The vaping black market is hiding in plain sight - CNN

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From the outside, the store is clearly marked. Rows of colorful products are displayed inside. As far as any average shopper on this street in California knows, this is a legal marijuana store.

but it is not the truth.

The California Bureau of Cannabis Control (CBCC) stated that even in states where recreational marijuana is legally purchased, sold, and used, there are still unlicensed illegal shops openly operating-selling uninspected, potentially dangerous products, including THC vaping ammunition cylinder.

"It's hard for consumers to know which stores are legally operating," said Mark Hoashi, the founder of Doja, whose app is called Yelp.

Hoashi walks through a legal marijuana shop called Chronic Pain Releaf. It looks like a pharmacy with exposed bricks and employees called "flower ten". Throughout the interview, he repeated his mantra: "Legal purchase".

"I believe that legal vape cartridges are safe. From seed to consumption, every drop of marijuana is recorded and reported to the state government, not to mention all the tests required to make the product into a legal pharmacy." Hoashi Say.

But Hoashi warned that it is not easy to know whether you are buying from a legal market, because some illegal shops look like legal shops, even displaying fake licenses and charging taxes to make them look legal.

Hoashi said this poses a danger to consumers. About a year ago, he noticed that users in his app reported headaches and nausea after using various ink cartridges. So he started using cartridges tested by a certified laboratory in an unlicensed store and posted the results on Instagram. He found that most of them contained illegal levels of pesticides and heavy metals. Hoashi said that many of them also contain cutting agents, which can help lower prices.

Although all black market ink cartridges may not be able to test positive for these illegal quantities of specific substances, the current nationwide outbreak of diseases and deaths related to e-cigarettes highlights the need for transparency when consumers buy products.

CNN obtained 5 THC cartridges from an illegal vape store and tested them at BelCosta Laboratories, which is one of California's accredited consumer cannabis products and one of its accredited laboratories. The results showed that all the ink cartridges contained a variety of pesticides exceeding the legal content.

Myron Ronay, head of BelCosta Labs, said: "When you concentrate THC, you concentrate everything." "So, all the pesticides that may be in the plant material-if they are extracted from pesticides, you only need to Say 20% THC, and now you concentrate it to 80% THC-you can also concentrate the same amount of pesticide."

According to the CBCC, California's official testing laboratory needs to test cannabinoids (the active ingredient in marijuana), as well as a variety of substances, including pesticides, various fungal and bacterial contaminants, heavy metals and other chemicals.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's investigation of recent fog-related injuries shows that vitamin E acetate is a chemical of concern, although officials say there may be multiple causes, and they are investigating many different The source of the substance and product.

The CDC says that vitamin E acetate is generally considered harmless in foods, supplements and lotions, but inhaling it "may interfere with normal lung function." In atomized products containing THC, it has been used as a thickener-a method that passes the so-called "bubble test".

"You pick up the ink cartridge and turn it over," Ronay explained. If the bubble moves too fast, people may think it has been diluted by some kind of additive. Therefore, some black market sellers turn to vitamin E acetate (higher viscosity, similar to THC distillate) to cut products while still passing the foam test.

CBCC does not currently require laboratories to test vitamin E acetate, but said it is currently under consideration.

Ronay said that the efficacy of the product is a good way to determine whether there is a cutting agent. A typical legal THC filter element may contain 70-90% pure THC distillate, and the rest contains terpenes-aromatic oils that give it a flavor. The illegally cut filter element may have only 40-50% pure tetrahydrocannabinol distillate, and the rest is filled with terpenes and substances such as vitamin E acetate.

Ronay said it is difficult to keep up because the black market is a moving target, and the use of vitamin E acetate has been reduced compared to a few months ago.

"Based on what I have heard now, it is disappearing. And, even in the illegal market, we don't see much. But this is still a major problem," he said. "They might add the next cutting agent."

Think you can distinguish black market THC products from legally manufactured products? This may be more difficult than you think.

"The black market is very much like a regular market in packaging," said Art Kushkyan, founder of Pure, a manufacturer of legal THC vaping products. "It has a name. It has a beautiful logo. It has colorful packaging."

