From this chest alone, Jane serves a wide net of young customers — mostly high schoolers and college students — a discrete and effective way to get a quick high. Her business was “hot” for over a year, in which time she spread her colorful, pre-packaged THC cartridges across several counties in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia area, where she grew up. But since July, her sales are not what they once were.
“When it was hot [I sold] like 42 [cartridges] a week,” she said. “I’ve probably sold six since the beginning of this month, in the past 27 days. I don’t even think I’ve gotten a new shipment since summer.”
What changed? Major news outlets broke stories of lung illnesses and hospitalizations tied to vaping illicit THC cartridges like Jane’s, or “street carts.” Customers were scared off from buying the cartridges, and it was this drastic change in attitude that nearly bankrupted Jane’s business.
Jane, like many young THC cartridge dealers, is contributing to an outbreak of lung illnesses. As a result, the lucrative market that is THC vaping is transforming in response to growing demands for safer cartridges. Jane says street dealers like her who sell cartridges with unknown contents are largely going out of business, while higher-end dealers touting THC cartridges from dispensaries have filled the demand for better quality products.
Since news of the association between lung illnesses and vaping broke this summer, an abundance of confusion over what exactly is causing the sickness has surfaced. What is certain, however, is that hospitalizations and deaths are only growing: as of Dec. 4, there have been 2,291 cases of “e-cigarette, or vaping, associated lung illness” (EVALI) and 48 deaths in 25 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Although the CDC has not conclusively determined which component of vaping has led to the illnesses, laboratory tests of fluid collected from 29 infected lungs indicate that vitamin E acetate was discovered in all samples, THC was found in 82% of samples and nicotine was identified in 62% of samples. Scientists have since confirmed that vitamin E acetate is an ingredient of major concern that has been found in many illicit vaping cartridges.
THC cartridges are legal for recreational and medical use in many states where they are regulated and sold through reputable dispensaries. As of yet, these dispensary cartridges have not been linked to EVALI patients. In a July 2019 study conducted by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and its Wisconsin counterpart, 127 patients — most of whom were young adults, with a median age of 21 — were interviewed at length about their vaping habits. Ninety-six percent reported having ingested THC cartridges that were pre-packaged and 89%of which were acquired by “informal sources,” namely friends or street dealers like Jane.
“Patients in Illinois have not reported using THC obtained from a dispensary,” IDPH Communications Manager Melaney Arnold told NBN.
While THC cartridges obtained from dispensaries are regulated and test negative for harmful chemicals such as vitamin E acetate, most illicit THC cartridges have undergone no such testing. Cartridges from reputable dispensaries should have lab results published online that verify they are authentic. Through CannaSafe, a cannabis testing facility, researchers have found that of 15 samples from “unlicensed vendors,” 13 tested positive for vitamin E acetate and 10 contained fungicide myclobutanil, which when burned can turn into hydrogen cyanide, an extremely poisonous chemical. Three additional samples tested by CannaSafe were dispensary cartridges, each of which tested negative for “pesticides, heavy metals and solvents.”
The deal on dealing
Jane claims not to know much about her product. She buys large quantities of the cheapest cartridges available on the market, sometimes 400 at a time, paying as little as 10 dollars per cartridge. She knows of distributors who order fake packaging and empty cartridges from sites like “DHgate.com” for as little as 29 cents per cartridge, and then fill the cartridges with homemade “dab oil,” usually cut with a variety of chemicals and only a low percentage of THC.
Like most black market cartridge dealers, Jane never asks questions about the contents of her products, and neither do her customers.
“As far as I know, if it’s a cartridge I’m going to assume that it’s THC,” Jane said. “But I don’t know if there’s other chemicals in it. I think there’s definitely some brands that are so cheap that it wouldn’t make sense for it to be straight weed.”
All of the cartridges Jane carries, like most street dealers, are counterfeit, but their packaging looks legitimate. Jane’s stash, she says, includes some of the most prominent brands in the street cartridge market: including Mario Karts, King Pens, Brass Knuckles, Runts, Exotics, Cereals and Dank Vapes, the last of which has been tied to the most EVALI cases. Aware of this fact, Jane doesn’t use her own product and strongly discourages her friends from using them either.
Jane usually distributes her THC cartridges in residential neighborhoods like this one in Adams Morgan, Washington D.C.
However, the class of dealers Jane is part of is hurting from the expanding market of THC cartridges. There also exists a distinct group of “dispensary dealers” who distribute shipments of dispensary cartridges from states where cannabis is legal. NBN spoke to two Northwestern students who identify as such dealers; both try to capitalize on the demand for THC cartridges while providing a safe alternative to most street drugs.
Veronica*, a Medill junior, receives shipments of dispensary cartridges from her cousin on the West Coast. During Northwestern's football season, Veronica spends her Saturdays selling cartridges to fellow students at tailgate parties. In the hours preceding kickoff against Ohio State, she reportedly made $150.
“I don’t particularly feel good about the fact that I’m dealing, but the fact that I’m dealing supposedly safe cartridges makes me feel a little better,” Veronica said. “But honestly, I feel like the science isn’t there yet. In five years it’ll probably come out that cartridges are all bad for you. I’ll feel guilty in five years.”
Although Veronica seemed to care more for her customers than Jane, she admitted her priority is still to make a profit. She knows very little about the contents of her product; only that they arrive in pre-packaged dispensary boxes and are typically of the brands Ionic and Regulators.
