Shad­owy vape brand is in spot­light

Un­li­censed THC la­bel a sus­pect in lung ill­ness mys­tery

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - MARYLAND - By Michael R. Blood

LOS AN­GE­LES — It’s a widely known va­p­ing car­tridge in the mar­i­juana econ­omy, but it’s not a li­censed brand. And it’s got the kind of mar­ket buzz no le­git­i­mate com­pany would want.

The va­p­ing car­tridges that go by the catchy, one­syl­la­ble name “Dank” — a slang word for highly po­tent cannabis — are fig­ur­ing promi­nently in the fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion to de­ter­mine what has caused a rash of mys­te­ri­ous and some­times fa­tal lung ill­nesses ap­par­ently linked to va­p­ing.

Most of the cases have in­volved prod­ucts that con­tain the mar­i­juana com­pound THC, of­ten ob­tained from il­le­gal sources.

The sus­pect Dank vapes are a fa­mil­iar product in the un­der­ground mar­i­juana econ­omy — it’s not a le­gal, tested brand. It’s merely a name on a box or a car­tridge, pack­ag­ing that’s eas­ily ob­tained on­line and used by il­licit pro­duc­ers to lure cus­tomers.

But with col­or­ful boxes and names like Cherry Kush and Blue Dream, the home­made vapes ap­pear con­vinc­ing on the shelf.

“It doesn’t look very dif­fer­ent from what you can buy in a (le­gal) dis­pen­sary,” said Bev­erly Hills-based cannabis at­tor­ney Al­li­son Mar­golin.

So far, in­ves­ti­ga­tors have not iden­ti­fied a cul­prit in the ill­nesses re­ported in dozens of states. But of­fi­cials say pa­tients have men­tioned the Dank name fre­quently. Many of the peo­ple who got sick in Illi­nois and Wis­con­sin said they used car­tridges sold in Dank pack­ag­ing.

The raw ma­te­ri­als to pro­duce a Dank vape aren’t hard to find: Ready-to-fill Dank boxes and car­tridges can be or­dered from Chi­nese in­ter­net sites for pen­nies apiece.

A Craigslist post last week of­fered a box stuffed with empty Dank pack­ages for $16. And you can buy the boxes and empty car­tridges in shops in down­town Los An­ge­les.

A rogue pro­ducer adds cannabis oil — al­most cer­tainly untested — and it’s ready for sale.

“It’s a generic product name that doesn’t re­ally tie back to one store or one dis­trib­u­tor,” Dr. Jen­nifer Lay­den, chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer for the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Public Health, said last month.

“Folks are get­ting it from friends or folks on the street, with no un­der­stand­ing of where it came from prior to that.”

The chief sell­ing point for pot vapes in Dank pack­ag­ing: It’s a quick high on the cheap, avail­able for as lit­tle as $20 a gram on the il­licit mar­ket, one-third of what a cus­tomer would pay for a car­tridge in a le­gal mar­i­juana shop in Cal­i­for­nia

But they come with risk: Prod­ucts in the le­gal mar­i­juana mar­ket are tested for safety and pu­rity, while those in the il­licit mar­ket are not and could con­tain pes­ti­cides, heavy met­als or other dan­ger­ous con­tam­i­nants.

Ac­cord­ing to Cal­i­for­nia records, no li­censed com­pany is man­u­fac­tur­ing a cannabis vape car­ry­ing the Dank name on them in the state.

“It was never a le­git­i­mate com­pany,” said Los An­ge­les dis­pen­sary owner Don­nie An­der­son. “It was al­ways an un­der­ground brand.”

Given the shad­owy pedi­gree of Dank vapes, it’s not sur­pris­ing that de­tails about its his­tory are scarce. In Cal­i­for­nia, the Dank name ap­pears to have emerged dur­ing the un­reg­u­lated med­i­cal cannabis era, prior to broad le­gal­iza­tion that be­gan in 2018.

Dis­pen­sary owner Jerred Kiloh, who heads the Los An­ge­les-based United Cannabis Busi­ness As­so­ci­a­tion, re­calls see­ing Dank vapes for the first time about seven years ago. Kiloh re­mem­bers be­ing vis­ited by ven­dors sell­ing them at his shop, though that stopped long ago.

What re­mains is the name, which has man­aged to re­tain a sur­pris­ing ca­chet in the un­der­ground in­dus­try.

Last month, Wis­con­sin au­thor­i­ties un­cov­ered an il­le­gal va­p­ing-car­tridge oper­a­tion that they said was pro­duc­ing thou­sands of car­tridges loaded with THC oil ev­ery day for al­most two years.

Pho­to­graphs re­leased by the Kenosha County Sher­iff’s Depart­ment showed neatly stacked Dank boxes and car­tridges, ap­par­ently ready for ship­ment.

Also last month, Min­ne­sota au­thor­i­ties seized nearly 77,000 THC va­p­ing car­tridges, some of which were pack­aged in Dank boxes.

In Novem­ber 2018, au­thor­i­ties in Lo­rain County, Ohio, in­ter­cepted four pack­ages mailed from Cal­i­for­nia hold­ing in­di­vid­u­ally wrapped and sealed pack­ages of Dank car­tridges. They be­lieved nu­mer­ous sim­i­lar pack­ages were sent to the area pre­vi­ously.

“Dank Vapes ap­pears to be the most prom­i­nent in a class of largely coun­ter­feit brands, with com­mon pack­ag­ing that is eas­ily avail­able on­line and that is used by dis­trib­u­tors to mar­ket THC-con­tain­ing car­tridges with no ob­vi­ous cen­tral­ized pro­duc­tion or dis­tri­bu­tion,” said a re­port by Illi­nois and Wis­con­sin of­fi­cials, and from the fed­eral Cen­ters for Disease Con­trol and Preven­tion.

Doc­tors say the ill­nesses re­sem­ble an in­hala­tion in­jury. Symp­toms have in­cluded short­ness of breath, fa­tigue, chest pain, di­ar­rhea and vom­it­ing.

Ron Ger­shoni, co-founder of vape pro­ducer Jetty Ex­tracts who sits on the board of the Cal­i­for­nia Cannabis Man­u­fac­tur­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, said the strictly reg­u­lated le­gal in­dus­try has been work­ing to dis­tin­guish it­self from the un­der­ground mar­ket that con­tin­ues to thrive in Cal­i­for­nia.

His com­pany doesn’t view Dank vapes as a com­peti­tor, but he un­der­stands how the name has sur­vived in the il­le­gal mar­ket.

They “es­sen­tially sell empty pack­ag­ing, and any­one can fill it,” he said.

NORTH­WEST METRO DRUG TASK FORCE/MIN­NE­SOTA DEPART­MENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY

“Dank,” a widely sold il­le­gal mar­i­juana vape is draw­ing the at­ten­tion of in­ves­ti­ga­tors look­ing into mys­te­ri­ous lung ill­nesses.

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