Just like illegal shops, illegal products look good on the surface. They may be professionally packaged, and sometimes even fake products of legitimate brands, such as fake Louis Vuitton handbags in the vaping world.

When Kushkyan realized that copies of his brand's packaging could be purchased online, he experienced this process firsthand.

“It’s really irritating to find that anyone can buy...packages and cartridges that look like ours, fill them up and sell them, even if we don’t even know it,” Kushgan said. "This will definitely affect us as a brand. It affects our reputation. It affects our bottom line. But most importantly, it poses a potential danger to unconsumed, untested products (to the public)."

So, how do you distinguish a certain legal, tested product?

First, it will come from a legal store-of course, suppose you are located in the District of Columbia or one of the 11 states where THC is legally used for leisure: Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada States, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

In California, the best way to find out if a store is legal is to find a business on the store


Other states that have a legal recreational cannabis industry also maintain a public register of business premises. The business license has a license to sell cannabis products, including



In California, every product should have a certificate of analysis, and the store is obliged to provide it. This will show the laboratory results of the product.

On the packaging itself, there is

In California. It should be noted that legal products are not allowed to be sold to children, so any label with cartoons is a red flag.

But the black market is a tricky problem. It creates convincing packaging and even promotes fake brands through extensive social media.

The CDC stated that THC kits sold under the Dank Vapes brand are the most common reports associated with THC lung injury and death, although there is no single source associated with each case. CNN could not find any website with the name Dank Vapes in the CBCC registration database, nor could it find any valid contact information for a company named Dank Vapes.

"Dank Vapes is a well-known illegal brand," Ronay added. "It has no actual ownership or known license in any state."

The federal government and state and local agencies have been working hard to find the source of these materials that led to the outbreak. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (FDA) recently announced that they have seized 44 websites that promote the sale of e-cigarette bombs containing THC.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn said in a press release: "We need to fully understand the causes of lung injury related to nebulization." "Furthermore, it is a federal crime to promote the sale of illegal THC vaping cartridges online. Now, by grabbing these sites, we can focus on other sources of illegal and potentially dangerous vaping products online and face-to-face."

About two years ago, when recreational marijuana was launched in California, Kushkyan of Pure Vape was eager to experience what was called the Green Rush of California.

He said: "I think cannabis provides a brand new opportunity in the industry. It gets rid of the ban and is an infinitely open opportunity for entrepreneurs. They can innovate and explore all possibilities. It feels very important for us to start from there. Excited." said.

But although Kushkin’s company took the necessary steps to obtain a license under the new, stricter law, CBCC’s Alex Traverso said that not everyone followed suit.

"Before any regulations were introduced, medical marijuana was legal in California for 20 years. It really established the market and has many operators in the medical market," he said. The challenge is how to transform these companies into companies that operate legally in the entertainment market, which is facing more regulations.

Traverso said that the grace period has passed, so the bureau will crack down on illegal operators more severely, but it is also important to educate consumers to solve this crisis.

"We are trying to launch a public education campaign to change consumer behavior, because consumers have been cost-driven for a long time. How much is the price?" Traverso said. "Just because they are cheap does not mean they are a good deal for you. It turns out that this is a very bad thing."

CNN Health Team every Tuesday.

Now that nebulization-related lung damage has been reported in all 50 states, there are questions about whether banning nebulization products will solve the problem. Hoashi, the founder of the Doja app, still believes that encouraging people to buy legal goods is the way forward.

Horch said: "With the over-regulation and excessive taxation of the legal market, people have been attracted to the black market because of the price." "With the implementation of the e-cigarette ban, it will only bring more people to the black market. People need it. Educate and understand the dangers of illegal markets."

The CDC also has some suggestions: Do not use e-cigarettes containing THC or use electronic products, especially e-cigarettes from friends, family members, in-person or online dealers and other informal sources. In addition, people should not add any substances to electronic cigarettes or vaping products that the manufacturer does not intend to use, including third-party products purchased through retailers.

CNN's Michael Nedelman contributed to this report.

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