At my home in Philadelphia, I have a desk drawer full of near-empty King Pen brand vape cartridges. Indicas, sativas, and hybrids; Sunset Sherbet, Romulan Grapefruit, Jack Herer — I’ve got them all, each one printed with California state cannabis warnings and the company’s instantly recognizable logo of a red-eyed king. Despite the fact that there is no way to purchase recreational pot legally in Pennsylvania, my dealer’s constant supply of supposed brand name cartridges feels like a small slice of the Golden State in South Philly.
But like most things that sound too good to be true, the booming black market is not always what it appears. In all likelihood, the pens I’ve been vaping are counterfeits, filled with half a gram of unregulated cannabis concentrate, and not the legal weed that the branded packaging claims.
Just like eBay Air Jordans, discount smartphones, designer bags, and anything else with a brand name that can be purchased on Craigslist or at a swap meet, a number of legal cannabis companies have had their branding and packaging counterfeited by foreign manufacturers and distributors, causing a flood of bootleg vape cartridges filled with untested and unregulated cannabis oil sold across the globe. As a result, the underground market has created a seemingly never-ending uphill battle for some of the legal weed industry’s leading companies.
Carts in gallery: Brass Knuckles, Kingpen, STIIIZY, Heavy Hitters, Exotic Carts, Dank Vapes, Cereal Carts, Cali Plug Carts, and Mario Carts.
Pre-filled vape cartridges — or “carts,” for short — have been a steadily growing presence in the legal weed market since the early days of adult-use legalization in Colorado and California’s pre-legalization medical industry. Originally made with a concoction of butane hash oil cut with food-grade glycerins, the industry has since upgraded to more advanced extraction techniques, with cartridges now almost always filled with a terpene-infused distillate or live resin. Today, carts have all but replaced dry herb vapes for on-the-go cannabis consumption. In states like California, the contents of cartridges are tested by state-approved labs to make sure they are free of any residual pesticides, cutting agents, heavy metals, and other contaminants.
Disposable cartridges are in high demand in both legal and illegal cannabis markets, allowing East Coasters, Midwesterners, and international smokers the ability to puff freely without drawing the ire of cops or co-workers. But unlike customers in legal markets who can rely on state-mandated licensing and testing regulations to inform their vape purchases, cannabis users in prohibition states must instead accept whatever their dealer is offering.
Still, over the past couple years, illicit pot sellers have upgraded the contents of their lock boxes, backpacks, and center consoles from plastic-tipped carts filled with dark oil to golden distillate housed in cartridges with metal or ceramic mouthpieces, and most importantly, packaged with the same branding sold in legal dispensaries out West.
According to the LA Times, in 2017, California alone produced some 10 million more pounds of pot than was consumed legally within the Golden State’s borders. Coupled with now-documented overproduction in Oregon, the post-legalization supply data shines light on the cannabis community’s worst hidden secret: most of the weed in America’s black market comes from cultivators, extraction experts, and distillate producers on the Pacific coast. And given vape carts’ compact nature, relative lack of smell, and resemblance to fully legal nicotine vapes, the products are a perfect fit for illicit cross-country travel via 18-wheelers and USPS mail routes.
However, as legal weed regulations and government oversight have made a point to clamp down on backdoor black market sales from licensed legal providers over the past year, the supply of name brand vape carts on the black market has, counterintuitively, seemingly only increased. To find out how, all you have to do is open Instagram.
Alongside pages of legitimate legal weed companies, grey market growers, selfie smokers, and black market spammers, a new type of account has emerged under cannabis hashtags and in the comments section of weed meme pages — international counterfeiters selling wholesale quantities of empty vape cartridges, and packages mimicking some of the legal industry’s most well-known brands.
Under usernames like @vapen.cbd.thc, @cartridge_vape_factory, and @dreamervapor01, black market wholesalers are posting photos and videos of endless stacks of empty cartridges and packaging from three successful California-based brands in particular, King Pen, Brass Knuckles, and Heavy Hitters, as well as a number of other, lesser-known vape labels. There are dozens of near-identical pages across the social media site, each one requesting direct messages for order info and listing WhatsApp numbers and Hotmail addresses in their bios. Just like the slim King Pen tubes in my desk drawer in Philly, the photos from Instagram feature every strain name imaginable, with constantly updated packaging featuring holographic stickers, state-appropriate warning labels, and on-cart graphics printed to match their legitimate counterparts.
Like most consumer electronics sold in the U.S., an overwhelming majority of vape cartridges, batteries, and packaging are produced in China. On Alibaba, a Chinese-based e-commerce hub, pages upon pages of fake Brass Knuckles and King Pen cartridges are listed from sellers almost exclusively based in the manufacturing hub of Shenzhen — the same place where legal weed companies source their authentic hardware. The supply chain is so fixed that when President Trump announced new tariffs on Chinese exports coming into the states, the cannabis community worried that potential price hikes could put some small vape companies out of business.
