Patrick DeGrave’s brother was still in a medically induced coma in a Wisconsin hospital when he spoke to the local news. Standing before a crew from FOX 6 Milwaukee, he was ready to go public, and the vaporizer cartridge he held up for the cameras was the reason for his brother’s significant heart and lung damage.
The story that aired was also reported on by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the national Fox News website, amongst others. In each story, a black box with a candy-colored logo appeared: Dank Vapes.
Vaping is most commonly associated with companies like JUUL and Blu, which make vaporizer products for nicotine, but the vape cartridge that DeGrave believes is responsible for his brother’s illness — we’re not naming his brother out of respect for his privacy — is something very different.
The vapor product DeGrave showed to reporters was distilled from cannabis. But it was also apparently made by the “company” Dank Vapes — an elusive, black-market brand that’s as tricky to pin down as vapor.
This story, originally published on August 19, 2019, includes an update below.
Editor’s update — November, 15, 2019:
When this story was first published in August 2019, there were fewer than 200 cases “vaping-related lung injury.” At the time, the condition had no name. It was unclear what products were responsible for it and what was in them that made them so dangerous.
Three months later, it’s clear that black-market THC vaping cartridges are playing a central role in the spread of vaping-related lung injury, which is now referred to as e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI) by the CDC.
Dank Vapes, the fake “company” that this original story investigated, has come to under investigative scrutiny for its role in the spread of vaping related lung injury.
CDC reports issued since August have further confirmed the facts presented in this story. In the words of an October CDC report, Dank Vapes is not a real company, but “the most prominent in a class of largely counterfeit brands, with common packaging that is easily available online.”
Dank Vapes is not the only black market product that have made people sick, but it is most commonly used product. In September, the CDC released a report that described the spread of EVALI in Wisconsin and Illinois. Fifty-seven of the 86 people with EVALI in that survey reported using Dank Vapes. A report in Utah also noted that Dank Vapes were the most popular black market product used by people with EVALI.
As of November, the CDC announced that vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent that’s commonly used to make black market vaping products appear legitimate is a “chemical of concern.” The announcement suggests that Vitamin E acetate could be the ingredient in THC vape cartridges that’s responsible for EVALI. When the CDC analyzed lung fluid samples of 29 patients from 10 states they found vitamin E acetate in all samples.
You can find our reporting on how Vitamin E acetate penetrated the black market vaping world in this story, published in September:
As of November 13, 2019, there were 2, 172 confirmed and probable cases of EVALI across 49 states. Forty-two people have died.
Read more about Dank Vapes, and EVALI:
- Dank Vapes just one of the illegal brands linked to illnesses in CDC report
- Dank Vapes are still being sold by the thousands, despite a crackdown
- The solution to America’s THC vaping catastrophe may be in Canada
The original story continues below.
Dank Vapes has a logo. You can buy Dank Vapes T-shirts. Sales of Dank Vapes products can be easily spotted on Twitter or Instagram or Medium. Inverse has reached out to government agencies, accounts claiming to sell Dank Vapes, cannabis labs, and members of the cannabis industry.
They all seem to tell a similar story — that Dank Vapes may be fake. It’s a black-market “brand” that has inspired loyalty online but comes with serious risks.
“They act like a cannabis company, but they actually don’t exist. They’re in the packaging industry,” Mark Hoashi, founder of the Doja app, which is “Yelp for the cannabis industry,” tells Inverse.
“These are just people filling cartridges as ‘Dank Vapes.’ It’s not a singular facility. It’s just people in their garages filling them and selling them.”
Myron Ronay, the CEO of BelCosta Labs, a cannabis testing lab in California, tells Inverse that they often see black-market products that contain unsafe levels of myclobutanil — a fungicide. When myclobutanil is heated, it releases toxic fumes, one of which is hydrogen cyanide. Small amounts of HCN are released when smoking cigarettes, but larger doses are lethal. HCN was a major component of Zyklon-B, the gas used in Nazi gas chambers. Unregulated products, like black-market Dank Vapes, have no one checking to see where that line is drawn.
