness.
HISE: He was forthright that he had been vaping. And, indeed, what had happened is when he was in the hospital before he'd stopped vaping, he stopped for a period of time until he started to feel better. And then he started it up again, and that's when his lung disease came back.
HARRIS-TAYLOR: Lubell says even though vaping eased his pain, those two bouts of sickness were too much. And he won't vape again. But he's not alone in turning to marijuana for chronic pain. Dr. Melinda Lawrence is a pain specialist at Cleveland's University Hospitals.
MELINDA LAWRENCE: That is something that I get from patients every day, and it's not just people who are young. But it can be from a young person to people in their 80s are telling me they're looking to try anything.
HARRIS-TAYLOR: Lawrence says even though some patients say it works for them, there's not enough research to prove that it's broadly effective.
LAWRENCE: I personally don't recommend it necessarily to my patients. But once we have more studies, maybe it's going to be something in the future.
HARRIS-TAYLOR: Lubell has a medical marijuana card and now uses it to buy from a state-licensed dispensary. He gave his vape equipment and THC cartridges to health officials for analysis.
For NPR News, I'm Marlene Harris-Taylor in Cleveland.
CHANG: This story comes from NPR's reporting partnership with Ideastream and Kaiser Health News.
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