Photo: Minnesota Department Of Public Safety
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As health officials scrutinize marijuana vaping, it’s increasingly on law enforcement’s radar, too.
From New York City to Nebraska farm country to California, authorities have seized at least 510,000 marijuana vape cartridges and arrested more than 120 people in the past two years, according to an Associated Press tally derived from interviews, court records, news accounts and official releases.
A Wisconsin mother, her two adult sons and five other people were charged this fall in what investigators describe as a black-market manufacturing operation that churned out thousands of cartridges a day packed with THC, the cannabis chemical that causes a high. In neighboring Minnesota, authorities said they found nearly 77,000 illicit pot cartridges in a man’s suburban Minneapolis home and car in September.
An Alabama prosecutor has seen a spurt in pot vape cases in juvenile court. And in New York City, drug authorities say they’ve seized about 200,000 illegal cartridges just since this summer, often while investigating groups suspected of trafficking in traditional-form marijuana or other drugs.
“We’re putting a lot more resources in pursuing these organizations,” said Ray Donovan, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New York office. “This is where the market is going. … These criminal organizations are going to jump on whatever the business model is and try to take advantage and exploit that.”
Fueled recently by alarm over a deadly lung illness that health officials have linked to illicit THC vaping, the pursuit of pot cartridges has added a new layer to drug enforcement while authorities are grappling with the opioid crisis and other drug issues.
In states with and without legal marijuana markets, drug investigators, highway patrols and local police departments have been adjusting to searching for a form of marijuana that comes in small packages, doesn’t smell like pot and might look like legal nicotine vapes — or require discerning what’s legal and not in states that allow marijuana use.
California officials seized 7,200 cartridges in October from a Los Angeles warehouse tied to a state-licensed company that made Kushy Punch-brand vapes. The state later revoked the company’s license.
Kushy Punch has said the cartridges were old, unusable and not meant for distribution. The brand says it’s looking for new manufacturing partners.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Narcotics Bureau may soon start tallying vape seizures when busting allegedly illegal pot dispensaries, Capt. Holly Francisco said.
Vaping rapidly gained ground in the past few years among marijuana users as a fast-acting and discreet alternative to smoking the drug. Thirty-three states have legalized marijuana at least for medicinal use, but bootleg vape “carts” — short for cartridges — have cropped up there and elsewhere, selling for roughly $20 to $50 apiece.
The illicit marijuana vape market nationwide is estimated at as much as $2.5 billion this year — roughly equivalent to the market for legal pot cartridges, according to cannabis market researchers BDS Analytics and Arcview Market Research.
The lung-illness outbreak raised alarms about vaping as over 2,200 people fell ill and at least 47 died in the past nine months. Health officials have urged people to avoid vaping, particularly black-market products containing THC, which many of the sick said they had used.
To marijuana legalization advocates, the increased focus on black-market marijuana cartridges is an argument for legalizing and regulating the drug nationally in the name of safety.