“That’s one of the most commonly discussed pesticides. That’s definitely one that we see frequently in the underground market,” says Ronay.
DeGrave’s case has sent a ripple through that shadow economy that deals in Dank Vapes. “KEEP THIS IN MIND BUYING ALL THOSE FAKE ASS BLACK MARKET CARTS, DANK VAPES, ALL THAT,” warned Twitter user @cloutpipe, who linked to the news segment about DeGrave. “Watch out with the dank vapes, a lot are fake,” wrote another user, @MarijuanaBlunts.
The myth of the “real” Dank Vapes has allowed hundreds of Dank Vape sellers to get away with selling their unlicensed products to consumers — not all of whom are even aware that Dank Vapes isn’t a single company, but a packaging company, with no quality control or oversight.
Dankbustersofficial, the user behind an Instagram account with nearly 17,000 followers, put it like this to Inverse:
“Dank Vapes is probably the biggest conspiracy in the distillate community.” Those comments might not go far enough. As our reporting has revealed, Dank Vapes is one of the biggest conspiracies in all of marijuana.
“The Dank Vapes Brand Will Continue to Get Bigger…”
There has always been a black market for marijuana, but there are signs that this black market is starting to shift toward manufactured products over marijuana flower products, particularly concentrates. In a 2019 report, Arcview, a cannabis research analytics firm, noted that concentrates have increased from 10 percent of the cannabis market in 2014 to 27 percent in 2019. In 2017, half of those legal US concentrate sales were vape products.
Ian Stewart, a partner at the California law firm Wilson Elser, has covered cannabis product lawsuits for the Cannabis Law Journal. He explains that he’s seeing shifts as well:
“That’s happening every year. We’re seeing flower as an overall share of products go down, and more and more people are embracing manufactured products,” Stewart tells Inverse.
In other words, vaping cannabis concentrates is set to become immensely popular, and there are legitimate, licensed companies ready to capitalize.
There’s also the illegal side: There are “Mario Karts” and “Cereal Carts” (“carts” is short for cartridges). And then there’s Dank Vapes — a mysterious enterprise that claims to be a cut above the rest. Onlinedankvapesshop.com, a website which claims to sell “real” Dank Vapes, offers this sales pitch: “Although many of these products seem aesthetically similar at first glance, there are many nuances that distinguish them from one another. With Dank Vapes taking the ranks (sic) of premium.”
People who claim to sell “premium” Dank Vapes go out of their way to make their products appear legitimate, even to people who are buying them in states where cannabis is illegal. One website, dankvapecartridges.org, markets its Dank Vapes products as “recommended by doctors,” and they claimed to be in partnership with Digamma Consulting — a cannabis consulting firm that connects licensed manufacturers with licensed labs.
But when Inverse brought these claims to Digamma’s attention, they explained, “We are not aware of Dank Vapes brand and have not spoken with anyone claiming to represent them.”
On Instagram, there are at least 22 accounts under the name Dank Vapes. One of them, the purported “real” Dank Vapes account, is @dankvapesla, which has almost 48,000 followers. (@dankvapesla did not respond to Inverse’s request for comment.) The rest of the accounts range from a few dozen followers to a couple thousand.
One cannabis product reviewer, a 32-year-old who declined to give his name, is the host of the Stay High Stay Humble podcast. He tells Inverse that Dank Vapes still has a powerful allure, despite the fact that it doesn’t appear to make anything other than colorful boxes.
“So many people decided to copy the brand because it is so popular worldwide, and a lot of people are obsessed with the packaging itself,” says the podcaster who goes by the handle “hallinsco” on social media.
“The Dank Vapes brand will continue to get bigger and grow more in illegal states. They are cheaper, and even in legal states where legal meds are taxed very high, some people still prefer the cheaper options on the black market.”
