text: Jacob Muselmann / photography: Viet Nguyen & Blake Brown
published 11.28.2019

More than 40 deaths and 2,000 sickened—each time you check, the numbers keep ticking up.

While much is still unknown about the vaping crisis, the saga has increasingly underscored the perils—and proliferation—of the cannabis black market. Some 78% of reported cases are tied to illicit THC products, according to the CDC, though there have been nicotine-only cases as well.

Known variously as VAPI (vaping-associated pulmonary injury) and, more recently, Evali (e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury), the condition, which officials began noticing in the spring, includes symptoms such as coughing, chest pain, shortness of breath, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

The response by some states has been swift. Michigan, New York, Washington and Rhode Island quickly announced stopgap bans on flavored vaping products, while Massachusetts has gone whole hog prohibiting any vaping anything. New Mexico now requires warning labels on all vaping cartridge packaging.

Before a battery of TV cameras, Donald Trump, announcing plans to ban flavored e-cigarettes to curb use among minors, declared his assessment of the crisis in trademark style: “It’s really not wonderful—I think that’s one thing we can say definitely.”

So how is the legal cannabis industry, which is already on shaky regulatory ground, responding to this not-wonderful turn of events? The answer, it turns out, is not by going on the defensive, but by amplifying the message its had all along: legalize and regulate us.

“People on the street are not trying to make their own Tylenol, you know?” says Michael Kahn, president of MCR Labs, a Massachusetts firm that tests thousands of cannabis products each month for potency and safety. “And if they did, somebody might die, but they don’t because it’s a really well regulated product.”

In mid-September, a high point in the epidemic’s media attention, the National Cannabis Industry Association similarly issued a call to Congress:

“These unfortunate illnesses and deaths are yet another terrible, and largely avoidable, consequences of failed prohibition policies. Current federal laws interfere with research, prevent federal regulatory agencies from establishing safety guidelines, discourage states from regulating cannabis, and make it more difficult for state-legal cannabis businesses to displace the illicit market. These policies are directly bolstering the markets for untested and potentially dangerous illicit products,” NCIA Executive Director Aaron Smith said in a statement. “It is now the responsibility of Congress to end prohibition and regulate cannabis without delay.”

Publishing their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers at the Mayo Clinic have since found the injuries to resemble chemical burns akin to mustard gas rather than an infection, as was initially suspected. Still, much of the inquiry is focused on vitamin E acetate, a popular thickening diluent used to cheaply cut illicit THC cartridges for more profit. In early October, a federal investigation concluded that nearly half of the vaping injuries studied contained it.

When heated by a vaporizer, vitamin E acetate transforms from a liquid oil to a vapor, which is then inhaled by the user. Once in the lungs, it reverts to a liquid state, wherein could lie the harmful effects.

As a result, many cannabis labs are adding vitamin E acetate to their list of things they screen for.

“If it’s not Vitamin E acetate, somebody’s going to cut something with something to make more money,” Kahn says. “Generally the regulated market doesn’t do that; it’s too risky.”

About a week after reports named vitamin E acetate as a possible culprit, he and his team began offering two free tests for it to anybody who was concerned about the products they had.
Since then, the extra scrutiny on bootleg cartridges (aka carts) has both added to the case for federal legalization and raised questions about legitimate-seeming manufacturers.

A recent Leafly investigation tracing a common route of illicit carts—from raw materials in Shenzhen, China, to dirty-cash suppliers in LA’s Toy District to crackpot “labs” in Midwestern rental homes—shines a light on how frighteningly easy it is for anyone with an internet connection to make illicit THC carts, fake Juul pods, and CBD whatever.

That includes Dank Vapes and Chronic Carts—two black market “brands” cited in the epidemic that aren’t tied to companies but are merely packaging that can be bought by the boxload and stuffed with anything by anyone willing to part with a few pennies.

On the other hand, the incident involving Kushy Punch, a very real, licensed California cannabis manufacturer, has been an untimely black eye for the industry. In October, state officials raided a warehouse near Los Angeles and seized millions of dollars’ worth of illegal, untested Kushy Punch–branded vapes and edibles allegedly made by the company, raising the specter of legal, above-table brands’ capacity for double-dealing. Elsewhere in the state, legal brands are spending millions on packaging redesigns to stay one step ahead of counterfeit copycats.

“You have a whole bunch of people who came into the industry who don’t have experience with chemistry and formulating drugs correctly, and they’re just making really bad assumptions that they can add ingredients that they really shouldn’t be adding,” Kahn says. “It’s incorrect, it’s unfortunate, and it’s happening because it’s just not a well regulated industry.”

The statements on Lab Notes have not been evaluated by the FDA. The products mentioned herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.