Yet Veronica is certainly not the only Northwestern student that has seized the opportunity to sell higher end THC cartridges. Weinberg junior Nate* also receives batches of cartridges from contacts in states with more lax cannabis laws, but he says he verifies the contents of all his products before he advertises them on social media.
Nate claims he knows everything he can about his cartridges; he boasts about his product’s purity and offers legitimate QR codes for customers to verify the lab results of specific flavors themselves. Upon receiving each new shipment, Nate checks each cartridge for its tracking number and a state regulation symbol — both markers of the cartridge’s authenticity. As a final indicator of the product’s legitimacy, Nate ensures that the bubbles within the cartridge are stagnant. Movement observable by the naked eye is a sure sign of poor quality, Nate claims.
Dispensary cartridges often come in packages like these, with QR codes users can scan to verify the contents of their products and access summaries indicating the presence of pesticides, heavy metals, mycotoxins and residual solvents.
Yet to Nate’s amazement, few customers actually ask for details about the research he conducts before selling his product.
“Last year there were no questions asked. I know they didn’t need to because I look out for them and actually got safe things,” Nate said. “But last year it could have been really easy for people to get sick because they didn’t ask questions. And I think the news coverage about it is probably a good thing.”
While the CDC has not yet indicated what specific component is leading to the outbreak in lung illnesses, Nate suspects the new vaping culture is a contributor.
“You get all these young kids going to the hospital because they don’t know what they’re buying, and they’ll literally buy anything,” Nate said. “If you say that it’s weed, they will buy it. That’s the problem; people need to really educate them.”
Street or dispensary cart? Choose wisely.
The first thing Weinberg sophomore Stephanie* does when she wakes up is “hit the pen,” a colloquial way of saying she smokes her THC vape. It’s also the last thing she does before falling asleep, and her go-to throughout the day to unwind. Stephanie has slyly vaped THC between classes on Sheridan Road and even in the privacy of Core Study Rooms at the library. As a result, Stephanie is perpetually high for weeks on end, sometimes only breaking the cycle when her cartridge runs out.
Like Stephanie, Weinberg sophomore Meredith* reports going through phases of heavy use in which she smokes THC throughout the day as well. Yet even at the rate at which Meredith consumes cartridges, she admits that she doesn’t inquire much about the contents of cartridges when she buys them from informal dealers. For many users like Meredith, who consume street cartridges habitually, the cartridge’s price and flavor are the only relevant questions at the time of purchase.
Other students, like Medill sophomore Justin*, have been more wary of THC cartridges since news of their association with lung illnesses broke over the summer. Justin stopped smoking THC cartridges and e-cigarettes in late September for several reasons, including the negative effect it had on his “ability to work out” and overall physical and mental health.
“You have slight memory loss sometimes or just general slower mind processing, like reaction to things and sometimes I found myself absentminded,” Justin said. “In general, I feel like it's not good to be inhaling heated oil from a small metal piece that has the capacity to explode in your bag.”
Legal and illicit cartridges can look very similar: on the left is Jane’s street cartridge, and on the right is a dispensary cartridge.
However, Justin previously bought from dispensaries on the West Coast using a cannabis delivery platform called “Eaze” to select high-end THC cartridges. After doing so, Justin says he has transported his cartridges back to Northwestern on carry-ons and checked baggage without questioning from Transportation Security Administration agents.
Since the news of lung illnesses broke – since Justin stopped using – Stephanie has seen a new distinction between dealers of THC cartridges. There is, she says, a difference between street dealers who have continued to sell dangerous products in light of learning of their risks and dispensary dealers, who have re-sourced their supply in response to changes in the market.
“I think street dealers probably have a little less of a conscience because they know that they're putting their customers at risk,” Stephanie said. “They sell it for [a] cheaper price and nowadays most people know the risk they are taking when they buy a street cart but some people don't know, like younger kids. It's definitely a matter of consciousness.”
Since the exact sources of EVALI remain unknown, campaigns to reduce vaping of all THC and e-cigarette products have emerged. Still, “illicit THC” is one of the most commonly reported substances, Arnold of the IDPH said.
Although there have been no reports of vaping-related lung illnesses in Evanston, Illinois has had three reported deaths associated with vaping illicit THC. The City of Evanston’s Health and Human Services are following guidelines set by the IDPH to provide “surveillance” on vaping.
“At this point, any person who's experiencing any type of chest pain or difficulty breathing, who have used e-cigarette or vaping should definitely seek immediate medical attention,” Interim Director of Health and Human Services Ike Ogbo told NBN.
“I just like the money”
Jane doesn’t see herself as a criminal, much less morally responsible for the customers to whom she serves possibly pesticide-infused THC cartridges. To Jane, and many like-minded young dealers, the THC business is a game, and the colorful bags of THC cartridges with flavors like Fruity Pebbles, Yoda OG and Peaches & Dream are a testament to the juvenility intertwined with the THC cartridge market.
Perhaps most indicative of all, is Jane’s greatest concern with selling dangerous THC cartridges to her peers: “I guess I don't really think about it that much. I don't want to actually get in trouble if someone gets hurt,” Jane said. “I don't know why I still do it. I guess I just like the money?”
*Editor’s note: names have been changed to protect subjects’ identities.