For the most part, the bootleg carts are sold empty, giving black market dealers around the world the opportunity to fill the “branded” carts with whatever they can get their hands on, disguising potentially pesticide-ridden distillate, heavily-cut oils, synthetic cannabis, or any number of chemical concoctions. MERRY JANE contacted a slew of wholesale cartridge sellers in an attempt to learn more about where they most frequently ship carts, what kind of quantity they’re moving, and more, but after a few introductory exchanges, every wholesaler we reached out to failed to respond to our inquiries.
Even without direct access to the international bootleggers, the wide-open nature of internet sales on sites like Alibaba offers the public a vantage into the counterfeit cart trade. On TNVape.com, a vape wholesaler with a sizeable Instagram presence, customers can order fake King Pen cartridges in mock state-legal packaging for $1.25 a piece in both half and full gram sizes. Order minimums start at 1,000 cartridges, but TNVapes sets no maximum limit. On the same site, wholesale quantities of Brass Knuckles go for $1.65 a pop, Heavy Hitters run for $1.45, and, unsurprisingly, TNVapes even sells “Supreme” branded carts for $1.20 each. The bootleg cart market is so saturated that the same empties can even be found on Amazon and eBay.
Under the “messages” section of TNVapes website, the wholesale cart dealers display questions and comments from customers, including inquiries about price breaks for “2,500 of the King Pens,” and international shipping. On Alibaba, listings for branded carts are paired with seller profiles, showing ratings, reviews, and the countries where orders are most frequently shipped. For example, Shenzhen Betterlife Technology Co. has sent 48 pricing quotes for vape products on Alibaba in the last month, with 60% of sales going to North America, and the rest distributed across Europe. In the ratings section, American buyers complimented Betterlife’s quality product and customer service, despite a few easily noticeable flaws.
“The product is on point and carts look good. Shipping was fast and vendor is great,” an anonymous Betterlife customer wrote in the comments section of a 5-star review for counterfeit Brass Knuckles cartridges. “Highly recommend this company. Only complaint was some labels were creased but they sent extras on the next order, like professionals.”
For the three brands most frequently counterfeited, the bootleg industry has become a painfully nagging thorn in the side. At Loudpack, King Pen’s parent company, Chief Marketing Officer Kate Denton told MERRY JANE that the brand complies with all of California’s adult-use cannabis regulations, only distributes King Pens to heavily-vetted and licensed sellers, and reports any fakes to the requisite authorities. Still, the company conceded that Chinese manufacturing capabilities are so strong that it is not currently possible to tell the difference between authentic and fake King Pen cartridges without testing the contents of the oil itself.
“International counterfeiters appear to be at the core of the [fake vape] problem, and we take this specific threat very seriously,” said Denton. “It is a top priority for us to to protect consumers from synthetic and potentially lethal products.”
Addressing the problem at all possible levels, Loudpack has begun reporting counterfeit sellers on Instagram, eBay, and in unlicensed brick-and-mortar pot shops. They’ve also altered King Pen’s cartridge and packaging design multiple times since the implementation of California’s latest cannabis regulations this past summer. Like clockwork, though, new social media pages with slightly different names replace those that have been removed, and sites like Alibaba and the hordes of bootleg Instagram sellers change their counterfeit products to match authentic updates.
"We are taking a hard line against counterfeiting and have engaged our legal team to identify the unlicensed vendors and others that are offering to sell, selling, or distributing counterfeit products,” Denton told MERRY JANE. “We have implemented advanced monitoring systems, but [counterfeits] are also one of the reasons that we are constantly evolving our product.”
Representatives from Brass Knuckles and Heavy Hitters did not respond to MERRY JANE’s repeated requests for comment on the bootleg cartridge market, but a look at either company’s social media pages will show that both brands are well aware of the growing counterfeit problem. Brass Knuckles has attached the same anti-counterfeit caption to the majority of Instagram photos posted on the brand’s official page over the past two months:
“Starting July 1st, all authentic Brass Knuckles cartridges have exclusive, serial numbered moving hologram stickers on the side of their acrylic casing,” the recurring caption reads. “All authentic product also has either CA or NV compliance test result labels on our packing depending on the state it is manufactured in. We do not ship product and we do not service non licensed locations in CA or NV. If you see Brass without numbered holograms or compliance labels it’s fake!”
