APVaping Illnesses

In this Aug. 28, 2019, file photo, a man exhales while smoking an e-cigarette in Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

One LSU student walked through security and ID checks to purchase a legal THC vape cartridge in Los Angeles. Another walked up to the back of a van off a dim light road somewhere in Louisiana to buy one illegally; no ID checks, no security and no certainty that the purchase was safe.

This is the reality of the THC black market in Louisiana.

The Louisiana Health Department reported the state now has over 30 cases of lung injury associated with vaping a combination of THC and nicotine. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive chemical in marijuana that causes users to get high. The combination of both substances contributed to 55% of the illnesses, more than the reported illnesses caused from both nicotine and THC independently.

As of Nov. 21, over 2,290 people have been hospitalized due to a mysterious lung illness in the U.S. Over three quarters of those cases are linked to the use of THC cartridges in states where marijuana is not legalized. 

An LSU student, recovering from a lung injury caused by vaping THC, spent several days on a breathing machine, a pulmonary medicine specialist at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Dr. Abdulla Moosa, said, as he recounted it as a “life-threatening situation.” The hospital could not disclose the patient’s name.

The onset of lung illness comes suddenly. Nausea, abdominal pain, chills, cough and fever are only a few of the symptoms. In some cases, these symptoms can turn into a deadly sickness. 

Seeing these red flags, students at the state’s flagship university are beginning to open up about their hesitations concerning the black market, and reasons why they vaped illegal cartridges in the past.

“There is such easy access to THC cartridges, which makes it convenient for students to purchase,” one LSU sophomore said.

The University student stated she started smoking THC cartridges a year ago as a freshman. She knew a friend who sold the “Dank” brand vapes for $40.

“I bought my first cartridge from a friend at a house party my freshman year,” the sophomore said. “That was the first time I ever had, or had even seen, a THC cart so I was definitely not aware of the fake carts going around.”

The student said she became heavily dependent on the marijuana cartridges, partly because THC cartridges’ convenience and difficulty to detect.

“It does not smell like weed, so you can smoke it anywhere and no one would suspect a thing,” she said. “Plus, it has different flavors you can choose from. I’ve bought them from people at my job, people at school and people at parties. They were all regular people that sold carts.”

She continued to smoke the black-market cartridges until a traumatic experience. While attending a music festival in Miami, she was rushed to the paramedic station due to shortness of breath and an increased heart rate. 

“That was such a scary experience, it felt like I was going to pass out,” she said.

The student said she smoked her black market Dank cartridge multiple times at the festival prior to the anxiety attack. Believing it was the cause, she reduced her vaping, until she learned about the vaping crisis across the country.

“That was the last straw,” she said. “After reading about multiple people getting sick and dying from vaping made me give it up cold turkey.”

Authorities from the CDC have released tests indicating that substances such as Vitamin E acetate and cyanide have been found in black market THC cartridges they have obtained. How they obtained these cartridges has not been released. Since marijuana is not legal in all states, the Food and Drug Administration is unable to regulate the substances being sold in states like Louisiana. 

Students gain access to illegal THC cartridges via local black markets. One University student, who sold the cartridges to his peers, decided to step away from the practice because of the deaths he heard about across the country.  

“That is the reason why I personally stopped selling those,” the LSU senior said. “I don’t want to cause people to die. I feel like that’s taking things a little too far.”

THC oil is growing more popular at LSU because black market prices have fallen and the oil is more potent than regular marijuana. Also, using a vape is discreet. 

The ex-dealer talked about an acquaintance he knows still working the black market. This person travels around Louisiana selling hundreds of cartridges at a time, out of the back of a van, to be resold in smaller quantities. He produces his own THC oil, and fills it with other chemicals to save money and stretch the amount of oil produced. 

Dealers get away with the practice by using packaging that is almost identical to real, legal THC oil cartridge products off of websites like dhgate.com and alibaba.com. They make their cartridges appear as a legitimate brand, leading consumers to think they are vaping legal, presumably safer, THC oil.

“What’s happening is as soon as one brand gets named in the media, (black market dealers) are just going to switch to a different brand of packaging,” said the ex-dealer LSU student. “People are going to be like ‘oh, we’ve got the healthy carts.’” 

