Illegal Vapes Hit City: Be Careful With What You Smoke

As federal investigators continue studying how THC vaping is tied to a nationwide outbreak of serious lung illnesses, Louisville police seized 53 vape cartridges in a Shively home last week.

The cartridges, which police say contain THC, are labeled with the brand name “Super-G” and descriptions such as D’oh! Si Dos” and “Grandaddy Purple.”

They are the same type that the federal government and vaping advocates are warning vapers to not use because of their murky origins and what health experts say are unknown risks of THC carts. All such cartridges, or carts, that contain THC oil are illegal in Kentucky, and therefore, all are potentially dangerous because it is unclear what they actually contain, authorities said.

“I would say stay away,” said Stephen Cobb, head chemist at Concentrate Supply Co., a company that makes THC vape cartridges in Colorado, where it is legal to do so.

Louisville police said they have seized 35,756 illegal THC vape cartridges since the beginning of the year. They could not say where their most recent haul of carts came from — legal dispensaries in pot-friendly states that adhere to some degree of regulation or from someone’s basement or lab.

One marijuana dealer in Louisville told LEO he buys his supply of carts on trips to dispensaries in Colorado, but said other dealers are selling counterfeit carts in the city, which he worries are contaminated.

“If you’re selling just to make money, then you don’t care about cutting corners,” said the dealer, who asked to not be identified.

So far, 530 people nationally have gotten profoundly sick after vaping, resulting in seven deaths. One confirmed case has been recorded in Kentucky with 12 more under investigation and two others that have been designated as “probable” by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Investigators with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still do not know what’s making vapers sick, but most have a history of THC cartridge use. Many others have smoked a combination of THC and nicotine e-cigarettes, and some have used just nicotine e-cigs.

The one confirmed case in Kentucky involves a man in his 30s who reported using a modified vape system with nicotine, and THC was not involved.

Brian Strietelmeier makes his own flavored juice for nicotine e-cigarettes. | Photo by Kathryn Harrington.

Federal agencies are warning consumers to avoid street vaping products in particular and to stop adding their own ingredients to vape juice. Vaping advocates say black market THC cartridges are dangerous for a simple reason: Unlike legal e-cigarettes, their production is not regulated at all, so you won’t know what has been added to your cart.

Most of the THC vape cartridges linked to the lung illness have contained Vitamin E acetate, according to the FDA. That is a thickening agent that illegal vape cartridge producers will use to stretch their supply of THC oil or make their product seem more potent, industry insiders and others said.

Vaping industry advocates also worry that government attempts to address the vaping illness might help drive legal production of nicotine vaping products underground, too. President Donald Trump announced recently that he wants to ban flavored e-cigarettes, a move that some say may create a second black market — again, without regulation.

City’s Black Market

The Louisville marijuana dealer told LEO that his THC carts are safe because he gets them and other pot products from dispensaries in Colorado. The dealer said he makes the 16-hour drive three to four times a year, and, with a few friends, including one with a medical marijuana card, he goes on a shopping spree, buying enough marijuana products from legal dispensaries to satisfy his 40 customers at home — a circle he keeps only to friends and their friends. He says that he sells to help people he believes could medically benefit from cannabis.

The dealer contacted LEO four months ago to warn that counterfeit THC vape carts are being sold in Louisville and that they might contain dangerous ingredients.

“You wouldn’t know just looking at them what all can be in there,” he said.

Other dealers he knows don’t realize their vapes contain oil with “filler” ingredients, he said. Others are aware, but don’t care, he said. “They do it for money,” he said.

He said the dealers of fake products can undercut him on price. He sells his Colorado carts for $70 to $90 apiece, and fake ones go for $30 to $40.

Two Wisconsin brothers were charged recently on suspicion of running a massive counterfeit THC vape operation. They were buying liquid THC in California, where it is legal, USA Today reported. The carts they made went into packages with wording that indicated the THC levels were low. But, the paper reported, cartridges contained as much as 1,000 mg of THC — more than 150 times what the label indicated, authorities said.

