Vape pens once seemed like the perfect solution for many cannabis consumers—they’re discreet, portable and convenient, and offer an efficient way to get the most out of cannabis concentrate. But as their popularity increases—sales grew by a staggering 69% in 2018—so do black market versions. Some estimates say as many as 80% of vape pens are fakes. How do you make sure yours is legit and safe?
As with other consumer goods, the cannabis vape market is saturated with knockoffs, filled with untested cannabis oil and sometimes dangerous additives and pesticides. High taxes on legal marijuana, inconsistent state regulations and the continued federal designation of marijuana as a controlled substance have fueled this black-market industry. Even in states where weed is legal, people still buy black-market vapes to avoid the high taxes that jack up the prices of retail pot.
But unlike your faux Prada bag, bogus cannabis products can be dangerous—even fatal. As of mid-October, 40 people had died from lung illnesses linked to vape pens, and 2,000 more had been hospitalized in 46 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC says 77% of the patients reported using vapes containing THC.
What, exactly, is in those fakes? NBC News commissioned CannaSafe, a leading cannabis testing facility, to investigate 18 different THC cartridges from both legal dispensaries and unlicensed dealers. The results were disturbing: only the three purchased from legal dispensaries were safe. Of the remaining 15 samples, 13 contained vitamin E acetate, used to dilute and thicken vape oil—a toxic substance when inhaled that can cause severe lung damage. All of the black-market cartridges contained myclobutanil, a pesticide that converts to hydrogen cyanide when burned. Another study, commissioned by the Associated Press and conducted by Oregon’s Flora Research Laboratories, found illegal—and dangerous—synthetic marijuana in 10 of 30 pens. Also called Spice or K2, synthetic cannabinoids can cause severe bleeding, seizures, heart attack, kidney failure, and death. And the CDC itself tabbed vitamin E acetate as a likely culprit in knockoff inhalers. It's used illicitly to thicken or dilute THC oil, but it may compromise lung function.
Be sure your vape pen is for real: Avoid online dealers and unlicensed pop-up shops, and only buy cannabis vape cartridges from licensed dispensaries. In states where marijuana is legal, search the cannabis website. If you’re buying vapes in a state where cannabis isn’t legal (yet), the pen is probably phony, and may be dangerous. Legit brands won’t risk their licenses by exporting to non-legal states.
• Be sure your vape pen is properly labeled, including manufacturer’s info, manufacturing and packaging date, batch and lot number.
• Some brands also include QR codes, so you can scan for info on ingredients, testing, product tracking and more. But beware: QR codes and websites can be faked, so the presence of a QR code alone isn’t a guarantee. High-tech solutions like StrainSecure verification, which creates a secure record of a product’s origins, and Solo*CODE, which offers an authentication system for cannabis brands with uniquely encoded labels, help confirm a product’s legitimacy.
• Brand name cartridges at budget prices are probably fake; bootleggers purchase wholesale branded empty cartridges, then refill them with black-market—and possibly contaminated—distillate. Look for serial numbers, packaging variations, misspellings (like “hybird” instead of “hybrid”) or off-kilter details on the logo to help you determine if yours is the real deal.
• If you do unwittingly buy a counterfeit cartridge, report it; reputable manufacturers offer forms on their websites for reporting rip-offs, and most legal states have an online form on their websites for filing a complaint.