Just as fly-by-night outfits roll out fake Gucci gear in an attempt to fool consumers, or at least undercut the Real McCoy, sketchy operators are now targeting a sector of the cannabis industry — producers of pre-loaded vaporizer cartridges.
The difference is that we aren’t talking about carrying around a purse here. When you inhale vaporized cannabis distillate produced with no transparency or accountability, you may be getting a lungful pesticide residue and other such harmful matter.
Once again, market forces are distorted by the illegality of cannabis products, giving a boost to unscrupulous operators.
Chinese Capitalism Exploits American Prohibition
As Rolling Stone put it in an exposé on the unseemly phenomenon in December: “In states where marijuana is still illegal, cartridge concentrates are popular thanks to their relative lack of smell and resemblance to cartridges containing nicotine. Branded cartridges from major industry leaders like King Pen, Brass Knuckles and Heavy Hitters are particularly coveted for the assumed assurance that they contain a premium concentrate free of contaminants like pesticides, cutting agents, and heavy metals. But what if the cartridges are fakes?”
Manufacturers aggressively market their empty cartridges, designed to mimic known brand names, on Instagram and other social media. “Black market dealers who purchase the cartridges can fill them with whatever they want — pesticide-ridden distillate, heavily-cut oils, synthetic cannabis, to name a few—and consumers would have no way to tell, and little recourse even if they could,” the Rolling Stone report continues.
A particular perverse paradox of the situation is that China, where marijuana is thoroughly illegal, is the major producer of these bogus cartridges. Just as the legit cannabis business exploits the cheap labor of China’s industrial zones, so do the duplicitous operators.
According to a December investigation by Merry Jane, which first reported on the counterfeit carts: “On Alibaba, a Chinese-based e-commerce hub, pages upon pages of fake Brass Knuckles and King Pen cartridges are listed from sellers almost exclusively based in the manufacturing hub of Shenzhen — the same place where legal weed companies source their authentic hardware.”
Legitimate and counterfeit operators are in a race now, the prior updating their packaging to stay ahead of the former; the former scrambling to keep pace.
Kate Denton, the chief marketing officer at Loudpack, which owns the King Pen line of cartridges, told Merry Jane: “We are taking a hard line against counterfeiting and have engaged our legal team to identify the unlicensed vendors and others that are offering to sell, selling, or distributing counterfeit products. We have implemented advanced monitoring systems, but [counterfeits] are also one of the reasons that we are constantly evolving our product.”
King Pen is said to be preparing a “major comprehensive lawsuit” against a number of international counterfeiters.
There are issues with the carts themselves as well as the stuff they are loaded with. In addition to residual pesticide, solvents or even flat-out adulterants in the distillate, you have to worry about lead in the actual carts.
This is a concern for the legit industry too. As Cannabis Now reported in February, California cart makers must now comply with “phase 3 heavy metal testing,” imposing more stringent standards that took effect at the end of last year. Those produced before the standards hit in may have higher levels of lead.
And, as pointed out in a memo released by K Street Consulting, pirate operators that submit to no testing whatsoever could exploit the window if the compliant products are not brought on quickly enough. The market, like nature, hates a vacuum.
Cannabis Caveat Emptor
So, what is a conscious cannabis concentrate consumer to do? Develop a strong knowledge base about the product, for starters.
Some tip-offs to bogus products are provided by a detailed (if not strictly grammatical) analysis on the website Dab Connection. For instance: “One of the easiest ways to identify fake Brass Knuckles is [that] real Brass Knuckles have a hologram on the side. Most fake Brass Knuckles cartridges do not. This is the first thing to look for and if there is no hologram you instantly know you have a fake.”
But some knock-off brands are more exacting in their deception. “With fake Brass Knuckles carts we can tell by a myriad of errors in design. Fake Heavy Hitters vape cartridges look very identical. With fake Stiiizy pods, they look exactly the same as the original ones…” Stiiizy is currently in the process of updating their packaging in response to this threat, following the lead of Dank Vapes.
Also look for misspellings and typos on the packaging — or missing information. Dab Conection writes: “[R]eal Brass Knuckles have strain information on the bottom. When that information is lacking, you can be sure it is a fake cartridge.”
Seattle’s The Stranger spoke with Daniel Luebke of Heylo Cannabis, a local distillate processing company, to come up with “six warning signs of a bad vape pen.”
First, beware if “It Tastes Like a Mojito.” Inappropriate terpene profile is a dead give-away that the concentrate has been jazzed up with something other than cannabis, probably to mask other impurities. “Great pot tastes great, full stop,” the guide says. “It needs nothing else, and when you start adding extra flavors you are almost always covering for an inferior product.”
Also watch out if “The Oil Is Runny,” or if “It Makes a Huge Cloud.” As Luebke told The Stranger: “Cannabis doesn’t produce that type of cloud, the problem is what is a huge cloud created by? It usually would be propylene glycol, aka formaldehyde.” Sounds like a buzzkill to us.
And of course don’t buy it if “You Don’t Know What It Is.” The solvent used in production of the distillate should be named on the label. If it isn’t there, assume the product is “both illegal and sketchy.” Finally, stay away if “the Cartridge Keeps Breaking,” or “t’s Cheap As Fuck.” Those last two are just common sense.
But the surest method to assure quality of to buy from an authorized retailer.
In a statement to Rolling Stone, a representative for Heavy Hitters said: “In order for consumers to stay safe and know they are buying authentic Heavy Hitters products, they should only buy from licensed California retailers. Verified Heavy Hitters retailers are all listed at HeavyHitters.co. This is a public health issue, and we want to ensure consumers are not put at risk.”
Of course, that is only helpful if you are in California or another state that has a legalized and regulated cannabis market. In the rest of the country, if carts are available at all, it is a good bet that they are bogus.
TELL US, have you ever been sold a fake vape cartridge?