Vape Crisis Takes Darker Turn into Black Market

FDA finds chemical additive in illegal marijuana vaping products.

Vaping products, once used as a healthier alternative to quit smoking cigarettes, is now responsible for killing over 50 people and hospitalizing thousands across the country, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). In-store vape products are continuing to be pulled from shelves, but laboratory findings are steering lung-illness claims towards illegal marijuana vape products with dangerous chemicals.

Vaping is at the forefront of an investigation by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), with the most recent report announcing 52 deaths and 2,409 hospitalizations across the U.S. on Tuesday, Dec. 10. 

During the CDC’s investigation, state legislatures have taken it upon themselves to mitigate the access to e-cigarette products in order to avoid potential future cases of lung illness. On November 27, New York City voted 42-2 to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarette products, according to NYC councilman Mark Levine.

New York joins seven other states in implementing bans on e-cigarette products as of October 15: Michigan, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Montana, Washington, Oregon and California.

WAYNE, NJ 11/05/2019 ASSIGNMENT #03/ VAPE SHOP WORKER STRUGGLES WITH BUSINESS: Freddy, a full-time employee with King Smoke Shop, leans on the counter in the empty store. This business is his only form of income, and the bad publicity has cut profits in half. – Photo by Heather Berzak/TVDM 441

On September 25 of this year, JUUL Labs CEO Kevin Burns stepped down as a result of severe backlash received from the nation over the company’s marketing being geared towards luring youth into vaping. JUUL has since removed flavored JUUL pods from their website, with only menthol, classic tobacco and virginia tobacco available for purchase.

In recent months, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have teamed up to test samples from patients with vape-related lung illnesses in order to try and find a common link. As of Dec. 11, the FDA has analyzed 719 samples connected to vape-related patients.

While state-enacted bans on e-cigarette products are aiming to control access to nicotine products, the common link discovered by the FDA takes a different direction.

Out of the 719 samples tested by the FDA, 465 samples have been found to contain Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive chemical found in a marijuana plant that is responsible for making users feel high. But it is not the marijuana itself that’s the cause of concern, it is an additive that at first glance doesn’t strike as threatening: vitamin E acetate.

“Vitamin E acetate is a vitamin found in many foods, and is also available in supplements and cosmetic products like skin cream,” According to Dr. Anne Schuchat from the CDC in a Nov. 8 telebriefing.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screen-shot-2019-12-09-at-1.10.56-pm.png

But when this chemical is used as an inhalant, Schuchat said it could be potentially harmful.

“Vitamin E acetate is also a known additive used to dilute liquid in e-cigarette or vaping products that contain THC,” Schuchat said. “Vitamin E acetate does usually not cause harm when swallowed as a vitamin supplement or applied topically to the skin. However, previous non-CDC research suggests that when vitamin E acetate is inhaled, it may interfere with normal lung function. “

Out of the FDA’s 465 samples of vape products found to contain THC, 50% of them contained vitamin E acetate, and 23% contained another diluent such as medium chain triglycerides, which are typically found in coconut and palm kernel oils.

When it comes to the purpose behind using vitamin E acetate as a diluent, Schuchat mentions a variety of reasons.

“[Using vitamin E acetate] may be done for more the illicit purposes or the profit purposes of diluting the materials and making it look nice, and perhaps not having to use as much THC or other active ingredients,” Schuchat said.

The CDC recommends that vape users should not, “buy any type of e-cigarette, or vaping, products, particularly those containing THC from informal sources like friends, or family, or in-person or online dealers.”

According to, only 11 out of the 50 U.S. states have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

RINGWOOD, NJ 11/08/2019 ASSIGNMENT #03/TAYLOR ALLEN ROLLS JOINT: Taylor Allen, 21, rolls a joint of marijuana on her bed. She smokes marijuana at night in order to sleep without difficulty, as her anxiety oftentimes wakes her up. -Photo by Heather Berzak/TVDM 441

For states that do not currently allow recreational use of marijuana, many people turn to illegal ways of getting it. Taylor Allen, a New Jersey resident who cannot smoke marijuana legally, is one of those people.

“He’s had chest pains, and almost went to the hospital. It’s not something to joke around with, I was terrified when he was grabbing his chest and he didn’t know what was going on,” Allen said. “But, what are you gonna do? You have to be more careful.”Taylor Allen, 21, Ringwood, New Jersey

Taylor Allen, 21, Ringwood, New Jersey

Allen, 21, from Ringwood, New Jersey has an out-of-state connection she contacts to purchase THC-infused vape products.

“We have a friend in Vermont that gets [THC-infused vape cartridges] from a source,” Allen said.

While Allen has not personally experienced health problems from using THC-infused vape products, her ex-boyfriend, Michael Cassella, has.

“He’s had chest pains, and almost went to the hospital. It’s not something to joke around with, I was terrified when he was grabbing his chest and he didn’t know what was going on,” Allen said. “But, what are you gonna do? You have to be more careful.”

