Collin Villari, an actuarial science major at the university, has stopped using vape products after hearing about the recent cases of lung illness that have been linked to the vaporization of nicotine and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in cannabis.
Villari likes to use cannabis occasionally to relax and give himself a mental break. He has never been a heavy user and turned to vaporizing THC distillate as an easy and discreet method of consumption.
Villari would vape with his brother Brett, 17, who got the cartridges from a connection at his high school. Villari figured that vaping was a healthier alternative to smoking, until recently.
“The scary part about it is we don’t know the long term effects,” Villari said. “I don’t really do that stuff anymore.”
Villari stopped before experiencing any ill symptoms, but in the past few months, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has identified over 800 cases of lung illness and twelve confirmed deaths that have been linked to vaping black market THC distillate.
THC distillate is a highly potent form of cannabis that is processed into a concentrate that is able to be vaporized at low temperatures in the form of disposable cartridges. It’s purported benefits are a smoke that is free of carcinogens and an almost instant effect after consumption.
From licensed dispensaries, it can cost upwards of $60 for a cartridge containing half a gram of distillate. Such high prices have given way to a robust black market that reaches everyone from medical patients to high school students like Villari’s brother.
Jeff, 24, a recent graduate of the university, sells his cartridges, or “carts,” as they are referred to on the black market, by the full gram: double the concentrate for half the dispensary price. The black market carts are an economical option for students, professionals and young parents, who are among Jeff’s clientele.
In states without legalized marijuana, the black market can be the only available supply of cartridges, and according to Jeff, demand has remained high.
Unlike distillate that comes from licensed distributors, the supply chain for black market carts carries an air of covertness. When asked where his cartridges come from, Jeff relayed an answer that has become the go-to answer for suppliers: “somewhere in California.”
The brands that he carries have names like “Irie Roots Extracts” and “Dank Vapes,” with professionally printed packaging that suggests that they come from licensed distributors and out of reputable labs. They come in a variety of flavors, and the box even includes THC percentages and terpene content — an advanced flavor profile.
However, a look into one of these brands reveals something far more insidious. A search for “Dank Vapes” produces multiple websites that use the brand’s name. One, “Dankvapes.org,” presents as an online merchant, a “USA Veteran owned company” that like many others, claims to be the official website. The site appears to offer worldwide delivery of pre-filled cartridges, the first red flag, since licensed dispensaries do not ship to states without legalized marijuana.
A spokesperson reached at the website said that the company is based in California. However, according to information on the domain registrar “godaddy.com,” the site is registered to the company “NameCheap, Inc,” based in the country of Panama.
“Dank Vapes,” as a producer of legitimate cannabis distillate, does not exist. It is an example of a type of brand fabrication that defines this black market. On eBay, a search reveals what the real “Dank Vapes” might be. Shipping from China, ready-to-fill cartridges and packaging with professionally printed branding are available at wholesale, at around a dollar a piece in quantities of a thousand.
“You never know with these,” Jeff said. “The brand doesn’t mean anything, the packaging doesn’t mean anything. It’s a black market.”
The cartridges with this label often pass through suppliers, dealers and customers with an almost pathological assurance that their cartridges are the “real” “Dank Vapes.” In recent years, the number of different brands being passed off as THC distillate manufacturers has skyrocketed. Attractive names, with vivid, pastel-colored packaging, are enough to earn a following.
Mike, who sells cartridges in Delaware, often hears of new brands for the first time from his customers when they make requests. “Gushers,” “Emerald,” “TKO,” “Brass Knuckles,” and of course, “Dank Vapes.”
Mike keeps up with shifting demand for brands that will cycle in and out of fashion over the course of a few months. The “illusion of choice” between a better or healthier vape cartridge, is perpetuated through increasingly clever packaging: new flavors, more medicinal names, fabricated testing results and switching away from brands that gain a bad reputation.
Underneath all this, what Mike refers to as “the game,” the contents of the liquid inside remains a mystery.
“People are buying these empty cartridges, filling them with God knows what, and then selling them at a low price,” Mike said.
A “Dank Vape” cartridge is among those identified by the New York State Department of Health to contain high levels of vitamin E acetate, an additive that is suspect in the recent cases of vaping-related illness.
Both Jeff and Mike reported that they have stopped using the cartridges they sell after experiencing adverse symptoms themselves.
“You’re heating up some sketchy liquid and you have no idea what it is. It can’t be good for you,” Jeff said.
Cheap or “bulk” distillate is sometimes referred to as “hot dog water,” in reference to the typical low quality and mysterious origins of the liquid. The liquid itself is often cut with a variety of additives to make the substance appear to be a more desirable color or a thicker viscosity.
Commonly found additives like propylene glycol or vitamin E acetate are often widely available, approved for topical or ingestional use by the Food and Drug Administration. However, when it comes to vaporizing and inhaling these compounds, there are few regulatory guidelines and almost no research to look into.
Ultimately, we still don’t know how safe vaping is, let alone the safety of the virtually endless list of chemicals that may be used to cut the distillate.
Part of the reason that many people still forgo the health risks and choose to buy off the street is because black market cartridges have become so cheap.
A full cartridge can last a user weeks or even months, and Villari and his brother would often split the cost of a single cartridge between them. In Delaware, black market distillate has become a big business, and economies of scale have pushed the prices down even further.
There are individuals who are pushing thousands of pre-filled cartridges that they may get from an out-of-state supplier for as low as $5 a piece, according to Mike. Low prices from a flooded market and a culture that has already been predisposed to vapes as a healthy alternative, have suddenly put THC vaporizers containing questionable content into the hands of college students, high school kids, moms and medical patients.
“People are looking for cheap, cheap, carts,” Mike said. “How can you put real valuable liquid inside for those prices? You can’t.”