The Lucrative, Largely Unregulated, and Widely Misunderstood World of
As medical researchers scramble to find the source of a fatal lung disease and officials seek to ban the sale of vape pens, our correspondent set out to separate reality from hysteria.
January 30, 2020
As medical researchers scramble to find the source of a fatal lung disease and officials seek to ban the sale of vape pens, our correspondent set out to separate reality from hysteria.
The illnesses materialized faster than anyone had anticipated. For years, the chemists who test marijuana concentrates had been warning about carcinogens and neurotoxins, about pesticides and solvents, about additives that turn harmful when heated in a vape pen. Almost everyone in the cannabis industry had a story about the dirty hash oil some company or another had pushed onto unsuspecting customers. But sales of vape pens kept growing, because consumers around the world loved getting high, discreetly, odorlessly, wherever they wanted. Vaping seemed like a juggernaut: a genuinely useful innovation in a hype-happy industry, a high-margin product in a business with increasingly thin margins, a piece of tech that lived up to Silicon Valley’s promise of improving people’s lives. Investors and lawmakers and activists all hoped legalization might chip away at the pot world’s seedier side without anyone getting poisoned.
That’s not how it worked out. On July 25, 2019, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services sent out a memo alerting health providers to eight cases of “Severe Pulmonary Disease Among Adolescents who Reported Vaping.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention opened an investigation, and by late August, there were several hundred possible cases of vaping-related lung injury in 25 states. Then people began to die.
No one seemed to know what was happening — whether vaping nicotine or vaping cannabis or the vaporizer device itself was the cause — but there was a sudden demand for someone to do something. President Trump announced a plan to ban flavored electronic cigarettes. School districts, state attorneys general, and private citizens sued Juul Labs, the company that had more than a 70 percent share of the e-cigarette market. China removed Juul from stores. India banned vaping altogether. Federal prosecutors launched a criminal investigation. Walmart stopped selling e-cigarettes. Congress raised the legal age for buying nicotine to 21. And the governor of Massachusetts enacted a temporary ban on all vape pens, prompting a spike in sales in Maine and New Hampshire.
With more than 50 people dead and 2,000 hospitalized, the headlines quickly blurred. Much of the media attention implied that Juul’s aggressive marketing tactics in promoting candy-flavored e-cigarettes were going to lead a generation of young people to certain death. Vaping nicotine went from a way for adults to quit smoking to a scourge. The news was alarming, too, for people who vape cannabis, the most popular illicit drug in the world; fatality had never been a possibility before. The whole thing seemed to fit into recent tech history, when the idea that disruption was going to change the world only for the better fell apart. Theranos was a scam. Facebook enabled genocide in Myanmar. And WeWork was worthless all along. So, of course, vaping turned out to be bad for you.
Lost in all this, though, was that vaping is not just one thing. Each part of a vaporizer pen — the battery, the heating element, the chamber of mood-altering liquid — could be cheaply made or flawed, and every product is distinct. At one temperature, a substance might be benign; at another, injurious. A vape is not a vape is not a vape.
What we do know is this: Hardly any of the folks who developed lung illnesses did so by vaping only nicotine. It’s true that electronic cigarettes have not been studied or regulated sufficiently by the Food and Drug Administration, but most researchers agree they are orders of magnitude safer than smoking tobacco. Still, for the first time since 1975, nicotine use is increasing instead of decreasing. Between 2017 and 2018, the percentage of high school students who said they had tried vaping in the past month went up 78 percent; for middle school students, it went up 48 percent. This represents one public-health crisis. The proliferation of increasingly sophisticated cannabis products, developed for profit and potency with little regard for safety, represents an entirely different crisis. But in many minds, these two problems became one.
In the United States, fear and confusion often provoke dramatic and counterproductive drug policies. Whether we consider an intoxicant to be medicine, to be socially acceptable, to be legal, has always been a matter of morality, race, and class — not just science and evidence. This makes sifting through the contradictory claims about vaping difficult. In recent years, as most Americans came around to the consensus that the federal government was wrong to deem pot as dangerous as heroin, public opinion swung in the other direction. At exactly the worst moment — right when weed technology was emboldened by legalization but free from federal oversight — we started to believe that nothing we’d heard about “reefer madness” was true, and therefore anything involving weed must be innocuous.