RINGWOOD, NJ 11/08/2019 ASSIGNMENT #03/TAYLOR ALLEN TEXTS DEALER: Taylor Allen, 21, texts her dealer that provides her with THC-infused vape cartridges. She gets her cartridges from a man in Vermont, who allegedly gets the product from another dealer. She has not experienced health problems from the product, but her former boyfriend, Mike Cassella, has experienced chest pains in the past from using them. -Photo by Heather Berzak/TVDM 441

New Jersey has had one vape-related death as of October 2 of this year, according to a report by A North Jersey woman described as “beyond college age,” died in August, the report said.

Sarah Skinner, 18, from Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, admits that more people in New Jersey resort to the black market to get THC products than residents are meant to believe.

“Everything is off the black market, literally everything. Weed, THC carts, THC pods, all of it is off the black market. All of it is entirely illegal,” Skinner said. “You can’t just like, go to a person and be like ‘Where did you get this from?’ ‘My drug dealer.’ Most people get it off the black market anyway and that’s their ‘drug dealer.’”

POMPTON LAKES, NJ 11/17/2019 ASSIGNMENT #03/TEEN VAPES TO COMBAT DEPRESSION: Sarah Skinner, 18, sits on the stairs outside of her home with a vape in hand. She uses nicotine to combat her depression, something she’s struggled with since middle school. Middle school is also around the time she picked up cigarette smoking. -Photo by Lauren Beckles / TVDM 441

THC-infused vaping products off of the black market are not regulated by the FDA, and are often homemade and sold through underground deals. Kristen DePuyt, a nurse practitioner out of Sparta, New Jersey, warns of the potential risks to buying illicit vaping products.

SPARTA, NJ 10/04/2019 ASSIGNMENT #03/KRISTEN DEPUYT CHECKS PATIENT: Nurse Practitioner Kristen DePuyt checks the breathing of her pediatric patient, Drew Miller, during a routine checkup. DePuyt says many of the cases of vape-related breathing issues she’s seen come from teenagers. -Photo by Heather Berzak/TVDM 44

“A lot of times you buy [them] thinking it’s one thing and it’s tainted. [They] could be tainted with fentanyl, [they] can be tainted with all kinds of things that are really quite harmful,” DePuyt said. “The kids might not even consider [harmful chemicals], they might not know.”

Like fentanyl, vitamin E acetate is an additive used to potentially enhance the drug potency in the product in order to cut production costs, according to Schuchat. For illegal THC-product dealers looking to save money, vitamin E acetate is an easy solution.

One area of the black market that is notorious for selling illegal drugs is the dark web, an area of the internet not properly monitored by law enforcement due to its elusive nature. With purchases through bitcoin, an elusive online-based currency, and surfing the dark web through TOR, a browser that cannot track IP addresses, catching illegal drug purchases are difficult for law enforcement to identify.

MONTCLAIR, NJ 10/25/2019 ASSIGNMENT #03/UNIVERSITY OFFICER COMBATS DARK WEB: Captain Kieran Barrett of the Monclair State Police Department takes a complaint call over the phone in his office at the police station. Barrett mentioned several officers at the station have dark web training in order to combat growing concerns over elusive drug purchases. -Photo by Heather Berzak / TVDM 441

Capt. Kieran Barrett of the Montclair State University Police Department (PD) in Montclair, New Jersey, has several officers trained in the dark web in order to combat this growing concern.

“We have had some training with regards to [drug purchases off of the dark web],” Barrett said. “It is something that is at the forefront of law enforcement now because we’re seeing it all over the country, and it’s only a matter of time before we see it at our agency.”

Barrett further mentioned that the Montclair State PD gets advisory warnings on the dark web by state agencies like the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and the New Jersey state police.

While purchasing dark web products containing THC and using marijuana recreationally in New Jersey are both illegal, Barrett still advises students that engage in these activities to know that the police are here to help them in the case of a medical emergency.

“The marijuana laws in the state of New Jersey have not changed as of yet, so they’re still enforceable,” Barrett said. “But at the same time, that comes after the person is brought to a hospital if necessary. That comes after they get the care that they need. People need to feel comfortable to get to get the help for somebody if they need it.”

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has not recreationally legalized marijuana, and Barrett believes illegal use of THC-infused vape products are here to stay in New Jersey for now.

“I think that it’s going to be a problem that we’re going to deal with for a while,” Barrett said,” The availability of vaping, the availability of THC on the [black] market right now is just rampant, and the the cost of it is is low. So the reality is we’re going to see a lot more of it and I hope that we don’t see a lot more tragedies from it because we are seeing that not just in New Jersey but across the nation.”

Meet the Team

Heather Berzak (right) and Lauren Beckles (left) are senior-year students studying at Montclair State University. Heather is a journalism major and Lauren is a communication and media arts major. Heather hopes to be a multimedia journalist out of college and Lauren will be going to graduate school for teaching after her undergraduate term.

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