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How to spot a fake vape cartridge

Published on September 19, 2019 · Last updated September 16, 2022

This year’s alarming wave of vaping-associated pulmonary injury has already made up to 530 people sick and killed as many as six people. If you use disposable vaporizer cartridges, how can you make sure that the one you’re puffing on is safe?

This is a fake. Click to enlarge. (Leafly)

While there are no foolproof methods (even well-regulated markets sometimes have recalls), there are many ways to reduce the risk of consuming a contaminated product. Read on to learn how you can spot a fake or contaminated vape cartridge.

When it comes to avoiding dangerous vape carts, the number one piece of advice we heard from the experts was to avoid the illicit market.

“My honest opinion is to make sure to purchase vape carts from a licensed dispensary,” says Neil Dellacava, buyer at California cannabis brand Gold Seal. “I would just completely avoid buying cartridges from anyone that isn’t licensed.”

Licensed products are much safer, but not completely safe

From cannabis industry professionals, to testing lab experts, to California’s consumer affairs and public health agencies, everyone we spoke to reiterated the point that cannabis from the legal market is likely to be safer given factors like increased accountability and the rigorous testing required by state law.

In addition, as California Cannabis Industry Association Executive Director Lindsay Robinson points out: “It is important to note that no cannabis vaping products purchased at licensed cannabis businesses have been linked to these illnesses.”

If you want to play it safe, stick to the regulated medical cannabis programs in your state, or use the legal, recreational cannabis markets in Alaska, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. Illinois has voted to allow adult-use cannabis stores, but they aren’t legally able to open until Jan. 1, 2020. The adult-use legalization states of Maine and Vermont do not yet have state-licensed stores and hence, no lab-tested products.

Don’t buy this junk

These fake brand packages were purchased last week by Leafly in downtown LA’s unregulated wholesale markets. (Leafly)

Make sure the license exists

Still, it’s not always clear which retailers in your area are actually licensed—especially in bigger cities. There are a lot of illicit market dispensaries, so it’s important to verify that the store you are shopping at is part of the regulated market.

Check the store's license, and look for the product's unique brand markings and QR code.

In California, stores are required to clearly post their license number. You can also check the state Bureau of Cannabis Control website to see whether a store really is a registered and licensed retailer.

If the license number isn’t posted, the store is not part of the regulated market—or at least it’s not following the rules for licensees. This is already a noted problem in Los Angeles, where unlicensed shops are particularly prevalent.

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You can also use Leafly’s dispensary finder to locate licensed dispensaries in your area. Leafly only lists licensed stores and dispensaries, while other sites may list illicit market shops.

Check the packaging

While shopping in regulated markets is key, you can also check the product packaging to see if anything looks fishy.

Labels on products in the regulated California market should all display:

  • A manufacturing date
  • A packaging date
  • A batch number
  • A lot number

Beware of fake copycats

Fraudsters aren’t just manufacturing fictitious brands and potentially toxic products. They’re also putting out fake versions of popular brands. Websites sell packs of 100 empty glass tank carts along with counterfeit labels that mimic the legal cannabis brand Cookies—all for just $18.

On the left, a real vape cart package from the licensed brand Cookies. On the right, a fake copycat. (Leafly)

One way to spot the real item: Look for state-mandated packaging icons like California’s THC warning sign. If the labeling doesn’t match the required packaging standards, that’s an indication that the product might have come from an illicit manufacturer, and isn’t subject to the state’s purity and potency safeguards.

That’s not foolproof, though. The fake Cookies package, above right, also contains the California THC warning sign.

Jason Guillory, marketing director for NUG, a California-based cannabis company, advises consumers to look for other marks of authenticity as well. “Most certified carts contain manufacturer stamps,” he says. You can check your favorite cart brands to see if they have a stamp that distinguishes them from fake copycat products.

You might also find additional help from brands that add QR codes, which can be scanned for verifying information.

Look at the ingredients

Many vape tanks contain diluents such as propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) oil.

These oils are sometimes added to give cannabis extract a more liquid consistency so they vape more easily, or to simply make the product less expensive by adding cheaper ingredients.  These cutting agents, particularly a new thickener called Vitamin E acetate (also known as tocopheryl-acetate) are currently under investigation as a potential cause of the sudden breakout of vaping related illnesses.

California Department of Public Health officials state that the cause of these illnesses are still not known, but avoiding these diluents might be a good precaution to take while things are being sorted out. Experts have had concerns about them for a long time.

