Before July 2019, it would have been hard to imagine government officials uttering the words “Dank Vapes.” But now, the brand that became popular in the online shadow economy for THC vape cartridges has popped up again and again in a government investigation of vaping-related illnesses, which have been blamed for 805 sickened patients and 12 deaths this year.
In a call with reporters on Friday, a collection of US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokespeople, public health investigators, and doctors came together to make one thing clear: in the vast majority of these 805 illnesses, the patients reported using THC vaporizers. According to a national-level investigation conducted by the CDC on 514 patients, 76.9 percent reported using THC vapes.
“The outbreak currently is pointing to a greater concern around THC containing products,” Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s Principal Deputy Director, told reporters. “However, we do not know whether the only risky substance for lung injury is the THC-containing products.”
But in another report, drawn from in-depth interviews with 86 patients in Wisconsin and Illinois, investigators named the specific brands associated with these cases. That list, published in another CDC report, includes some well known black market power players: Chronic Carts, Moon Rocks, Cereal Carts, and Mario Karts, amongst another 87 brands recorded by investigators. The most common by far, though, was Dank Vapes, which were reported by 57 of the 86 interviewed patients.
Not all of these brands make black market products. Some, like Rove, are licensed companies that are struggling with a counterfeiting problem: Black market buyers copy the legitimate packages to sell their own products under a legal brand name. And importantly, these findings don’t imply causality — this is just a laundry list of all the brands that a patient had used before they got sick.
As an Inverse investigation in August showed, Dank Vapes is not a single brand. The company only exists as boxes that can be bought from wholesalers in China, filled with anything the buyer pleases, and then resold on the black market, often through Instagram Twitter. Sometimes these products contain pesticides, or they are cut with thickening agents like Vitamin E acetate — a substance that was present in all the Dank Vapes products linked to illnesses in New York.
The report from Wisconsin and Illinois draws particular attention to Dank Vapes. While no single product has been linked to all cases, they write that “a high percentage of patients reported using Dank Vapes cartridges.” And the investigators note that they appear to be the “most prominent in a class of largely counterfeit brands.”
Among the 112 THC vape products that they are currently investigating, 89 percent (100 products) were obtained through “informal sources” like friends, family, or “off the street.” Six products were bought in legal cannabis dispensaries outside of Wisconsin and Illinois, five were bought online, and one was bought from a vape or tobacco shop.
Taken together these findings point toward the significant role that black market THC vapes have played in this recent rash of illnesses. But it’s not at all concrete. The national-level data showed 16 percent of cases were seen in people who only used nicotine e-cigarette products, so there’s still much to be learned as the government dives deeper.
Despite Investigation, Dank Vapes Are Still Available
Both the CDC and the FDA have warned consumers to avoid all vaping products. Schuchat added that users should particularly avoid THC products.
But meanwhile, the market for Dank Vapes is still thriving.
As Inverse previously reported, the package manufacturers in China that create the Dank Vapes boxes are still selling their products to US buyers online at wholesale suppliers like DHgate.com. And on a new batch of websites, Twitter accounts, and Instagram pages these products are still being sold.
In response to Inverse’s inquiry about how the CDC plans to work with law enforcement to stem the flow of black market products, particularly the supply of Dank Vapes, the agency provided the following statement:
The FDA is the lead federal agency for criminal investigations related to vaping.
Indeed, the FDA has opened a criminal investigation into vaping-related illnesses. In remarks prepared for testimony before a a US House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Wednesday, Dr. Norman “Ned” Sharpless, the FDA’s acting commissioner, said that the agency is focused on “following the supply chain to the source,” and is working alongside the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Sharpless doubled down that the FDA’s focus is on suppliers, not users. But he also offered a warning to anyone who is planning on selling black market THC vapes:
But to be clear, if we determine that someone is manufacturing or distributing illicit, adulterated vaping products that caused illness and death for personal profit, we would consider that to be a criminal act.
FDA spokesperson Michael Felberbaum told Inverse that the administration can’t discuss the details of the ongoing investigation at the moment.
For now though, the country-wide investigation into vaping-related illnesses has brought more than one black market brand out into the light. Dank Vapes may be the most prominent so far, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.