Nation & World

Pot smoking fast becoming pot vaping

Seizures of illegal marijuana cartridges soar

This photo, provided Nov. 7 by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, shows some of the 75,000 THC vaping cartridges
This photo, provided Nov. 7 by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, shows some of the 75,000 THC vaping cartridges seized in drug busts by Minnesota’s Northwest Metro Drug Task Force. (Minnesota Department of Public Safety via Associated Press)

As health officials scrutinize marijuana vaping as being linked to the rising toll of respiratory illnesses and deaths, it’s increasingly on law enforcement’s radar, too.

From New York to Iowa to California, authorities nationwide have seized hundreds of thousands of marijuana vape cartridges and arrested scores of people for possessing or selling them over the last two years, according to an Associated Press tally derived from interviews, court records, news accounts and law enforcement releases.

The increasingly ubiquitous marijuana vape cartridges make one thing clear: Vaping is fast becoming a popular way of smoking dope.

“With vape cartridges, you can use them anywhere and no one knows you’re using them,” said Paul Feddersen, assistant director with the Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement.

In 2018, about 400 grams of marijuana in vape cartridges were sent to Iowa’s state crime lab. So far this year, that has spiked to 11,000.

In Linn County, as authorities investigated the killing of father and drug dealer Chris Bagley, they said they seized 77 vape cartridges containing THC, a tool bag filled with 110 vape cartridges containing THC and a shoe box containing roughly 100 grams of marijuana from a man since charged in the murder, according to court records.

Over in Wisconsin, a 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.

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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. In New York City, drug authorities say they’ve seized about 200,000 illegal cartridges just since this summer. And in California, officials seized 7,200 cartridges in October from a Los Angeles warehouse.

“We’re putting a lot more resources in pursuing these organizations,” said Ray Donovan, the special agent in charge of the U.S. 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.”

Johnson County sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Brad Kunkel, speaking for the office’s representative to the Johnson County Multi-Agency Drug Task Force, said THC cartridges started popping up in this area in 2017.

“Since then, it’s kind of been this constant presence that they’ve seen through their investigations,” Kunkel said.

Iowa City police Sgt. Jerry Blomgren spent 10 years as a narcotics investigator and now oversees the force’s Street Crimes Action Team.

“They’re out there, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “ … We come across them pretty frequently in search warrants. Very frequently.”

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 still grappling with the opioid crisis and other drug issues.

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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.

“Given the nature of the devices, it’s a bit clandestine in many ways and it goes unnoticed,” said Dale Woolery, director of the Iowa Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy. “It’s more difficult to see. It’s more difficult to smell.”

Authorities said most of the THC cartridges discovered in Iowa are from out of state and arrive via mail or trips to states where recreational marijuana is legal, such as Colorado. Come Jan. 1, recreational marijuana becomes legal much closer to home — Illinois.

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 $20-$50 each.

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 — 49 of them in Iowa — 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.

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Health officials announced last month that vitamin E acetate, sometimes used to thicken vaping fluid, is a “very strong culprit” as a cause of the illness.

Authorities said one of the concerns about the THC liquid is that users may not know the contents of it or its potency.

“By and large, we’re talking about a rogue product that could have potentially high levels of THC,” Iowa’s Woolery said.

Woolery said education about vaping and vaping devices, as well as continued diligence, will be important as the practice becomes more prevalent.

“I think it’s important that those who are adult caregivers of youth — not to pick on young Iowans, but that’s where we would have a more vulnerable population — it’s important to know the playing field,” he said.

The Associated Press and Lee Hermiston and Michaela Ramm of The Gazette contributed.

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