A glance at Dank Vapes packaging makes it clear what kind of consumer they’re going after. A typical Dank Vapes box has holographic images sporting cartoon characters and flavors like “Fruity Pebbles,” “Mars OG,” and “Chemdog.” Each would be equally at home in a head shop or a teenager’s bedroom.
“It’s really popular with high school kids,” Hoashi says. “It’s unfortunate, but the high schools are flooded with the illicit stuff. It’s just the reality, that kids smoke weed, and these cartridges are just a popular way to smoke weed these days.”
On June 18, Doja’s Instagram and Facebook accounts ran a photo of a Dank Vape packaging alongside a test result from BelCosta Labs showing that it tested positive for the fungicide fenhexamid. That Dank Vape was taken off a high school kid in Southern California.
Who Is Dank Vapes?
Anyone claiming to be the “real” Dank Vapes has quite the PR situation on their hands.
When DeGrave showed that Dank Vape box to the world, he roped them into a serious medical incident that resulted in at least one hospitalization.
One Twitter account that claims to be the real Dank Vapes is @DankVapesOil (846 followers as of the time of this writing), which describes itself as “the ONLY official #DankVapes Account.” So Inverse reached out to the user behind the account about it. (They wouldn’t provide a name but said they’re based in California.) Inverse spoke to @DankVapesOil over Twitter, but the account has since been deleted.
“Well the main problem is where this occurred. Our products are not available anywhere outside of California, mainly Los Angeles. So anything purchased in any other state is somebody illegally making counterfeit pens, probably out of cheap oil, then purchasing counterfeit boxes online, and simply saying that they’re real,” @DankVapesOil tells Inverse.
“We try to change boxes and things like that, but the counterfeiters are always one close step behind.”
It turns out to be very hard to back up the claim that you’re the “real” Dank Vapes. When Inverse asked @DankVapesOil to show proof that they were the real Dank Vapes, they first responded: “lol. What kind of proof do you want.”
@DankVapesOil makes a good point: It is absurdly easy to get your hands on a Dank Vapes branded box or cartridge which you can then fill with whatever you’d like.
“If you go down to downtown LA, there’s this whole counterfeiting area for cannabis cartridges and goods. They just have a big binder of packing that you can buy,” says Hoashi.
But you don’t even need to be in California. You can become a Dank Vape dealer from the comfort of your own home.
Five-hundred Dank Vapes boxes sell for about $180 on Amazon. Within days, Inverse had a package of 30 delivered. There, laid out in our newsroom, were all those famous flavors, from Jet OG to Chemdog, that nearly all boasted THC concentrations of above 90 percent.
There was also the “Rose Gold” flavor — the one that supposedly put DeGrave’s brother in the hospital.
That word “counterfeiter” implies that somewhere out there, there’s the “real” Dank Vapes who are being repeatedly ripped off. But there is no one person who can truly claim that title, at least legally. California is a state with a robust, mandatory licensing system that has led the way for the weed industry. But evidence of Dank Vapes is nowhere to be found in both industry and legal channels.
A search of California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control licenses turned up no licenses for Dank Vapes. A spokesperson confirmed to Inverse that there were no listings for Dank Vapes.
The California Cannabis Industry Association told Inverse they weren’t familiar with the company when we sent them photos of Dank Vapes packaging.
That said, there is one government office that has heard of Dank Vapes.
Both Dank Vapes and Dankwoods (a company rumored to be related to Dank Vapes) have trademarks filed with the US Patent and Trademark office for a standard character mark that can be sold on T-shirts, sweaters, or hats. That logo matches the one that DeGrave showed to the local fox affiliate and the branding on Dank Vapes sellers online.
They’re both registered to the same name: Jake Lindsey. The trademark was filed in January 2019, but the marks have been used in commerce way earlier. For Dank Vapes, the listing says it was first used in commerce in January 2018.
