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CNN: ‘The vaping black market is hiding in plain sight’

By Amanda Sealy and Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN

From the outside, the store is clearly marked. Inside, rows of colorful products are on display. As far as any average shopper on this street in California can tell, this is a legal cannabis shop.

But it’s not.

Even in a state where it’s legal to buy, sell and use recreational cannabis, the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (CBCC) says there are still unlicensed and illegal stores operating openly – selling untested, potentially dangerous products, including THC vaping cartridges.

“It is difficult for consumers to know which shops are operating legally,” said Mark Hoashi, founder of Doja, an app that has been called the Yelp of cannabis.

Hoashi walks through a legal cannabis shop called Chronic Pain Releaf. It looks like a hip pharmacy complete with exposed brick and staffers they call budtenders. Throughout the visit, he repeats his mantra: “Buy legal.”

“I believe that legal vape cartridges are safe. Every drop of cannabis, from the seed all the way to when it’s consumed, is documented and reported to the state – not to mention all of the testing that is required for a product to make it to a legal dispensary,” Hoashi said.

But Hoashi cautions it’s not that easy to know if you’re buying from the legal market since some illegal shops can look just like the legal ones, even displaying counterfeit licenses and charging tax to make them seem legitimate.

This poses a danger to consumers, Hoashi said. About a year ago, he noticed that users on his app were reporting symptoms such as headache and nausea after vaping various cartridges. So he started having cartridges from unlicensed stores tested at a certified lab and posting the results on Instagram. What he found was that most contained illegal levels of pesticides and heavy metals. Hoashi said many of them also contain cutting agents that help keep the price down.

While all black market cartridges might not test positive for these illegal amounts of particular substances, the current nationwide outbreak of vaping-related illnesses and deaths is underlining a need for transparency when it comes to the products consumers are buying.

CNN obtained five THC cartridges from an illegal vape shop and had their contents tested at BelCosta Labs, one of California’s certified labs that approves cannabis products for consumer use. The results showed that the cartridges all contained a variety of pesticides that exceed the legal amount.

Official testing laboratories in California are required to test for cannabinoids, the active ingredient in cannabis, but also a number of substances including pesticides, various fungal and bacterial contaminants, heavy metals and other chemicals, according to the CBCC.

Vitamin E acetate is generally considered harmless in foods, supplements and lotions, but inhaling it “may interfere with normal lung functioning,” according to the CDC. In THC-containing vaping products, it has been used as a thickening agent – a way to pass what’s known as “the bubble test.”

“You take a cartridge and you flip it over,” Ronay explained. If the bubble moves too fast, people might assume it’s been diluted with some kind of additive. So some black market sellers turned to vitamin E acetate – which is more viscous and resembles THC distillate – to cut their product while still passing the bubble test.

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