View this post on Instagram How do You Spot Authentic Brass Knuckles™️ Product? Starting July 1st, All Authentic Brass Knuckles cartridges have Exclusive, Serial Numbered Moving Hologram Stickers on the Side of their Acrylic Casing. All Authentic Product also has either CA or NV Compliance test Result Labels on our Packing Depending on the State it is Manufactured In. We Do Not Ship Product and We Do Not Service Non Licensed Locations in CA or NV. If you see Brass without Numbered Holograms or Compliance Labels it’s Fake! Brass Knuckles™! Empowering the People! Real Fuckin Grams, Real Fire, No Gimmicks, No Nonsense, No Bullshit! Knuckle Up! Keep out of Reach of Children. For use Only by Adults 21 Years of Age and Older. #yourplugisacounterfeiter #weedmaps #empowerthepeople #peoplefirst #knuckleup #brassknuckles #brassknucklesog #bk #prohibition #onehitwillknockyouthefuckout #realfirerealhype #fire #playwithfire #realfire #vapecartridge #vapepen #waknbake #puffpuffpass #dailydabs #gamechanger #420 #thc #weedmaps #girlswhosmokedab #girlswhosmokeweed #topshelflife #marijuana
A post shared by Brass Knuckles OG ™ (@therealbrassknucklesog_) on Oct 29, 2018 at 7:28am PDT
But after a quick peek at the latest batch of fake Brass Knuckles making their way through the Instagram sales chain, it appears as though counterfeiters have, in just a few months time, already figured out how to reproduce the moving holograms on their own printers in Shenzhen.
In addition to their own new and improved cartridge and packaging design, King Pen is pursuing intellectual property protections in China, so that they can better protect their branding. The company is also currently in the midst of filing a “major comprehensive lawsuit” against a number of international counterfeiters.
“We feel that it is important to put our resources out there to protect our customers from potential health risks and to act as an example for other brands to follow suit and protect their brands under the California State Trademark Law,” Denton told MERRY JANE.
Adding insult to injury, California’s still-thriving web of grey market dispensaries have helped proliferate bootleg carts across Los Angeles and other Golden State cities, where fake cartridges are sold in pot shops that were cut off from the regulated market after the implementation of Proposition 64.
“When it comes to the unlicensed [California] retailers selling counterfeit products, the state regulatory body has a complaint process for unlicensed activity that we routinely use,” Denton told MERRY JANE. “How effective this is is questionable. The state doesn’t take action on these matters as quickly as we’d like. We have always been in the habit of sending cease and desist letters to counterfeiters and unlicensed retailers, however locating bad actors is difficult, and they tend to move locations frequently.”
Back in Philadelphia, I was scouring the pages of clean weed Instagrammers looking for clues, and inspecting my stash of vape cartridges, trying my best to figure out whether the cartridges I’ve been vaping were legit or not. I asked my weed dealer about the carts’ origins, but he insisted that the $35-40 half gram King Pens he had been selling me were authentic, and showed me photos of new packaging tubes as a minor token of proof. I told him about the bootleggers’ ability to update with rapid-fire speed, but he did not budge, and told me that he trusted his source before dropping the subject. And to be fair, every cartridge I’ve bought from him has had a terpene profile matching the strain on the label, puffed smoothly, and got me more than sufficiently stoned. Compound those factors with Loudpack’s inability to confirm the difference between authentic and fake carts without laboratory testing, and I still don’t know what to believe.
But with so many fakes flooding the black market, and no potency or pesticide testing in sight, the brand names that have risen to the top of California’s legal industry are already picking up muddied reputations in prohibition states.
Joey, another Philadelphia cartridge dealer (his name has been changed to protect his identity), told MERRY JANE that he and his business partners crafted their own, Philadelphia-specific branding, including a photo of the Liberty Bell on the packaging, as a direct response to the wave of counterfeits in the City of Brotherly Love.
“Our goal was to make a product that wasn’t tainted or overpriced,” Joey told MERRY JANE. “We had seen a lot of the King Pen and Brass Knuckles going around that were fakes, and we were tired of people smoking pesticides and overpaying for garbage.”
Of course, as much as I would like to believe the word of every dealer who has ever sold me weed, without legalization regulations in place to test Joey’s cartridges, there is no way to tell if they are actually safer or less contaminated than other black market products. But considering how easy and cheap it is to purchase counterfeit Brass Knuckles or King Pen branding, and the risks that come with unique marketing on the black market, Joey and his partners’ decision to spend the time and money necessary to produce their own custom packaging is telling in and of itself.
And across the country, the story is the same. In New York City, Dallas, Miami, and other prohibition cities, Craigslist searches for Brass Knuckles and King Pens turn up pages of advertisements for ready-to-puff vape cartridges for sale, ranging from $30-$90 per cartridge. The packaging is familiar, but just like the rest of the black market’s untested oils, the contents of the Craigslist carts are still a mystery.
As America’s piecemeal expansion of cannabis legalization continues, the demand for cannabis products with recognizable branding will presumably only grow going forward. Until prohibition is finally lifted at the federal level, it appears that a stubborn army of international counterfeiters will be one click away, waiting to help black market dealers across the globe satiate that brand name thirst.
I still haven’t been able to figure out if the King Pen’s I’ve been puffing on for the last year are authentic or not, and at this point, I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure. I’ve recently switched my brand allegiance to Joey’s local company, but only because they are cheaper and just as effective, and not because I am convinced that they are any safer or more legitimate than my other dealer’s supposed King Pens. After all, in both the legal and illicit market, cannabis is still a cash crop, driven by cost and profit above all else. The green rush is here to stay, but all that glitters is not gold.
Follow Zach Harris on Twitter