Another LSU junior who used to sell THC cartridges said, black market oil is available online from drug marketplaces on the deep web, which is a portion of the internet difficult to access without a special browser and exact links.

“I only got carts from a person, I didn’t trust the ones online,” the student said. He said he bought dispensary cartridges third hand from someone who had another person ship them to Louisiana. The process was very difficult, he said, and illustrates why so many users prefer to get cheap, easily available black market cartridges.

One way to discern illicit THC oil from legally produced oil is the viscosity of the liquid. Legally produced oil thicker and moves little, if at all, inside the cartridge. Black market oil is thinner and moves around inside the cartridge. 

Louisiana students are not the only college-aged people taking a step back from vaping. One University of Texas student recently visited the hospital due to a quick deterioration in his health, which doctors say is linked to vaping THC. 

“I thought I was dying,” Gabriel Vauthey, 20, said, recalling his father rushing him to the hospital.  

Vauthey vaped THC cartridges for eight months before he began to develop a cough. The cough turned into a debilitating sickness which left him hospitalized, unable to move for nearly a week. Doctors believe the cartridges were to blame. 

“I’ve never had anything that attacked my immune system so violently,” Vauthey said. “I’ve been sick, I’ve had the flu, but I’ve never had anythingto that extreme.”  

Despite some LSU students experiencing health issues due to vaping, Susan Bareis, assistant director for the Office of Wellness and Health Promotion in the Student Health Center said the SHC has not had any students come to them with vaping-related problems.

However, Bareis said more students are asking questions about vaping and the outbreak of lung injuries.

“Some of these cases are hitting home with our students here and they’re concerned for their health, especially with the links to deaths,” Bareis said.

The SHC started pushing more information on the risks associated with vaping over social media, Bareis said. The center has also planned an event covering the issue for the spring semester. The SHC has focused on the unknown factors of vaping, Bareis said, as there is little-to-no research on the long-term effects of vaping. Laboratories have found particles of heavy metals like tin in e-liquid.

Kristen Singleton, a Manship School of Mass Communication student and journalist, visited MMD Hollywood, a marijuana dispensary, in Los Angeles, in October. To enter the building she had to present a valid form of identification proving she was 22. Her ID was scanned, and once approved, Singleton was escorted by security into a room filled with marijuana-infused items. These THC products contained detailed information regarding their ingredients. Multiple sales representatives were available to assist and educate Singleton on potential purchases.

The difference in how a person acquires THC products legally versus illegally is drastic.

Some students are still not convinced that vaping is the culprit for the hospital visits and death the nation is seeing. Another LSU sophomore ended up in the hospital after experiencing similar symptoms following vaping THC bought off the black market, but blames exhaustion instead. Initially, she stated she bought THC cartridges legally from dispensaries in California, but when she noticed their popularity rising at LSU, she found a local dealer.

“At first you could only buy cartridges from legit dispensaries out of state, but now they are everywhere,” said the student. “The transactions are very discreet. The carts are very small; you can walk around with it without anyone suspecting a thing.”

The price of the THC cartridges she bought ranged from $30 to $40, depending on the dealer. She also stated that transactions take place in popular areas like Tigerland bars or hidden spots on LSU campus. 

This student went into the hospital during the fall 2019 semester due to feelings of nausea, loss of appetite, migraine, anxiety and hallucinations. Her doctor said stress was a possible cause, but never determined if the THC oil was linked to her sickness. After learning about the recent vaping crisis across the country though, she decided to quit.

The difference between the contents and effects of legal and illegal THC cartridges are drastic. The makeup of the liquid in legal cartridges consists of distilled cannabis oil, while illegal cartridges contain health-threatening chemicals. 

“It honestly terrifies me to see people vaping illegal THC here,” said a LSU senior originally from Colorado. “Anytime I see someone vaping one I yell at them.”

Coming from a state where marijuana products are legal, she has the experience of vaping legal cartridges at home, and black market ones here, given to her by her friends. 

“There is such a difference in how you feel after you vape an illegal cartridge compared to a legal one. It is so dangerous,” she said. 

After contacting LSU spokesperson Ernie Ballard to see if LSU Police had any active investigations regarding the THC black market on and around campus, he stated that the University Police said this is not an issue they see. 

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