BATON ROUGE — One LSU student walked through security and ID checks to purchase a legal vape cartridge filled with cannabis oil in Los Angeles. Another walked up to the back of a van off a dimly lit road somewhere in Louisiana to buy one illegally; no ID checks, no security and no certainty that the purchase was safe.
This is the reality of the so-called THC black market in Louisiana, the local part of the nationwide scare over deaths and illnesses related to vaping. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive chemical in marijuana that causes users to get high.
The Louisiana Health Department reported that the state now has more than 30 cases of lung injury — and one death — associated with vaping a combination of THC and nicotine. The combination of both substances contributed to 55% of the illnesses, more than the reported illnesses caused from both nicotine and THC independently.
Nearly 2,300 people nationwide have been diagnosed with lung illnesses related to vaping, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and 48 of them have died.
Most of those illnesses have been linked to the use of THC cartridges in states where marijuana is not legal and black-market dealers are substituting cheaper and possibly harmful chemicals for some of the THC oil.
The onset of lung illness comes suddenly. Nausea, abdominal pain, chills, cough and fever are only a few of the symptoms. In some cases, these symptoms can turn into a deadly sickness. One LSU student spent several days on a breathing machine at a Baton Rouge hospital after vaping THC.
Seeing these red flags, students at the state’s flagship university are beginning to open up about how easy it has been to obtain the cartridges on the black market, their growing hesitation about using them and why they vaped illegal cartridges in the past. From what their friends say, the same problems are evident at other universities in the state.
’Such easy access'
“There is such easy access to THC cartridges, which makes it convenient for students to purchase,” said an LSU sophomore, one of several students who agreed to talk about the black-market vaping products as long as their names were not used.
The student said she started smoking THC cartridges, or carts, when she began college. She knew a friend who sold them for $40.
“I bought my first cartridge from a friend at a house party my freshman year,” she said. “That was the first time I ever had, or had even seen, a THC cart, so I was definitely not aware of the fake carts going around.”
This student shared that she became heavily dependent on the marijuana cartridges, partly because the THC cartridges are convenient and difficult to detect.
“It does not smell like weed, so you can smoke it anywhere and no one would suspect a thing,” she said. “Plus, it has different flavors you can choose from. I’ve bought them from people at my job, people at school and people at parties. They were all regular people that sold carts.”
She continued to smoke the black-market cartridges until a traumatic experience. While attending a music festival in Miami, she was rushed to the paramedic station due to shortness of breath and an increased heart rate.
“That was such a scary experience; it felt like I was going to pass out,” she said.
The student said she smoked her black-market cartridge multiple times at the festival prior to the anxiety attack. Believing it was the cause, she slowly reduced vaping over time, until she learned about the vaping crisis across the country.
“That was the last straw,” she said. “After reading about multiple people getting sick and dying from vaping made me give it up cold turkey.”
A deadly business
CDC officials have released tests indicating that substances such as Vitamin E acetate and cyanide have been found in black-market THC cartridges. Because marijuana is not legal in all states, the Food and Drug Administration is unable to regulate the substances being sold in states like Louisiana.
One LSU student, who sold the cartridges to his peers, ultimately decided to step away from the practice because of the deaths he heard about across the country.
“That is the reason why I personally stopped selling those,” the LSU senior said. “I don’t want to cause people to die. I feel like that’s taking things a little too far.”
THC oil is growing more popular at colleges because black market prices have fallen and the oil is more potent than regular marijuana.
Column: Don’t blame legal cannabis for the vaping health crisis, focus on black market THC
The ex-dealer talked about an acquaintance still working the black market. This person travels around Louisiana selling hundreds of cartridges at a time, out of the back of a van, to be resold in smaller quantities. He produces his own THC oil and adds other cheaper chemicals to his cartridges to save money.
