Vapocalypse 2019: Avoid Illicit Cartridges

We still don’t have all the answers about the recent rash of vaping-related hospitalizations and deaths, but among the information recently emerging is that some of these cases are related to illicit THC cartridges, AKA products from the black market.

Such markets thrive in states that do not have a regulated cannabis program, but also in states that have taxes so high that residents seek out cheaper alternatives.

As I’ve written, this was the case with seven California residents who purchased illicit cartridges (carts) from illegal “pop-up” dispensaries, telling authorities they did so because the carts from the pop-up were cheaper than the state’s regulated offerings. All seven were hospitalized with vaping-related lung damage.

Which raises the question: How are these illegal cart producers procuring the gear they needed to make their wares?

The same way many of us get most of what we need—from Amazon.

High Times reports that Amazon offers virtually everything a cart producer could possibly need to manufacture illegal carts.

They write, “Everything from the oven to the empty cartridge and propylene glycol to fill it with, along with the brand-name packaging, labelling, and state-specific warnings and codes” are available.

Until recently, there were more than 200 sellers offering empty carts as well, but a week ago, Amazon quietly removed these items without any notice or statement.

“Amazon hasn’t removed all of the materials needed to manufacture fake vape cartridges, but it has taken down the products that can make them pass as authentic on the illicit market,” High Times concludes.

Amazon is by no means the only source for these items, however.

High Times also writes of a street in Los Angeles where you can find “displays of fake packaging and ready-to-fill vape cartridges for sale for popular brands including Heavy Hitters and Kingpen.”

These items are then sold in the aforementioned pop-ups, and in some of the 200-plus unlicensed brick-and-mortar dispensaries that Los Angeles is struggling to identify and close.

In a recent raid, two illegal dispensaries in Southern California were shut down, and authorities hauled off more than $3 million in products, including illicit carts.

And it’s not just California struggling with this. CNN reported that law enforcement busted a fake vape cart operation in Wisconsin that was doing some eye-popping numbers.

They accuse 20-year-old (!) Tyler Huffhines of running a business out of a condo where an assembly line of employees filled 3,000 to 5,000 carts per day with cannabis oil sourced from California.

$300,000 worth of oil was discovered at the production condo, and the profit margin were hefty—The employees were paid $0.30 for each cartridge they filled, which were sold for $22 a piece.

Of course, when sourcing from the illicit market, buyer beware.

The Associated Press reports on some carts that were billed as being filled with CBD, when in fact they were filled with the potentially deadly “synthetic cannabis” known as Spice or K2. It placed as one unsuspecting user, South Carolina’s Jay Jenkins, into a coma, from which he has thankfully emerged.

From the report: “AP commissioned laboratory testing of the vape oil Jenkins used plus 29 other vape products sold as CBD around the country, with a focus on brands that authorities or users flagged as suspect.

Ten of the 30 contained types of synthetic marijuana—drugs commonly known as K2 or spice that have no known medical benefits—while others had no CBD at all.”

Much like the Trump presidency, just wait—it gets much, much worse.

“The results of AP’s lab testing echo what authorities have found, according to a survey of law enforcement agencies in all 50 states.

At least 128 samples out of more than 350 tested by government labs in nine states, nearly all in the South, had synthetic marijuana in products marketed as CBD.

Gummy bears and other edibles accounted for 36 of the hits, while nearly all others were vape products.

Mississippi authorities also found fentanyl, the powerful opioid involved in about 30,000 overdose deaths last year.”

Another common thread between some of the carts making people sick is the additive vitamin E acetate, which is neither banned, regulated, nor required to be listed in products sold in Oregon dispensaries—yet.

Portland-based Pixis Labs has developed a test to identify this additive, which requires a three-gram sample of product at a cost of $140. They expect it will be sought out by the industry as a measure to offer consumers some much needed peace of mind.

Josh Taylor is a well-known and successful entrepreneur in the legal cannabis space, producing B2B and B2C cannabis events, "Backstage Budtending" and upscale concierge services through his companies and His weekly syndicated newspaper column and features about cannabis ran for five years until March 2020.

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