Inverse has repeatedly reached out to the number listed on the trademark listing. Each time, it rang four times before going to an automated answering machine that gave no name or additional contact information. We left a message and will update this story if and when we hear back.
Inverse also reached out to the California Attorney General’s office to see if it intended to investigate this black market, as the trademark is registered in the state and all signs point to this poisonous black market stemming from the state across the country. We will update this story if the office offers a response.
When Inverse asked the person behind the Instagram account @DankVapesOil why they’re different from a “fake” Dank Vapes, they explained that what makes the “reals” different from the “fakes” is that they don’t cut their products with other chemicals. In essence, when it comes to the Dank Vapes world, “real” is supposed to be synonymous with “clean.” But you just have to take the seller’s word for it — Dank Vapes boxes, filled by whoever can get their hands on them, are no guarantee that a product is consistently clean. Here’s @dankbustersofficial:
“I’ve heard lots of stories and skepticisms, but nothing is really confirmed about Dank Vapes except that the ‘real ones’ and the ‘fake ones’ have all been tested dirty for multiple pesticides, and some for heavy metals as well,” they say.
The only way to tell if a product is really clean is to get results from a cannabis testing lab. But because Dank Vapes isn’t a legally licensed brand, it is not overseen by the government, which demands rigorous testing in California. That’s why hallinsco, the podcaster, decided to avoid them, despite their cool flavors and cheap prices.
“Dank Vapes is already a black-market brand that’s untested & no one knows what’s mixed in the distillate. That’s why I decided to stop buying danks and stick with companies that provide test results,” he says.
But not everyone is such a discerning consumer. Especially in illegal states, the line between products like Dank Vapes and actual licensed and tested companies can be easily obscured — especially when the illegal brands that have large social followings claim to be based in a legal state (California) and have slick packaging.
That’s why lab results have become the currency of “dankbusters” — social media accounts that try to expose counterfeiters who are knocking off real, licensed companies. But they also call out Dank Vapes dealers, some of whom are cutting their carts with chemicals and shipping them country-wide to people who may or may not know the risks they’re taking.
Who You Gonna Call? “Dankbusters”
People get into dank busting for many different reasons. Dankbustersofficial has felt the consequences of tainted products personally. The user behind the Instagram account explains they had been using black-market vapes for around six or seven months, mostly due to the low costs. At the time, they say that danks went for as cheap as $13 each.
“I was using black-market products because of cost effectiveness and ultimately was harming myself in doing so,” they say. “I started having shortness of breath regularly, along with heart palpitations and headaches.”
Around that time, dankbustersofficial says there was another dankbuster in the game, who now goes by @datdude41510 on Instagram. But that’s a new account. When datdude’s first account was deleted, he claims to have had over 42,000 followers. This new account has over 9,800. On the r/oilpens subreddit, where the legitimacy of Dank Vapes (the brand) is often a point of contention, one user praised the dankbuster like this: “That dude is a hero.” Now, there’s more than one dankbuster in the game, from datdude to dankbustersofficial to @dankbusta, another account with 15,000 followers.
Dankbustersofficial adds that lab results are “more than necessary because there are serious harmful things in some of these products.” Although these licensed labs work mostly with cannabis companies, there are lab results for Dank Vapes floating around the internet, too. Dankbustersofficial has posted them, as have niche sites like internationalhighlife.com.
Dankbusters are typically anonymous. But there are also more public facing attempts to clean up the illicit market. Hoashi and the Doja app is one example. Since Hoashi started the Doja app two years ago, he explains that his mission has pivoted toward exposing tainted vape cartridges and building awareness of the risks of buying them.
“So what we do is we go out to illicit markets out in California, so called “seshes” which are kind of like farmers markets, and I just buy cartridges and I send them to a state certified lab, and I try to educate people about the dangers,” he explains. “Right now, we’re really pushing this initiative where we’re trying to create awareness of the illicit market.”