Dealers get away with this by using packaging that is almost identical to THC oil products that are legal in other states and sold off of websites like dhgate.com and alibaba.com. They make their cartridges appear as if they are a legitimate brand, leading consumers to think they are vaping legal, presumably safer, THC oil.
“What’s happening is as soon as one brand gets named in the media, (black market dealers) are just going to switch to a different brand of packaging,” said the ex-dealer LSU student. “People are going to be like ‘oh, we’ve got the healthy carts.’”
An LSU junior who used to sell THC cartridges said black-market oil also is available online from drug marketplaces on the deep web, a portion of the internet that is difficult to access without a special browser and exact links.
“I only got carts from a person; I didn’t trust the ones online,” the student said. He said he bought dispensary cartridges third-hand from someone who had another person ship them to Louisiana. The process was very difficult, he said, and illustrates why so many users prefer to get cheap, easily available black-market cartridges.
One way to discern illicit THC oil from legally produced oil is the viscosity of the liquid. Legally produced oil is much thicker and barely moves, if at all, inside the cartridge. Black-market oil is thinner and moves around inside the cartridge.
’I thought I was dying'
College students in other states also are experiencing problems. Gabriel Vauthey, a University of Texas student, said that he recently visited a hospital due to a quick deterioration in his health.
“I thought I was dying,” the 20-year-old said.
Vauthey vaped THC cartridges for eight months before he began to develop a cough. The cough turned into a debilitating sickness that left him in the hospital, unable to move for nearly a week. Doctors believe the cartridges were to blame.
“I’ve never had anything that attacked my immune system so violently,” Vauthey said. “I’ve been sick, I’ve had the flu, but I’ve never had anything to that extreme.”
Susan Bareis, assistant director for the Office of Wellness and Health Promotion in the LSU Student Health Center, said no students had come to its clinic with vaping-related illnesses.
However, Bareis said more students are asking questions about vaping and the outbreak of lung injuries.
“Some of these cases are hitting home with our students here, and they’re concerned for their health, especially with the links to deaths,” Bareis said.
The center has started pushing more information on the risks associated with vaping over social media, Bareis said. It has focused on the unknown factors of vaping, Bareis said, as there is little-to-no research on the long-term effects of vaping.
Does legality really matter?
There is a substantial difference in how a person acquires THC products legally in states that allow marijuana use versus illegally here.
When one of our reporters visited MMD Hollywood, a marijuana dispensary, on a recent trip to Los Angeles, she had to present valid identification proving she was 22. Her I.D. was scanned, and she was escorted by security into a room filled with marijuana-infused items. These THC products contained detailed information regarding their ingredients. Multiple sales representatives were available to assist and educate her on possible purchases.
Some students are still not convinced that vaping is the culprit for all the problems. Another LSU sophomore ended up in the hospital with lung symptoms after vaping black-market THC but blames exhaustion instead.
Initially, she stated she bought THC cartridges legally from dispensaries in California, but when she noticed their popularity rising at LSU, she found a local dealer.
“At first, you could only buy cartridges from legit dispensaries out of state, but now they are everywhere,” said the student. “The transactions are very discreet. The carts are very small; you can walk around with it without anyone suspecting a thing.”
The price of the THC cartridges ranged from $30 to $40. She also stated that transactions take place in popular areas like off-campus bars or hidden spots on the LSU campus.
This student went into the hospital earlier this semester due to feelings of nausea, loss of appetite, migraine, anxiety and hallucinations. Her doctor said stress was a possible cause, but never determined if the THC oil was linked to her sickness. After learning about the recent vaping crisis across the country, though, she decided to quit.
An LSU senior originally from Colorado, where marijuana products are legal, said she is concerned that no one knows what kinds of chemicals are being substituted for the cannabis oil here and what harm they can cause.
“It honestly terrifies me to see people vaping illegal THC here,” she said. “Anytime I see someone vaping one I yell at them.
“There is such a difference in how you feel after you vape an illegal cartridge compared to a legal one,” she added. “It is so dangerous.”