Photo: The Canadian Press
Legal vape pen packaging, left, and on the right two bootleg versions of the same brand of Kingpen cannabis vape cartridges.
A short walk from police headquarters in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, a cluster of bustling shops are openly selling packaging and hardware that can be used to produce counterfeit marijuana vapes that have infected California’s cannabis market.
Bootleggers eager to profit off unsuspecting consumers are mimicking popular, legal vape brands, pairing replica packaging churned out in Chinese factories with untested, possibly dangerous cannabis oil produced in the state’s vast underground market.
The result: Authentic-looking vape cartridges sold by unlicensed dispensaries and delivery services, along with rogue websites.
The deceptive rip-offs on the street could be linked to an emerging public health crisis. Hundreds of people across the U.S. have been sickened, mainly by vaping cannabis oil. Seven deaths have been reported, the latest on Monday in California’s Tulare County.
Public health officials aren’t sure what’s causing the breathing issues, vomiting and other symptoms, but in California they say most patients reported purchasing vapes from pop-up shops or other illegal sellers that are a pipeline for counterfeit products.
The problem has gotten so pervasive that a major legal brand, Kingpen, is investing millions of dollars to redesign its packaging and product security, The Associated Press has learned.
The distributor for another major brand, Heavy Hitters, devotes a section of its website to report phonies and has hired a former federal prosecutor, Priya Sopori, to help the company deal with counterfeiting.
“The danger presented by counterfeit products is just a natural result of not having the money, the resources or the people power to enforce licensing,” Sopori said. “Someone is buying this packaging, buying these cartridges and filling them with whatever. It’s being sold as our brand.”
As marijuana has gone mainstream, versions of e-cigarettes that vaporize high-inducing cannabis oil are one of the hottest-selling items, popular for those who don’t want the smoke that comes from lighting up a joint. In addition to quickly delivering a high, there’s a perception not supported by science that vaping is a healthier alternative to smoking.
In storefronts along Los Angeles’ Boyd Street, a narrow commercial strip that has become a de facto bazaar for all things cannabis, there are displays of fake packaging and ready-to-fill vape cartridges for sale for popular brands including Heavy Hitters and Kingpen.
At one shop, the knock-off Heavy Hitter packages were selling for $225 for 100 empty cartridges and boxes; the Kingpen sets sell for $200. Counterfeit packaging and vape cartridges can also be easily found with a few mouse clicks on Alibaba, China’s largest online commerce company, and other websites. Once purchased, a counterfeiter would add cannabis oil that is widely available in the illicit market — one recent online ad was selling oil for $6 a gram when purchased by the litre.
It’s not clear who’s behind all the different sales, and California law enforcement agencies have been overmatched by the widespread illegal market. In LA, the police department’s chief focus is shuttering an estimated 200 illegal dispensaries across the city, not pursuing the source of fake vapes that might be for sale inside them, Los Angeles Police Department spokesman Josh Rubenstein said.
Kingpen has taken matters into its own hands, suing Chinese companies that produce fake packaging, sending scores of cease-and-desist letters to businesses that sell them and filing complaints with the state, only to see nothing change.
“There is no feedback. There is no action,” said Danny Corral, Kingpen manufacturer Loudpack’s vice-president of sales.
“We have every reason to believe that the same criminal gangs and cartels that dominate the global pharmaceutical counterfeit drug trade will similarly wrestle control of California’s cannabis counterfeit drug trade,” says a report compiled by Mammoth Distribution and submitted to state regulators. The company distributes Heavy Hitters.