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Big-name brands, such as Nike and Louis Vutton, are constantly counterfeited, but none have spurned a crisis quite like counterfeit vape cartridges. 

As of Sep. 24, 2019, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that a mysterious vaping-related outbreak has caused serious respiratory illnesses in 530 people, including eight deaths. While the exact cause of this potentially fatal condition remains unknown, the New York Department of Health (NYDOH) has focused its investigation on vitamin E acetate, which may be an ingredient in thickening agents thought to be used by illegal THC vape cartridge manufacturers.        

Cannabis vape cartridges have become wildly popular in states with adult-use legalization, spurring underground dealers to capitalize on this growing market by producing unregulated street-level THC cartridges that are believed to be the crux of this crisis. In southeastern Wisconsin, police recently conducted a raid and found 98,000 empty vape cartridges and 57 Mason jars filled with THC-based liquid, providing a peek behind the curtain of illegal cannabis vape oil production.

These vapes were identified by the New York State Department of Health as part of about three dozen cases of severe pulmonary illnesses in the state, among 530 confirmed and probable cases, with eight fatalities, throughout the U.S. Health officials are looking into vitamin E acetate and its link to the illnesses. (Photo by New York State Department of Health via Flickr)

To gain a better understanding of how the industry is tackling the counterfeit crisis, Weedmaps News reached out to some of the most popular — and, subsequently, most counterfeited — cannabis brands. They addressed the importance of product quality, how to identify legitimate products, as well as how to avoid fake and potentially hazardous products.  

What Top Brands are Saying About Counterfeits

Although the recent vape-related health crisis has forced consumers to educate themselves about counterfeits, this is an issue that many companies have been dealing with for quite some time. Several reputable cannabis brands have come out to commend the CDC's crackdown on illicit cannabis vape cartridges and dismiss the street dealers that have been flooding the market with hazardous products.

“Greedy, unscrupulous people sidestep regulations and add harmful, even deadly, chemicals to reduce costs and take advantage of uninformed consumers,” said Jason Boze, President and CEO of Stratum Brands, parent company of the cannabis brand Cobra Extracts. “We laud the efforts of the FDA and CDC to raise awareness about the adverse and even deadly impacts non-natural cannabis additives have on unwitting and trusting consumers of illicit cannabis products.” 

But it isn't as simple as only buying the brands you've heard of, as some of the industry's leading cannabis companies have fallen prey to counterfeiting. For example, the highly popular Los Angeles-based cannabis brand Cookies has been in a constant battle with counterfeits being shipped into the U.S. from overseas. 

“We see counterfeits everywhere,” Omar Ortiz, assistant brand manager for Cookies, told Weedmaps News. “We've had customs actually reach out to us and stop a large order of counterfeit Cookies packaging coming into the U.S.” Cookies manufactures its cannabis products in California and doesn't sell outside of the state. 

Some of the most counterfeited brands include: 

  • Heavy Hitters 
  • 710 Kingpen  
  • Cookies
  • Brass Knuckles
  • Jungle Boys
  • Korova
  • Stiiizy
  • Kurvana
  • Kushy Punch
  • Space Monkey Meds  
  • Tree Base Klear

Many manufacturers are taking steps to thwart counterfeits containing potentially dangerous vape oil, but consumers must also be diligent while searching for legitimate products.  

Importance of Product Quality

As evident by the recent string of vape-related illnesses from illicit products, there seems to be a clear distinction between counterfeits and products that are properly regulated and tested.  

“The biggest difference between regulated products and the fakes is exactly that — they are fake,” said Daniel Yi, Chief Communications Officer of Shryne Group, Stiiizy's parent company. “Fakes are not made at licensed facilities with government oversight, or quality and safety controls. Fake products are not sent to third-party state licensed labs and tested for dangerous chemicals like pesticides.”

Stiiizy is one brand cautioning users to seek out products that are participating in regulated markets and testing their products for contaminants. (Photo courtesy of Stiiizy)

Simply put, when you purchase counterfeit products from street dealers, you run the risk of consuming a product that hasn't been manufactured under regulated guidelines or been tested by a lab. These products could contain pesticides, cutting agents, and in some cases may not even have THC in them. 

As The Washington Post reported on Sep. 6, 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it identified the presence of vitamin E acetate in most of the samples linked to the mysterious respiratory illnesses. Many cannabis companies have released statements saying they don't use vitamin E acetate in their own cartridges. On the black market, however, there's no real way of knowing whether vitamin E acetate or other cutting agents are present in the cartridge. 

Packaging Problems

One of the best ways to identify counterfeits is by knowing what to look for on product packaging. Although many illicit vape products are being sold in packaging that is nearly identical to the real brands, many companies are increasing their efforts to implement indicators that help verify true products from the fakes. 

According to Ortiz, consumers should look for product packaging to include:

  • Child-resistant security mechanisms
  • Lab testing batch numbers
  • State government warnings, and
  • Additional manufacturing information such as who it was manufactured by, as well as the date it was produced and packaged 

While vape counterfeits have garnered the most attention due to the recent health scare, there are numerous other cannabis brands dealing with a constant influx of ripoffs. For example, the California-based cannabis brand Kushy Punch has spent a small fortune to continuously separate its edible products from imposters. 

“We have changed our packaging six times in the last two years to make our products look different,” Ruben Cross, CEO of cannabis brand Kushy Punch, which sells its products in California as well as Michigan, told Weedmaps News.  “It has cost our company well into the millions trying to stay one step ahead of the fake Kushy.” 

The Only Way to Avoid Counterfeits

When it comes down to it, all the brands Weedmaps News spoke to offered the same solution to avoiding counterfeit products: Purchase only from a licensed retailer. 

This is not an option for those who live in states without a regulated cannabis market, leaving cannabis consumers at risk of encountering counterfeit or even products from brands that don't actually exist. In cases where consumers are unable to access legal cannabis, they should refrain from buying cannabis vape oil cartridges from street dealers, online social media accounts, and websites that offer to ship THC-based products. 

Beware of Fake Brands 

It's not just top cannabis companies that have been swept up in the counterfeit craze. There are also a variety of unvetted brands that have popped up in illegal states may not even exist in regulated markets. 

In an investigative report published by Inverse on Aug. 19, 2019, the article focused on a mysterious vape brand called Dank Vapes. Despite having a popular social media presence, merchandise line, and a formidable grip on the street market, this potentially illicit brand could be completely fake.     

At a glance, the packaging for Dank Vapes doesn't look too unlike certain products you'd find in a licensed dispensary, featuring colorful cartoon graphics and familiar strain or flavor names such as “Blue Dream” and “Chemdawg.” Because packaging for Dank Vapes and even counterfeit packaging from real brands can be easily obtained online, the source of these potentially fatal cartridges are difficult to pinpoint, though packaging for several of these so-called “brands” are readily available from online retailers such as DHGate and Alibaba

Dank Vapes aren't the only alleged culprit in this illicit vape cartridge scandal, there are also the likes of:

All of these appear to be fake brands made in order to capitalize on the rising popularity of cannabis vape cartridges. 

Feature image: The rapidly growing popularity of vapes has spawned a market of counterfeit products and brands participating outside of licensed, regulated markets. (Gina Coleman/Weedmaps)