Despite the ever-increasing number of illicit vape pen injuries, officials have so far not used that $30,000-a-day tool to shut down any unlicensed cannabis business. Vape pen lung injury: Here’s what you need to know. Licensed dispensaries outnumbered by illegal establishments. It’s not hard to find a bootleg cannabis store in LA—mainly because it’s difficult to find a legitimate one.
City officials have so far licensed just 189 outlets for a city of four million people. By comparison, the city of Portland, Oregon, which has only 15% of the population of Los Angeles, has licensed more than 150 adult-use dispensaries. In LA, we visited places calling themselves medical dispensaries, like “Dankalicious 15 Cap” at 5021 San Vicente Blvd and “Melrose Place 25 Cap” at 5635 Melrose Ave. There we found two-for-one deals on Dank Vapes, the notorious street brand linked to dozens of VAPI victims nationwide. Suspected counterfeit versions of licensed vape brands Cookies, STIIZY, and Brass Knuckles sold for $35-$40 for a full-gram cartridge, about half what the real, legal versions cost. (Bootleg vape cartridge factories often use counterfeit packaging that copies legitimate products and fools consumers.) The carts averaged $22 each. Other underground brand names like Exotic Carts and Cereal Carts sold for dirt-cheap prices, $15-$20 for a full gram of THC oil. By contrast, licensed, tested full grams of THC oil typically cost $40-$60. Tocopheryl-acetate cuts of 35% We had Anresco Laboratories, a licensed San Francisco-based lab, test the first five carts for the dangerous vape additive tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E oil), and test the remaining five units for a wide range of pesticides.
We didn’t test all 10 products for every possible contaminant because each lab test requires a substantial amount of oil to sample. Due to the limited supplies of samples, Leafly and Anresco prioritized testing for the most harmful popular contaminants. Amid vape pen lung disease deaths: What exactly is vitamin E oil? As expected, tocopheryl-acetate turned up in most samples of oil from the street. Commonly dubbed vitamin E oil, chemists and toxicologists tell Leafly that when smoked and inhaled, the otherwise benign food supplement and cosmetics ingredient blocks the lungs’ ability to absorb oxygen, triggering chemical pneumonitis, hypoxia, and, if untreated, death. Tocopheryl-acetate use exploded in street-market vape cartridges in 2019. Without any state-mandated test results to verify a vape cartridge’s quality, consumers in the nation’s illicit markets often use oil thickness as a proxy for purity. (Fact check: It’s not.) Street vape cartridge makers capitalized on that false assumption by adding tocopheryl-acetate, which dilutes the THC oil without thinning its viscosity. Anresco Labs found tocopheryl-acetate levels as high as 34.9% in an Exotic Carts variety called Mars OG, meaning that more than one-third of the entire cartridge consisted of a suspected lung toxin. The suspected counterfeit Brass Knuckles cartridge tested at 33% tocopheryl-acetate. (Leafly illustration; data via Anresco Labs) 5,475 times over the legal limit for mosquito pesticide. Also troubling: All five illicit vape cartridges we tested exceeded California’s maximum allowable level of pesticide residue, which go straight into a users’ lungs when vaped and can also cause lung injury. A Dank Vapes Sour Apple cartridge tested at 5,475 times the legal limit for chlorfenapyr, a mosquito pesticide. The same cartridge had 547 times the allowable limit of bifenazate (a chemical used to kill mites), and 362 times the limit for myclobutanil, a fungicide that can transform into hydrogen cyanide when heated. Josh Richard, director of cannabis services at Anresco Labs, explained the potential harm. “Myclobutinal and other pesticides have been known to be considered neurotoxins as they’re combusted,” he said. “When you combust the pesticide, it converts it to other cancerous chemicals.” A Cereal Carts vape cartridge advertised as the flavor Blueberry Pancake Crunch tested 1,780 times over the state limit for myclobutanil. “There were a lot more pesticides, both in the amount of pesticide we found, and the number of pesticides in each sample,” Richard said. “It’s kind of scary how many pesticides we found in these samples.” The tests match a similar October assay performed by the lab Cannasafe, which found that legal, state-licensed vape cartridges tested clean, while street THC oil failed for both tocopheryl-acetate and pesticides. (Leafly illustration; data via Anresco Labs) The illicit market still thriving. Californians buy tainted illicit vape cartridges from friends and acquaintances, pop-up markets, bootleg delivery services, and scofflaw storefronts like the ones we visited. The state’s decades-old underground industry is three to five times bigger than the newly legal one, according to recent estimates. Rumors continue to swirl in the industry about a number of old-school medical operators who continue to produce untested products for illegal shops. Earlier this month Leafly broke the news that Kushy Punch, a licensed California cannabis brand, is under investigation by officials on suspicion of moving clean, tested vape carts out the front door while simultaneously shipping dirty oil and gummies out the back. Kushy Punch’s lawyer admitted to possession of an unpermitted warehouse and $21 million in unlicensed KushyVapes and gummies, but denied recently manufacturing or distributing the contraband. California vape maker Kushy Punch caught making illegal products.
California’s VAPI victims first drew the attention of public health officials months ago in rural Kings County, where tested cannabis is banned. All victims in the state are thought to have used THC vape cartridges purchased from street markets or unlicensed storefronts, according to the California Department of Public Health. One victim in California’s rural Tulare County died in mid-September. Adult-use cannabis stores are banned in Tulare County, which leaves many residents reliant on the unregulated, untested street market.
Using Facebook, Leafly contacted an associate of the Tulare County victim who confirmed the victim used a cartridge from a black-and-gold package branded “West Coast Cure” and labeled with the strain name “Lucky Charms.” Previous media reports had not identified the brand name. (Leafly is not publishing the source’s name, because they are not authorized by the victim’s family to speak to the media.) West Coast Cure did not return calls from Leafly. Online promo image of West Coast Cure Lucky Charms, the THC vape cartridge brand associated with the death of one Tulare County VAPI patient. West Coast Cure is a Sacramento-based medical marijuana-era brand in the process of trying to transition to the adult-use market.