Police officers in Kenosha County, Wisconsin say that a tip from a local high school student led them to a sophisticated counterfeit THC vape cartridge manufacturing operation that could potentially be tied to the vape-related illness that has already hospitalized hundreds of Americans and killed at least six.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, brothers Tyler and Jacob Huffhines were arrested after a search warrant of a condo in Bristol, WI turned up 31,200 filled vape cartridges, 98,000 empty vape cartridges, and 57 mason jars filled with what appeared to be cannabis oil. At the height of the operation, police say the crew was filling 3,000-5,000 cartridges every single day.
Local sheriffs say that they were led to the Huffhines brothers thanks to a pair of parents who pushed their son to tattle after catching him puffing on a vape cartridge, which the teen said he purchased for just $16. Authorities have sent samples of the oil to a laboratory, but it is not yet clear if the vape cartridges or cannabis oil confiscated from the Huffhines contains vitamin E acetate, the diluent currently thought to be causing the rash of vape illnesses.
Gallery — Here's What Fake Vape Carts Actually Look Like:
But while parents, health experts, and even the president have all decried the vape illnesses as a cause for grave concern, most experts have failed to consider how black market vape cartridges are actually produced, and how potentially dangerous chemicals can be distributed to youth across the country. And so whether these particular Wisconsin cartridges contain chemical thickeners or not, the busted operation is an important look at the underground vape industry.
At similar cart mills around the country, like-minded dealers order cheap empty vape cartridges and familiar packaging from overseas manufacturers, and mason jars full of cannabis oil from black market dealers — usually in California, Oregon. Next, the dealers will use syringes or pipettes to measure oil into each cartridge, screwing the tops on and folding them into boxes with names like Dank Vapes, Mario Carts, Exotic Vapes, and countless others. In Wisconsin, authorities say that the Huffhines paid a team of employees $20 an hour to fill cartridges and stuff them into thousands upon thousands of boxes labeled with various strains of “Dank Vapes,” “Chronic Carts,” and “Dabwoods.”
Since the cannabis oil is typically imported from a black market source, and traditionally sent by mail, illicit cart makers often do not know exactly what is in the mason jars they are sourcing. What may appear to be a potent THC distillate flavored with botanical terpenes could actually be cut with vitamin E acetate, glycol, or another diluent. On the other hand, it is also possible that counterfeit vape makers could purchase and add their own cutting agents to further stretch the selling potential of their untested cannabis oil. Without lab testing, there is frankly no way for consumers to know what it actually inside vape cartridges produced on the black market.
Wisconsin police say they are investigating to see how far the Huffhines’ suspected cannabis cartridge organization spread, and whether the brothers were responsible for distributing their carts on a national scale. But even if it is found that the brothers were selling cartridges cut with vitamin E acetate to high schoolers across the country, the widespread and decentralized nature of the black market cart industry means that it is almost certain that there are still countless other dealers pushing thousands upon thousands of similar products. In an interview with Leafly this week, Michigan-based Floraplex Terpenes CEO Alec Riffle estimated that there are 50 million vape cartridges cut with vitamin E acetate currently circulating throughout the US black market.
Tyler and Jacob Huffhines are being charged with manufacturing, distribution, and delivery of more than 10,000 grams of marijuana, as well as gun charges, cocaine possession, and a slew of other crimes. But when it comes to slowing the damage done by counterfeit vape carts, the single arrest is nothing more than a flea bite on an elephant’s backside.
Follow Zach Harris on Twitter