Updated Sept. 16 with comment from Amazon
Amazon has quietly removed several products that buyers could use to make counterfeit marijuana vaping devices — the same ones which, along with nicotine vapes, have been tied to hundreds of injuries and at least six deaths reported nationwide this year.
The products pulled from Amazon mimicked marijuana products that are sold legally in the several U.S. states that have approved recreational cannabis. They range from packaging materials for the Exotic Carts brand of marijuana oil cartridges to bulk “California compliant” stickers indicating the object to which the labels are affixed is legal under the state’s marijuana law.
However, anyone could purchase these and other materials from Amazon’s website, filled with any vaping fluid and sold on the black market, where sales of illicit marijuana vaping products have flourished recently.
A Minnesota man died last week after an extended hospitalization for a lung injury tied to “vaping illicit THC products,” according to the state Health Department. Minnesota health officials reported 25 vaping-related illnesses as of Wednesday.
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The devices in question work using a pen-like heating element to which a cartridge attaches. The cartridge is filled with an oil that includes THC, the compound in cannabis that causes a high. The heating element, called a battery, heats the oil into a vapor that the user inhales.
Many of the THC cartridges come in brightly colored bags or boxes when sold on the legal marketplace. Such packaging for multiple brands was available on Amazon until earlier this week.
Amazon — the world’s largest retailer — was selling an array of products one could use to manufacture a cartridge, from tamper-evident seals to warning labels to oils to packaging. That’s most everything, except for the THC oil itself.
Amazon initially declined comment for this story.
On Monday afternoon, MPR News asked Amazon how it regulates products that could be used to make counterfeit THC vape cartridges and whether it planned any changes following the recent public health concerns. MPR News linked to two products as examples in the email to Amazon.
Those two products and a host of similar ones were gone from the site by Tuesday afternoon, with no explanation from Amazon.
However, products such as “Dank Vape Empty Packaging” and “Cali Plug Carts Packaging” were visible on Amazon’s site via Google search index. Following the link lead to an error message on Amazon.com, indicating the product had been removed.
While the packaging and labeling materials appear removed from Amazon, shoppers can still buy empty cartridges as well as the tools and oils to fill them.
Days after this story initially published, Amazon provided a statement to MPR News saying it does not allow “e-cigarettes or drug paraphernalia” in its store.
“We require all sellers to follow our selling guidelines and have dedicated teams that use sophisticated tools, including machine learning, to keep prohibited products out of our store,” the statement said. “We take action on those who violate our policies, including removal of selling privileges and withholding of funds.”
Exact cause of injuries, deaths remains unknown
While cannabis has been the most commonly used illegal drug used in the U.S., even before 10 states opted to legalize it for recreational use, the proliferation of oils and extracts adds a new level of uncertainty for users who were used to consuming it in raw plant form.
“If you own illicit vape cartridges, throw them away immediately,” advised cannabis news site Leafly. “They are unregulated, untested, and could be contaminated.”
Preliminary investigations have tied recent lung issues to a Vitamin E acetate. Vitamin E is considered safe as a dietary supplement and in skin-care products but not for vaping. Leafly reported that an additive containing Vitamin E proliferated on the legal and illicit cannabis markets in the past year.
A legal cannabis industry source told the publication that as much as 60 percent of cartridges in the U.S. contain Vitamin E.