How To Spot A Bootleg Cannabis Vape Cartridge

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Illicit cannabis cartridges are being blamed for a rash of severe lung illnesses across the US. How do you know your vape cart isn’t counterfeit?

Vape pens are increasingly the go-to choice for cannabis consumers, both in states with legal cannabis, and on the still-thriving black market. Even in places where you can purchase weed legally, some people are still buying black-market vapes to avoid the steep taxes that come with retail pot. However, as we reported in 2017, the scariest thing about the health effects of using oil-filled weed vape pens is how little we know.

In California, seven people have been hospitalized since June with Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), prompting a warning from the Department of Public Health urging consumers not to purchase cannabis vape cartridges from unlicensed retailers. And a rash of illnesses in states including New York, New Jersey, and Utah have been linked to illicit weed vapes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report this week stating that 193 cases of severe lung illness have been identified in 22 states, linking many of them to cannabis vapes, although the report notes that no specific THC product has been identified as the cause.

While researchers race to identify the long-term health effects of vaping, concerned consumers are wondering if their weed vapes will make them sick. How can you tell if a vape cartridge is contaminated? It’s very much buyer beware, but here are a few things to consider.

Get Weedwise
California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control recently kicked off a public education program called “Get #Weedwise” to inform consumers of the potential health impacts of ingesting untested cannabis. The main takeaway? The only way to make sure you’re consuming safely is to buy your weed legally from a licensed shop. California consumers can search for licensed retail locations on CApotcheck.com. The BCC also set up a form for online complaints about counterfeit products, which is kind of amazing when you think about it. Complaining about the illegal weed you bought to a government agency is so 2019.

If you’re buying a vape in a legal state, make sure it’s properly labeled with manufacturer info and lab results. Some cannabis brands are even incorporating QR codes into packaging — consumers can scan the code for info on product tracking, ingredients, testing history and more. And, tempting as it may be, don’t buy weed vapes from pop-up stores. Get thee to a dispensary.

If it’s too good to be true, it’s probably fake
If you’re buying vapes on the black market in a state where cannabis is illegal, it’s unlikely that the product you’re getting has been lab tested, says Sean Black, former director of the High Times Cannabis Cup competition: “Companies that are legit aren’t risking their licensing by sending their product to non-legal states.”

Dealers buy branded empty vape cartridges on sites like Ali Baba, and fill them with black-market distillate, Black says. A couple of characteristics of illicit carts that are easy to spot: recognizable big-brand names, and a low price. Black laughs, “You think Nintendo is making weed vapes? And a cart that costs $20 is just too good to be true.”

Comparatively, a half-gram vape cartridge bought from a legal Los Angeles cannabis shop costs double that — around $45, including nearly $13 in tax.

You can even fake a QR code and website, Black says: “It’s not hard. If you’re going to make $150,000 selling your product, you can spend $20 to do that.”

One Canadian tech company is fighting back against the fakes by using blockchain to verify legitimate cannabis products. The StrainSecure verification creates a cryptographically secure record of the seed to sale chain, so you can trace your weed purchase back to its point of origin through an immutable QR code. Crypto-cannabis has arrived.

Do your research
Black-market shoppers aren’t left with much of a choice — they have to rely on their supplier being trustworthy to ensure they’re not buying a vape that could land them in the ER.

One New Jersey woman we spoke with gets her THC vape carts through the mail from a legal state. “I think they’re legit,” she says. “The girl I buy them from works in the weed industry. She makes it look like she’s shipping perfume from a beauty brand, with pink wrapping.” The carts are labelled as “100% solvent-free premium distillate,” and cost about $40 for one gram. They taste fine, she tells us: “Compared to vapes I’ve bought in Colorado, some are indistinguishable in high and flavor.”

Another person we spoke with gets THC Juul cartridges through her dealer in New Hampshire. “I got a cookies-and-cream one that I hated the taste of,” she says. “I wondered about what they used to flavor it.” She was impressed with the high, however — and she’s unconcerned about black market vape carts making her sick.

If you’re buying weed vapes on the black market, do a bit of research first. Check Leafly for updates on illicit carts. There 420-friendly Facebook groups that offer valuable info — Facebook bars groups with the words “cannabis” or “marijuana” from cropping up in searches, but if you do a little digging using other keywords (like stoner), you’ll find plenty of online weed communities sharing information. And MassRoots is a social network exclusively for the cannabis community, billing itself as “a judgment-free zone where like-minded people can freely share their experiences.” Download the app on iOs or Android to connect.

A few pro tips: if you’re buying black-market cartridges, remember that big brand-name companies like Kingpen, PAX Era and Stiiizy don’t sell outside licensed shops in states with legal cannabis — if your dealer is offering them, there’s a good chance they’re counterfeit, and filled with possibly contaminated distillate. If you’ve bought a branded cartridge, check out the manufacturer’s website or Instagram and compare your cartridge with legit product photos — you may be able to spot a fake just by looking. And always trust your tastebuds. If it tastes bad, throw it away. It’s not worth the risk.