“Honestly, it’s been my biggest concern about the vapor cartridges from the very beginning,” explains Samantha Miller, chief science officer and founder of cannabis testing lab Pure Analytics. “You’re turning that material into super tiny droplets and then inhaling them deep into your lungs. I started to wonder aren’t people’s alveoli just laminating shut from this? Apparently they are.”

Diluents: Legal, but maybe not healthy

Miller has begun offering vitamin E acetate testing through Pure Analytics for those who request it, but currently all of these diluents are still legal in the regulated cannabis market—if listed on the label as an ingredient—and testing for them isn’t required by state law.

Miller warns in particular that CBD pens (which many think of as especially safe) are always made with diluents because CBD is crystalline and needs to be suspended in something to be vapable. While the jury is still out on which, if any, of these diluents are problematic, those who want to be cautious should avoid them entirely.

This doesn’t mean giving up on all vape pens. Some, like those designed by Miller for the brand Dosist, along with pens from brands like Jetty or Nug, are made from 100% cannabis-derived extracts. Some brands even carry out additional testing as part of their brand promise. At Jetty, Luna Stower, director of marketing and business development, explains the company “goes above and beyond the legal requirements for testing, by screening our products three times for potency, pesticides, heavy metals, molds, and other foreign contaminants.”

Know your brands

Now is not the time to experiment with new or unknown brands. Seek out well-known brands with good safety records and protocols.

“Stick to major brands,” suggests Miller. “Look for brands that have been in existence for a number of years, that have an established reputation, and had a significant presence on social media,” suggests Miller. These brands have a reputation to uphold and are under particular scrutiny from the BCC. Unlike new brands or those in the illicit market, they can’t just “cut and run”—putting dangerous substances in their tanks, wholesaling them to unsuspecting retailers, and then disappearing when things go wrong.

You can look up brand license numbers on the BCC’s website as well.

Check the lab results

Licensed brands provide test results to retailers, so ask your budtender for the product’s COA (certificate of analysis).

Some illicit market brands may fake lab results with fraudulent photoshopped COA’s. Licensed dispensaries should always check these but enforcement may be spotty, so some buyers could be fooled into thinking fake COA’s are legitimate, and put illicit market products in regulated shops. Still, you can always check with the lab the product was tested at to confirm the results are real.

Do the math

Look for red flags on test results, as well. Do the numbers add up? Are there any particularly low THC percentages? According to Miller, anything below 60% THC in a vape cartridge is likely cut with some other material. Exceptionally high numbers like 99.9% THC should also be approached with suspicion.

Trust your instincts

Beyond all these suggestions, if you think something is off with your tank, trust your instincts and stop using it. As Stower points out: “Most of these diluents are tasteless, odorless, and colorless, which makes them almost impossible to detect without lab analysis.” Taste or smell alone often won’t alert you, but sometimes it will. If something smells or tastes wrong, don’t take the risk.

Switch to rosin, sift, or flower

Of course, if you really want to play it safe, stay away from tanks and distillate right now. There are so many alternative types of extract you can enjoy. Solventless options like rosin, live rosin, and dry sift are fantastic options because they aren’t processed with any harsh chemicals. Of course, you can always go back to good old fashioned flower.

For those outside of California, these same basic suggestions apply—but you may have different state regulations on packaging or different ways of confirming someone is a licensee. Check with your state’s cannabis program to learn more about these details.

How to survive the street market

Given that four of every five cannabis dollars spent in California is on illicit market products, and many outside of regulated states don’t have easy access to cannabis, we also have a few suggestions for those still buying cannabis from the street.

First, one of the tactics in the illicit market is to mimic legitimate brands by having well-made commercial packaging. Sites like www.dhgate.com offer packaging that allows for this kind of scam. We know the brands Chronic Carts, Dank Vapes, and West Coast Carts have been tied to lung illnesses, but other illicit market brands may be as well. Before you start vaping an illicit market pen, check dhgate.com to see if the packaging for it is available. If it is, you should avoid using it.

Leafly freelancer Marissa Wenzke contributed to this report.

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Emily Earlenbaugh
Emily Earlenbaugh
Dr. Emily Earlenbaugh is a cannabis writer and educator. She is the Director of Education for Mindful Cannabis Consulting, where she teaches patients how to find the cannabis options that work best for them. She regularly writes about cannabis science and culture for publications like Cannabis Now Magazine, SF Chronicle’s GreenState, HelloMD, and Big Buds Magazine. Emily has a doctorate in philosophy of science from UC Davis.
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