As the legalization of recreational marijuana spreads across the United States, weed enthusiasts in prohibition states who rely on the black market have also enjoyed a premium selection of branded cannabis products, especially a wider variety of cannabis concentrates sold in pre-filled disposable cartridges. Some of the legal industry’s leading companies have made significant advancements in extraction techniques which have improved the quality of concentrates, and made vaping the preferred method of on-the-go consumption. In states where marijuana is still illegal, cartridge concentrates are popular thanks to their discrete lack of smell and resemblance to cartridges containing nicotine. Branded cartridges from major industry leaders like King Pen, Brass Knuckles and Heavy Hitters are particularly coveted for the assumed assurance that they contain a premium concentrate free of contaminants like pesticides, cutting agents, and heavy metals. But what if the cartridges are fakes?
According to a new article from Merry Jane reporter Zach Harris, there really is no way to know what is inside black market vape cartridge. While states like Colorado have rigorous mandated licensing and testing regulations which guarantee consumers are being sold high quality product from legitimate companies, no such controls exist for the black market. Even cartridges branded with the names of the industry’s biggest companies can’t be trusted. That’s because there is a booming wholesale market for empty counterfeit cartridges produced in Shenzhen, China, the very same place where many legitimate cannabis companies source their hardware.
According to Harris, counterfeit wholesalers have flooded Instagram with photos and videos of endless stacks of empty cartridges and packaging that replicate the branding used by King Pen, Brass Knuckles and Heavy Hitters. Black market dealers who purchase the cartridges can fill them with whatever they want — pesticide-ridden distillate, heavily-cut oils, synthetic cannabis, to name a few — and consumers would have no way to tell, and little recourse even if they could.
The combined prevalence and lack of awareness about counterfeit branded cartridges filled with low quality, even dangerous concentrates has hurt the reputations of these legitimate companies in still prohibited states where they hope to operate legally in the future.
“We are taking a hard line against counterfeiting and have engaged our legal team to identify the unlicensed vendors and others that are offering to sell, selling, or distributing counterfeit products,” Kate Denton, the Chief Marketing Officer at Loudpack, which owns King Pen, told Merry Jane. “We have implemented advanced monitoring systems, but [counterfeits] are also one of the reasons that we are constantly evolving our product.”
In a statement to Rolling Stone, a representative for Heavy Hitters urged people to not buy off black markets. “In order for consumers to stay safe and know they are buying authentic Heavy Hitters products, they should only buy from licensed California retailers. Verified Heavy Hitters retailers are all listed at HeavyHitters.co. This is a public health issue, and we want to ensure consumers are not put at risk.”
Rolling Stone’s request for comment from Brass Knuckles has not been answered, but according to Merry Jane, the company appears aware of the counterfeit problem.
“Starting July 1st, all authentic Brass Knuckles cartridges have exclusive, serial numbered moving hologram stickers on the side of their acrylic casing,” reads a recurring post on Brass Knuckles’ Instagram page. “All authentic product also has either CA or NV compliance test result labels on our packing depending on the state it is manufactured in. We do not ship product and we do not service non licensed locations in CA or NV. If you see Brass without numbered holograms or compliance labels it’s fake!”
However, counterfeit manufacturers have apparently been able to replicate Brass Knuckles’ hologram stickers, and wholesalers on Instagram are already advertising the latest version of the empty cartridges. According to Merry Jane, King Pen’s strategy is to pursue intellectual property protections in China, and the company is also filing a “major comprehensive lawsuit” against a number of international counterfeiters.
“We feel that it is important to put our resources out there to protect our customers from potential health risks and to act as an example for other brands to follow suit and protect their brands under the California State Trademark Law,” Denton said. “International counterfeiters appear to be at the core of the [fake vape] problem, and we take this specific threat very seriously. It is a top priority for us to to protect consumers from synthetic and potentially lethal products.”
Update: This story has been updated to include a comment from Heavy Hitters, which came in after the story initially went to press.