From Veronica Mars to toxic vapes
November 13, 2019 7:55 PM   Subscribe

Cannabis-focused website Leafly (age verification window appears, no login is required) examines The rise and fall of Honey Cut, the secretive business selling adulterating agents for THC oil vape cartridges, who likely introduced vitamin E acetate oil into the supply and injured/killed unwitting users.
posted by hippybear (15 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
This is real good investigative reporting.
posted by odinsdream at 8:00 PM on November 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

"Let the market decide"

posted by lalochezia at 8:17 PM on November 13, 2019 [9 favorites]

Huh. I guess this is a good example of an unintended consequence due to prohibition and the black market. It's like bathtub gin. Since there is no legal way to test whether an illicit substance is what it claims to be, and certainly no recourse if it isn't what it claims to be, end users come up with new and novel ways to "test" the end product. The "bubble test" being the novel way to determine the quality of black market THC cartridges.

They should teach this in economics classes. Those insane profit margins for both Honey Cut and the black market cartridge manufacturers is insane.
posted by daq at 8:42 PM on November 13, 2019 [11 favorites]

Tax and regulate. Put drugs under the aegis of the FDA. Mostly, please please please stop blowing toxic vape smoke in everyone's face.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 8:53 PM on November 13, 2019 [8 favorites]

As a smoker who recently moved to vaping to mitigate health problems I'm glad this is being investigated and hopefully restricted by regulation. I've only bought mass market nicotine vapes and THC vapes from legal stores (since it's legal here) but the fear over recent news stories has affected me. I tried doing gum and lozenges to curb the nicotine addiction, but they've never given me the same effect that smoking or vaping did. And soon enough I was back to tobacco. So I was facing a decision: Smoke and deal with the highly proven inarguable effects of that? Or vape and be terrified of this new unknown fear? So I went with the devil I knew. I've smoked more in the past few months than I ever did cause I was afraid of the vapes. If they nail this down as the culprit I'll be much less anxious and vape and then hopefully quit. And smoke or vape actual buds with much less frequency (as I get older being high just isn't as appealing as it was so I consume less THC). I didn't know Leafly did this sort of journalism but I hope they keep it up. Before the next harmful adulterant kills someone.
posted by downtohisturtles at 9:01 PM on November 13, 2019 [8 favorites]

There’s a lot here that doesn’t make any sense. For instance:
Those tests turned up disturbing results. SC Labs President Josh Wurzer said DeGraw had inhaled “significant amounts of alpha-tocopherol” as well as troubling amounts of lead from his illicit THC carts.

Subsequent testing came back negative for tocopherols, but extremely high for pesticides and lead. Wurzer found sky-high levels of “literally dozens” of pesticides in “insane concentrations.” SC Labs’ machines, he said, aren’t set up to detect such high amounts. “This might take the prize for [the] most pesticide-contaminated sample we have ever tested,” said Wurzer.

On Nov. 8, the CDC announced it had found tocopherols in 29 lung victim biopsies. “No other potential toxins were detected,” said CDC Dr. Anne Schucat.
Significant tocopherols in the first test but none in subsequent testing? “Insane concentrations”? They should have run this section past another analytical chemist. And SC Labs should maybe have their GC-MS recalibrated.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:14 PM on November 13, 2019 [6 favorites]

It didn't occur to me until daq brought up bathtub gin and Prohibition, but this is astonishingly like the tragedy of Ginger Jake:
Jamaica Ginger extract, known in the United States by the slang name "Jake," was a late 19th century patent medicine that provided a convenient way to bypass Prohibition laws, since it contained between 70-80% ethanol by weight.
"Jake" was not itself dangerous, but the U.S. Treasury Department, which administered the Prohibition laws, recognized its potential as an illicit alcohol source, and because of this, it required changes in the solids content of Jake to discourage drinking. The minimum requirement of ginger solids per cubic centimeter of alcohol resulted in a fluid that was extremely bitter and difficult to drink. Occasionally, Department of Agriculture inspectors would test shipments of Jake by boiling the solution and weighing the remaining solid residue. In an effort to trick regulators, bootleggers replaced the ginger solids with a small amount of ginger and either castor oil or molasses.