BelCosta Labs is the third party that Hoashi sends these results to, and he’s developed a close working relationship with Ronay — who adds that anyone who sees any of these lab results online can call their lab and they’ll verify if they’re legitimate. Hoashi hopes that when people see lab results for cartridges that show clear contamination with pesticides or heavy metals, they may be dissuaded from buying cartridges from fake companies.
That’s why he posts lab results on social media. His account has over 24,000 followers.
“It’s beneficial to try to spread awareness,” Ronay says of the lab results posted online. “But we’re still so far away from those people that are buying product at illicit stores. Probably in California, they don’t even know. I’ve heard of underground market and illicit marketplaces that are charging people taxes, and they often can look like a normal legal dispensary, but they’re actually a black market store.”
Occasionally, a Dank Vape will appear to pass a lab test (or at least appear to online). But even a clean result for one flavor of Dank Vape means little when there are hundreds of people filling the same package with different concentrate. There’s no one overseeing the quality control of a brand like Dank Vapes, so what’s inside each package is a mystery even if the box looks the same.
It only gets harder to tell the difference when you’re ordering in a non-legal state. A licensed dispensary won’t ship to a state where cannabis is illegal, but these fake brands claim to ship “discretely” across state lines.
I placed an order for 20 Dank Vapes cartridges to be delivered to my New York City apartment. Within hours, I got a text message seeking payment and a confirmation email. In other words, this Dank Vape dealer (who assured me that all the Danks were real) had no problems at least saying they would ship across state lines.
In other words, the black market is both incredibly easy and cheap — so consumers are made to make a tantalizing decision. Because of cases like DeGrave’s and the online warnings of other Dank Vapers, they know it comes with risks.
Unwilling to gamble (too much) with their own health, they’re turning to dankbusters’ accounts for help. For instance, in March 2019, hallinsco made a “real” versus “fake” Dank Vapes video that has more than 500,000 views. In it, he walks through three seemingly identical Dank Vapes branded packages.
“I get a lot of emails & inboxes on Instagram from people in the United States, Canada, & the UK with concerns about Dank Vapes they have recently purchased,” he tells Inverse. “A few people have thanked me for saving their life because they had bad reactions to ‘fake’ Dank Vapes.”
The Future of Dankbusting
Even dankbusters are wary of cartridges sold inside a Dank Vapes box. The market is teeming with counterfeit products that provide low-cost alternatives for people easily fooled by a good knockoff.
“If they don’t have enough options [at a dispensary] they will return to the black/gray markets, and we see that happen every day here,” says dankbustersofficial.
But one of the big issues with keeping people in the legal market is cost. When the marijuana industry is legalized in a state, it comes with a tax. Every state structures that tax slightly differently. For instance, Washington implements a 37 percent sales tax on marijuana and California takes 15 percent on cannabis and cannabis-derived products. Those rates drive up prices, which is one reason people turn to illegal stuff. In January, the Associated Press reported that some estimates suggested 80 percent of marijuana sales still remained “under the table,” despite legalization.
As more states consider legalizing a cannabis industry, there are new numbers being thrown around. In New Jersey, a proposed bill to legalize adult marijuana use in the state cited one of the lowest tax rates in the country at 10 percent. But that low tax rate also inspired pushback from legislators.
“I think [for] the East Coast states that’s a real debate right now,” Stewart says. “It takes time to grapple with the appropriate tax rates to strike a balance between revenues versus keeping people in the illicit market.”
For now, cases like that of Patrick DeGrave’s brother still send shockwaves through the strange, unregulated world filled with cartridges of mystery chemicals sold in boxes branded “Dank Vapes.”
Odds are, even if new taxation schemes are drawn up, people will still turn to the black market anyway, no matter the risks posed to their own health. Of that, at least one dankbuster is sure.
“It will never be fixed,” says dankbusta. “That’s the black market for ya.”