No, Drug Cartels Are Not Smuggling a “New Form of Weed” Across the Border
A news report from Arizona claimed that Mexican cartels were bringing a new, dangerous form of marijuana into the US. Thing is, it’s not new, and it’s not inherently dangerous, either.
Published on January 9, 2020

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If you caught a recent news report from Phoenix, Arizona about drug cartels, you might think that black market cannabis will soon come packaged in dirty syringes, ready to be intravenously administered to the next hopeless dope fiend.

On Tuesday, ABC15 published a report titled, “Drug cartels caught carrying new form of marijuana across border.” This “new form” of weed was described as looking “like motor oil,” a “black, watery tar sitting in five-gallon buckets” composed of “nearly pure THC concentrate,” wrote Cameron Polom at ABC15

OK, let’s clear the smoke, here: What Polom illustrated in narc-ish terms isn’t a “new form of marijuana.” It’s raw cannabis oil, also known as full-extract cannabis oil (FECO), Phoenix Tears, Rick Simpson Oil, and the list goes on. This is the same type of cannabis product everyone saw sick kids taking in the CNN documentary Weed (minus the THC). It’s the kind of stuff that Thai medical clinics are now giving away to seniors. In the US, you can pick up raw weed oil at most medical marijuana dispensaries these days, and it’s pretty quick and easy to make at home, if you’ve got the right equipment. 

Crude or raw cannabis oil has been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The simplest and safest extraction method uses ethanol, like Everclear, to boil the essential oils from cannabis plant material. The resulting viscous oil is packed with cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and other beneficial compounds found in cannabis. This is why the raw oil is preferred by seizure, cancer, and AIDS patients: It delivers massive doses of the good stuff while eliminating the need to smoke anything. The oil can be taken sublingually, infused into edibles, or loaded into capsules or suppositories

The story later includes a statement from a member of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department, which is currently under a spate of investigations for racially-biased policing against Latinx-Americans and immigrants.

“I started to see the people that would usually backpack marijuana through the desert were now backpacking up crude oil," Detective Daniel Shay told ABC15. “These are all black-market cartridges — none of these are from a licensed dispensary.”

To both the ABC15 reporter’s and the detective’s credit, the raw weed oil found at the border probably isn’t going to dying cannabis patients. It’s likely going into illicit, unlicensed vape pens, the same devices that are making people gravely ill across the country.

When asked if the crude oil contained vitamin E acetate, a cutting agent often used to dilute black market weed vape oils, Shay said, “Oh yeah, sure. Oh yeah, no doubt.” Health officials believe vaporizing vitamin E acetate may be connected to the ongoing vaping crisis, which has hospitalized over 2,000 people and killed over 50 since August. The additive has not been confirmed as the definitive cause of the “mysterious lung illness,” though. 

Why smugglers would add unnecessary weight like diluting agents during a long smuggling trek makes no sense. By the report’s own admission, the oil had not yet been lab tested for its chemical contents when the story was published, so there’s no way the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department could know if the seized oil actually had vitamin E acetate in it. Chances are if vitamin E acetate was being added to the crude cartel oil, it wouldn’t happen until after the oil crossed the US-Mexico border and found its way to an illicit American vape pen or edibles operation

Regardless, Mexican drug cartels haven’t discovered a new way to get Americans hooked on marijuana. Raw weed oil isn’t new. And while unhygienic, black-market manufacturing processes can produce dirty oil, the oil made by state-licensed pot companies is regularly lab-tested to ensure its safety and quality. 

So, don’t buy the hype. Just buy some potent weed oil at your local, licensed dispensary instead.

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Randy Robinson
Based in Denver, Randy studied cannabinoid science while getting a degree in molecular biology at the University of Colorado. When not writing about cannabis, science, politics, or LGBT issues, they can be found exploring nature somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Catch Randy on Twitter and Instagram @randieseljay
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