As the world now knows, a multi-billion dollar marketplace exists for illicit THC vaping devices and cartridges. Millions of street consumers use them, and unlike vape carts purchased in state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries and cannabis stores, illicit products lack regulation and mandatory testing for potency or purity. Recent reports have estimated that America’s legal, regulated cannabis industry accounts for only 22% of the nation’s $52 billion in cannabis purchases. The other 78% of the THC market remains untested and out of control.
Until this year, the health effects of street-purchased vape cartridges went largely unnoticed. It’s not clear whether that’s because doctors didn’t spot earlier vape-related lung irregularities, or if something dramatically changed in the vaped oil itself in the past few months. What we know is this: Near the end of 2018, a new additive entered the street THC vape cart supply. And hundreds of serious pulmonary injuries, and possibly as many as nine deaths, followed.
Public health officials and labs have discovered the new additive—a form of vitamin E oil used as a cutting agent—tainting a large amount of the devices that sick people reported using. At Leafly, we wanted to know how that additive entered the market, and why.
Our team of reporters and editors investigated the origin of the various components of a street-market THC vape cartridge. Ultimately, we were able to identify a contaminated supply chain that begins in the manufacturing centers of China, runs through the wholesale markets of downtown Los Angeles, disperses to regional pen-filling operations, and finally ends up in the hands of unsuspecting consumers like Jon Doneson.
The supply chain begins in China, runs through Los Angeles, disperses to regional pen factories, and ends up in the lungs of unsuspecting consumers.
It’s important to note that this supply chain is not coordinated or controlled by powerful drug cartels. Companies small and large operate independently at every link in the chain.
Along its journey each vape cartridge—also known as a cart—may pick up lead (the toxic heavy metal), pesticides, unsafe additives like vitamin E oil, and the residual solvent butane. Each of these ingredients can cause lung injury. As many as 50 million of these tainted carts may currently be circulating in the United States. Since the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began tracking VAPI (vaping-associated lung injury) in July 2019, the agency has documented 530 confirmed or probable cases of injury. The CDC expects that number to climb.
Most VAPI victims used THC carts purchased in the illicit street market. Many used THC and nicotine carts, and some claim to have used nicotine only. All three products can be manufactured with the same hardware. The same supply chain that produces tainted THC vapes also yields dirty, counterfeit JUUL pods for the nicotine market, and tainted CBD carts for the CBD market.
Peter Hackett is the owner of Air Vapor Systems, a Concord, California-based company that imports vaporizer cartridges. He says it takes less effort to get into the fake JUUL or cheap CBD cart game than it does to get into the tainted THC cart game.
“It’s ten times easier,” he says. “You can buy nicotine on Amazon. Same for CBD. Every constituent up till the THC oil is exactly the same.”