A Louisville police spokesperson, Beth Ruoff, said the department believes that most of the vape cartridges seized in the city this year come from states where marijuana is legal. But they are not certain whether those products come from black market producers or legal dispensaries. Similarly, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services doesn’t know what kind of vapes have been involved in the unconfirmed lung illness cases. Based on his own observations, the Louisville dealer said that most of the cartridges he’s seen in the city appear to be counterfeit.

How Do You Know?

A customer of the Louisville marijuana dealer, who spoke to LEO on the condition of anonymity, said he could tell the difference between the vape cartridges from Colorado and another that he bought from another dealer, which he now believes was made illegally.

“They were harsh,” he said. “Harsh cough. Harsh intake. And I always ended up getting a headache either later on that night or from it. The high was extremely short, and it just, I never felt well using them.”

THC vape cartridges from illegal producers can sometimes be identified by their packaging.

The Louisville dealer said the vape packages he’s seen that he believes to be illegitimate don’t list production addresses or company phone numbers. In California and Colorado, marijuana products are required to show lots of information, including batch numbers, ingredient lists and “universal symbols” identifying the product as cannabis, among other things.

One package the dealer brought back from Colorado, labeled “Sesh,” “Island Sweet Skunk” and “500mg Distillate,” includes a list of ingredients and the amount of THC it contained. It has codes and numbers that tie it to where it was made and sold. And it also says: “This product complies with testing requirements.” A second package, “Indica Master Kush,” also which he bought in Colorado, provides similar information.

A third package, “Dank Orange Cookies,” which the dealer said he bought in Louisville and believes is counterfeit, has little writing, including no codes or numbers to indicate its origin. It has no list of ingredients, other than it was made with orange juice.

Vapes labled with the brand name “Dank,” as well as another type that the dealer has seen, “Chronic Carts,” have been identified by the New York State Department of Health as being counterfeit and containing Vitamin E acetate, the Times Union in New Albany, New York reported. Twenty four of the 41 vape illness cases discovered in Wisconsin and Illinois were linked to “Dank” vapes, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

But, the Louisville dealer warned, some counterfeits he has seen in the city look like legal brands such as Brass Knuckles and Kingpin.

“The big line that dealers give is, they just say, ‘Oh, all my carts came from Cali,’” he said. “People always say their carts are coming from Cali, but they’re just — it’s still the fake brands.”

Anatomy Of A Cart

Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have laws legalizing marijuana in some form, including for recreational and/or medicinal use.

In Colorado, where it is legal for recreational use, Cobb’s Concentrate Supply Co. must abide by state regulations that require his carts to be tested by third-party laboratories for potency, solvents and harmful materials. Those results must be displayed on any packaging.

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Concentrate Supply Co. is also required by the state to say on its labels that its products were made “without regulatory oversight for health, safety or efficacy” and that they may cause long term physical or mental health risks.

Kyle Williams, the marketing director for Concentrate Supply Co., said he thinks this is because marijuana products aren’t FDA regulated or researched by the state.

“I have a feeling this statement will go away, or be revised, in time with the introduction of further state-mandated regulations and testing,” he said.

Components for an e-cigarette. | Photo by Kathryn Harrington.

Cobb and others in the industry, including Morgan Fox, the spokesperson for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said illicit producers buy cartridges from China and fill them with cannabis bought on the black market — sometimes found online — which they then concentrate down into an oil. Cobb and Williams, at least, said they have learned this by talking to their suppliers and from conducting their own research. Williams forwarded LEO an email Concentrate Supply Co. had been sent by a company with a Chinese phone number, advertising empty vape cartridges and packaging, already labeled with brand names such as “Supreme” and “smart cart” — supposedly for Concentrate Supply Co. to fill with whatever they’d like.

“I would say it’s incredibly difficult to make what we make,” said Cobb. “It takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to do. But if you want to cut corners, use a bunch of ingredients — that is unfortunately easy.”