A pair of amateur chemists and bootleggers, Harry Gross and Max Reisman, worked to develop an alternative adulterant that would pass the tests, but still be somewhat palatable. They sought advice from a professor at MIT who did not realize it was meant for internal consumption. They settled on a plasticizer, tri-o-tolyl phosphate (also known as tri-ortho cresyl phosphate, TOCP, or Tricresyl phosphate), that was able to pass the Treasury Department's tests but preserved Jake's drinkability. TOCP was originally thought to be non-toxic; however, it was later determined to be a neurotoxin that causes axonal damage to the nerve cells in the nervous system of human beings, especially those located in the spinal cord. The resulting type of paralysis is now referred to as organophosphate-induced delayed neuropathy, or OPIDN.

In 1930, large numbers of Jake users began to lose the use of their hands and feet. Some victims could walk, but they had no control over the muscles which would normally have enabled them to point their toes upward. Therefore, they would raise their feet high with the toes flopping downward, which would touch the pavement first followed by their heels. The toe first, heel second pattern made a distinctive “tap-click, tap-click" sound as they walked. This very peculiar gait became known as the jake walk and those afflicted were said to have jake leg, jake foot, or jake paralysis. Additionally, the calves of the legs would soften and hang down and the muscles between the thumbs and fingers would atrophy.

Within a few months, the TOCP-adulterated Jake was identified as the cause of the paralysis, and the contaminated Jake was recovered. But by that time, it was too late for many victims. Some users did recover full, or partial, use of their limbs. But for most, the loss was permanent. The total number of victims was never accurately determined, but is frequently quoted as between 30,000 and 50,000. Many victims were immigrants to the United States, and most were poor, with little political or social influence. The victims received very little assistance, aside from being the subject of a few blues songs recorded in the early 1930s (e.g. "Jake Walk Papa" by Asa Martin, "Jake Leg Blues" by the Mississippi Sheiks, "Alcohol and Jake Blues" by Tommy Johnson and "Jake Liquor Blues" by Ishman Bracey).

Although this incident became well-known, later cases of organophosphate poisoning occurred in Germany, Spain, Italy, and, on a large scale, in Morocco in 1959, where cooking oil adulterated with jet engine lubricant from an American airbase led to paralysis in approximately 10,000 victims, and caused an international incident.[1]
except that vitamin E acetate seems unlikely to find an alternate path into human lungs the way TOCP has because of continued use as a hydraulic fluid in passenger jets.
posted by jamjam at 9:23 PM on November 13, 2019 [47 favorites]

This is very helpful and seems well-researched.
posted by feckless at 9:26 PM on November 13, 2019

This wasn’t a case of vape makers using Honey Cut for an off-label purpose without the manufacturer’s knowledge. Honey Cut’s own website described the product as “A complex compound used primarily in the vape cartridge industry as a thickener to eliminate bubble movement and leakage.”

Meanwhile, chemical companies making actual vitamin E acetate posted easily accessible manufacturer’s safety data sheets that warned against inhaling the compound.
Here's a company selling a product without even taking the most basic steps to learn if it's safe (i.e. reading the fucking MSDS), while keeping its nature secret from its customers, so they couldn't learn it either. Throw the book at them, and put some regulation in place to stop this sort of thing.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:39 AM on November 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

I'm still confused by the mainstream reporting on vaping illness. A lot of the early reports suggested that folks vaping nicotine products were getting sick, and at least in California a lot of these reports were mentioned alongside unrelated bad news about Juul, the big nicotine vaping company. But the recent CDC report on vaping illness (from Nov 6) identifies it as a THC-related thing. So are nicotine vapes in the clear now?

Also, in states with legal THC is there any evidence that products bought through legal channels are also contaminated with Vitamin E acetate? You'd like to think that having a normalized and regulated market would mean that products are reliably safer. But based on what I've seen in Oregon weed shops a lot of the labeling is pretty sloppy. It's not hard to imagine folks cutting corners in the legal market. Do we know yet?
posted by Nelson at 6:11 AM on November 14, 2019

Huh. I guess this is a good example of an unintended consequence due to prohibition and the black market.

While I think there's some grey area in whether this whole thing happened because of the development of vaping technology or because of the changing cannabis laws, I think it's probably safe to say that the answer is both. Because of that, though, I have a hard time seeing this as a consequence of prohibition - I see it as a predictable outcome of the gold rush that happened under legalization. The company was founded in 2011 (after decriminalization bills in '09 and '10), and its sales took off in 2018-2019 (after legalized recreational use started in '16).

