Even though cannabis is legal in multiple states, there’s still a thriving black market. In this underground market, vape cartridges are made in people’s houses and sold on street corners to anyone with cash to pay.
The secret houses where the vape cartridges are made are known as “pen factories.” According to a New York Times article, “the operations buy empty vape cartridges and counterfeit packaging from Chinese factories, then fill them with THC liquid that they purchase from the United States market.” The danger comes into play when the operation starts “cutting their product with other substances” in an effort to make more products for less money.
So instead of having a vape cartridge of just nicotine or cannabis, they dilute the pure product with cutting agents, such as vitamin E acetate (an oil that could cause breathing problems and lung inflammation if it does not heat up fully during the vaping aerosolization process).
After the operation makes the diluted vape cartridges, they then package the products in counterfeit packaging that looks like legal mass-market brands. As a result, the end-user thinks that they are using a product made by a trusted company.
Minors seem to be at the forefront of the vaping epidemic because they buy products from these black-market dealers since they can’t legally buy the cartridges from retail stores or dispensaries due to their age.
“Consumers should be aware of what they are vaping; there are many types of e-liquids, and homemade marijuana-based THC or Cannabinoids products can clearly be harmful to the user’s health and even cause death,” said Alex Mazzola, President of the Nevada Vaping Association. “Consumers must know the difference between manufactured nicotine-based products intended to be vaporized that have not been link the recent fatalities which are very different from homemade marijuana-based THC or Cannabinoids products that have.”
“It can be deadly to buy e-liquid product on the streets or mix products not intended by the manufacturer to be consumed using in a vaporizer,” Mazzola said. “When you don’t buy products that are designed to be vaporized from a reputable retailer, there is no way to know if what you are buying or mixing at home could result in death if consumed.”
In April 2019, a $5 million cache of illegal cannabis vape cartridges were seized by the sheriff of Mendocino County, California. The vape cartridges were tested and the lab reported they were contaminated with a stew of pesticides and a particular fungicide that, when heated to more than 400 degrees, breaks down to release deadly hydrogen cyanide.
According to journalist Foster Winans, David Kurzfeld, a fourth-generation Mendocino rancher and farmer stated, “It’s common knowledge out here that if a legit grower has weed that won’t pass the state test for contaminants, they just sell it into the black market.”
Meanwhile, the black market is booming because of the exorbitant costs to legally sell cannabis. New Frontier Data, which tracks cannabis sales and trends, estimated this spring that as much as 80% of the marijuana sold in California comes from the black market. As stated by Scott Shackford, “Black markets, of course, exist whenever people cannot legally purchase the goods and services that they're looking for at a reasonable cost. The high taxes in California have guaranteed that a black market is likely to continue.”