As vaping illness grips the nation — claiming lives, confounding doctors and causing New York to ban flavored e-cigarettes for 90 days — cannabis insiders are only shocked by one thing: how long the crisis took to surface.
“The community was kind of like, ‘I told you so,’ ” a black-market chemist in Southern Oregon, who declined to share his name for fear of legal repercussions, tells The Post. “It’s totally unregulated. For bad stuff to happen, it’s not surprising.”
And some insiders, including Sid Gupta, owner and founder of Pistil Point Cannabis, a legal cannabis facility in the Pacific Northwest, believe that black-market cannabis vapes have been killing Americans for years.
“I think that people have been dying, but it’s just starting to hit the headlines right now,” says Gupta. “From the oil to the hardware, it’s a largely unregulated industry that needs regulation — and needs it fast.”
Here, the two insiders explain how black-market weed vapes are made — and why they believe they’re at fault for vaping illness.
“It starts with bad cannabis,” says Gupta. At an unregulated facility, he says, marijuana can be infected with mites, mold, cobwebs and pesticides. It takes approximately 20 pounds of the plant to create one pound of oil — meaning that any bad stuff that sneaks into the weed gets condensed at a high concentration.
The Oregon chemist says that legalization hasn’t improved the quality of black-market weed — in fact, it’s made it worse. Now that there’s a legal market for marijuana growers to sell their wares, there’s less good weed left over for the black market.
From there, marijuana is sent to processors, who distill it into vape oil. That’s where things get even more dangerous.
Dealers and weed connoisseurs, the chemist explains, expect marijuana oil to have a certain look and viscosity. There are two ways to achieve that: You can spend the money to do it right, or you can fake it for less by cutting the oil with cheaper chemicals.
In fact, the industry term for vape juice is “hot dog water,” he says, “because you don’t know what’s been chemically ground up and shoved in that tube.”
He typically sees a mix of thickeners, such as Vitamin E acetate, and thinners, such as coconut oil, used to doctor oil. Vitamin E acetate, in particular, has gotten attention from health officials: It’s been found in several flavored vape cartridges tested by the New York State Department of Health, and they believe that, when inhaled, it can bring fat particles into the lungs, leading to a dangerous injury called lipoid pneumonia.
Quality control at these processors is patchy. Because marijuana lives in a legal gray area, many processors are not accredited. Even legal labs adhere to state, not federal, safety guidelines — some more stringent than others.
“People will cut every corner they can to [make a] profit,” adds Gupta.
The chemist says that the majority of black-market hardware he sees is made overseas.
“All of the cartridges are from Shenzhen, China,” he says.
He also says that many contain silica, a known carcinogen linked to breathing problems.
Think you’re buying a fancy, brand-name vape? Don’t be so sure: They’re frequently knocked off, the chemist says — then sold at shops to unsuspecting customers or wily dealers.
“LA has a wholesale district where you can get everything in the same place and pay cash for it,” says the chemist. “You can buy all the cartridges, all the fake packaging, all the cuts, different flavoring. It’s made it so easy to get it all.”
In addition to the lack of regulation and potentially toxic additives, people are simply vaping to excess.
“I see rampant abuse of these things,” says Gupta. “Like, dude, stop hitting it every 10 seconds.”
The chemist also thinks frequency of use could be driving the crisis.
“I blame both the consumers and the dealer,” says the chemist. “Nobody is holding anyone accountable for the quality. It’s become a race to the bottom.”