The "gold rush" component of it is particularly galling knowing the racial component - while a disproportionate number of people of color remain incarcerated on petty weed charges, it's disproportionately white entrepreneurs laughing all the way to the bank under legalization and decriminalization - all the while pouring dangerous mystery chemicals right into the supply to boost profit margins.
posted by entropone at 6:52 AM on November 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm still confused by the mainstream reporting

At least early on, lots of people may have been lying to doctors and investigators about what they'd been vaping. The initial reports couldn't directly point fingers at illicit THC products, because people who had all the symptoms kept insisting that they'd never used THC. But in the words of W. S. Gilbert:
Chorus: What, never?
No, never!
Chorus: What, never?
Well, hardly ever!
Here's how the Washington Post reported on it this week:
CDC officials found vitamin E acetate, an oil derived from the vitamin, in all 29 samples of lung fluid collected from patients who had fallen ill or died of lung injuries. THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, was also found in 23 patients, including three who said they had not used THC products. Nicotine was detected in 16 of 26 patients. Most patients who have fallen ill in the outbreak have vaped THC, officials have said.
Since there's a small number of patients with symptoms who didn't test positive for THC I think that rules out the conclusion that non-THC vape products are categorically safe. "Most" patients vaped THC products, but "most" isn't "all." It seems at least some non-THC vapes contain (or at least contained) vitamin E acetate (presumably for the same reasons it was used to adulterate THC vapes), but I haven't seen any news identifying which ones.
posted by fedward at 7:03 AM on November 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also, in states with legal THC is there any evidence that products bought through legal channels are also contaminated with Vitamin E acetate?

I caught a news report of this about a couple of weeks ago, probably on public radio, about a guy filing a lawsuit after falling sick from legally-bought vaping materials. Maybe this in Washington state.
posted by exogenous at 7:48 AM on November 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

De Rauly has a theory about how Temple and See/Be invented Honey Cut: accident, not malice.

In trying to copy Finley’s research and patent-pending product, de Rauly speculates, Temple made an error in his formulation. “I’m pretty sure these guys had the best of intentions,” he said.

Yeah, give me a fucking break. Setting out to make and sell a product that serves to help people cut THC vapes to include more filler than actual medicine is not, cannot, and has never been a good intention. Starting a business rarely involves good intentions, but this is explicitly a business meant to facilitate ripping people off. And of fucking course the psycho behind this business venture is ghosting the public and the law. Fucking guillotine, in my eyes, his product has resulted in deaths, he profits from death -- an evil man unfit to exist in our world.

Marijuana is still mostly illegal in my state, black-market is the only market for most products, some kids died in my town over this shit. I stopped buying any carts once this news popped up, I seem to have escaped the dangerous shit, but hell if I would've known either way. I knew they were bootleg of course, like different qualities and consistencies from batch to batch, but they were getting the job done even in their funny packaging. Funny because of how good it looked, until you looked up an oddity, like it was say the flavour was "Oranch Crush," and the brand it claims to be never made such a flavour, let alone spelled it wrong.

Scary stuff, risk of dying just because some goddamn capitalist thought he could use his invisible market hands to fuck some people over, and when his intentional fuckery goes so far as to start killing people, he remains free and rich. Rot in hell, Joshua Mathias Temple -- but first go to jail.
posted by GoblinHoney at 8:29 AM on November 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

"Oranch Crush" is not a misspelling. 'Orange Crush' would be the soda, and probably a trademark infringement. Vaping in general has always been about naming things close, but not quite, the same name as the flavor their supposed to be mimicking. This is especially noticeable in the Nicotine vaping world where the flavors are pretty much the exact same flavorings used in the food industry. E-liquid makers learned early on not to bump into trademark infringement.

Previously: There is clearly an epidemic that begs for an urgent response

If you're vaping Nicotine it's probably fine. This sort of vaping has been going on for over a decade and nothing has really changed (except some liquids now use Nicotine salts). Unless I've missed something major, there's no need for anything to have changed from the standard PG/VG+Nicotine+flavor recipe. It's only the THC cartridges that desire that ultra-thick honey-like consistency. Plus, Nicotine vape liquid is very, very, cheap and easy to make already. Many, myself included, just make their own.

I am suitably miffed by the news (especially in California) doing their best to lump all the different 'vaping' into a single category of bad that is killing people left and right and OMG Juul and think of the children and OMG flavors and marketing. These are different issues and should be treated separately.
posted by zengargoyle at 10:01 AM on November 14, 2019 [8 favorites]

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