It’ll Make You Sick

The THC vape ingredient that has become a focus for investigators studying the illnesses is Vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent.

Aruni Bhatnagar, a UofL professor of medicine who has studied vaping, said there is evidence that oily ingredients in vapes have the potential to stick to users’ lungs and destroy their lining in a condition called lipoid pneumonia.

In Colorado, at least, thickeners such as Vitamin E aren’t illegal to add to THC vape carts, but Fox, from the National Cannabis Industry Association, said that he doesn’t know of any legal producers who do so.

Williams and Cobb said they use only marijuana components in their products, and in some cases, natural flavorings. Pure cannabis oil is naturally thick and doesn’t need Vitamin E, said Cobb. Many of their competitors know that too, he said.

Still, no single cause of the vaping lung illness has been identified, and Bhatnagar said he thinks, intrinsically, any vaping — even the vaping of nicotine e-cigarettes — is harmful.

Bhatnagar said that the sudden appearance of the vaping illness might be explained by better reporting, the extra-high potency of vaping products and more people with a predisposition for lung illness picking up vaping.

“The major underlying problem is that we don’t have any regulations of what is to be put into what and how distribution and marketing is to be controlled,” he said. “And so, that’s the issue.”

To Vape Or Not To Vape

Vapers smoke THC cartridges instead of the old fashioned way for various reasons: It’s less pungent, and therefore, more discrete, said the customer of the Louisville weed dealer.

The dealer said he believes that vaporizing weed can generate a better high.

Cobb said, “I really see a lot of advantages to cannabis oil vapes. I think they offer a better experience than more rudimentary methods like smoking a joint.”

In Kentucky, cartridges are not legal and, therefore, of unknown origin unless you are somehow certain that they come from a legal dispensary. “In the illicit market, you never know exactly what is going to be in any product that you purchase,” said Fox, “because it’s unregulated and there’s no oversight or quality control tests.”

One alternative, he said is to stick to consuming marijuana in its traditional form, the plant, or “flower.” You can even smoke it in a legally bought vaping device.

Bhatnagar recommended that Kentuckians avoid all THC and nicotine-based vaping. If you’re going to smoke e-cigarettes, however, he advocates for sticking with a well-distributed brand such as Juul or limiting your vaping.

A Future Black Market

Vaping advocates foresee another black market growing — flavored e-cigarettes — because of Trump’s push to ban flavored vapes as a response to the illnesses and a way of keeping them away from teenagers and children.

Brian Strietelmeier, a Louisville resident, switched from smoking cigarettes to vaping a few months ago. Soon after, he decided to make his own vape juice to save money.

The process is easy and cheap: He buys all of his supplies online and mixes it at home.

But he worries that with more restrictions on e-cigarettes, such as Trump’s e-cigarette flavor ban, people will follow his lead. Instead of making the e-liquid for themselves, however, they’ll start selling it to others. “Then, you also have the risk of the cart, of there being some sort of contaminant,” he said.

Bhatnagar said that in principle he is in favor of a ban on e-cigarette flavors, as he thinks it would curb youth use, but he called it “disappointing” that more regulations aren’t being proposed to tighten rules for manufacturers on reporting ingredients in their products.

“The point is, it’s not addressing the current problem and by taking such action, in some sense, diverts from the current crisis,” he said.

Bhatnagar also fears that a flavor ban could facilitate a black market.

It’s already happened on a smaller scale with Juul imitators, according to Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, a nonprofit that advocates for “sensible” regulation of vaping products.

Last year, Juul dropped some of its fruitier flavors after accusations that it was marketing to kids.

But pods with those flavors and masquerading as Juul have popped up in convenience stores and bodegas, according to Conley. Where do they come from?

China, he said.

“That’s what happens next,” he said. “If you have one company that pulls their products, you have companies that can replace them. If the government forces all these products to be pulled, then all you have left are the outlaws that are willing to sell to a quick buck to other stores or you have people importing from other states or making their own.” •

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