I’ve been a daily cannabis user for more than a decade, and I’ve been keenly aware of the potential dangers of newfangled products since 2013, when a form of marijuana known as “wax” made me so ill I was nearly hallucinating. What I’ve learned since then, in speaking with scientists and doctors and researchers, is that cannabis itself is quite safe — more than a hundred times safer than alcohol. But marijuana is also a crop, and when it is grown at scale and run through industrial processes to create a concentrate that you take to the face with a hot coil manufactured in a Chinese factory, the safety of the plant becomes irrelevant. The stuff that made me sick back in 2013, and the stuff that’s been sending people to the hospital for months, is akin to the rotten beef filled with rat droppings that Upton Sinclair chronicled more than a century ago in The Jungle: tainted product from an unregulated business.
Even after a cutting agent known as vitamin E acetate emerged as the likeliest culprit for most of the lung-illness cases, many public-health officials believe there are probably multiple factors making people ill. Analysis by the Mayo Clinic, for instance, points to evidence of chemical burns in the lungs of vaping patients, which indicates a different issue. This makes sense, because there are so many aspects in creating a marijuana vape pen where something can go wrong: the chemicals put on the plant when it’s growing, the method used to concentrate the plant, the ingredients that flavor or dilute the concentrate, the hardware heating the concentrate, and the temperature at which that happens. An illicit supply chain is a hazardous supply chain, and eventually the lucrative yet toxic shortcuts were going to catch up with us.
Near the end of October, I sat in on a vaping workshop at a middle school in a wealthy enclave of northeast Los Angeles. There were BMWs in the parking lot, but the multipurpose room could have been at any school in America: brown cafeteria benches on wheels, a projector that took far too long to set up. About a dozen parents trickled in, several with kids in tow. As the presentation started, most of the middle schoolers’ eyes were glued to their screens.
“I’m sure you have heard a lot about this in the news lately,” Alisha Lopez, the anti-tobacco educator, begins. “Tobacco is still the number one cause of preventable death in the United States, and 90 percent of people who use cigarettes or tobacco products start before they’re 18.” She flips to a slide with an image of a smoker’s lungs, pocked with dead tissue. At this, a girl wearing three velour scrunchies — one, baby blue, holding back her hair and two, orange and pink, on her wrist — puts down her phone and stares at the slide, mouth agape.
“Addiction can take hold within weeks,” Lopez continues, showing off images of vape pens. “Nicotine is the most addictive substance, more than heroin or cocaine.”
Except, well, that last part isn’t quite true. When David Nutt, the chair of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, ranked drugs by addictiveness in 2007, he found that heroin came in first, followed by cocaine, and then nicotine. Nutt has also recently been tweeting reminders that cigarettes kill 5,000 people a day, while nicotine vapes have done nothing of the sort. You might think, Well, what’s the difference? Adolescent brains are particularly vulnerable to addiction, and nicotine on its own does seem to negatively affect long-term organ function. Besides, e-cigarettes are an expensive, anxiety-inducing habit that teens would be better off avoiding. Might as well terrify them, right? But the scientific literature says differently.
“There’s this old notion of ‘scared straight,’ and the data just don’t back that up as an effective strategy,” Robert MacCoun, a social psychologist and public-policy analyst at Stanford Law School, told me a few weeks after the workshop. American anti-drug programs for teenagers are particularly ineffective, he said, especially when compared with the more pragmatic advice given to kids in countries like the Netherlands, where they encourage youth to make decisions based on evidence. “We moralize to kids and exaggerate the harms, and then their own experience doesn’t match up,” he said. “They were hearing about the most extreme harms, but that’s not what they’re observing among their friends, so they go to the other extreme and dismiss all harms.”
Lopez starts talking about how the tobacco industry uses flavors and brightly colored packaging to entice kids, passing around examples. Indeed, a study of middle and high school students showed 43 percent of those who had tried vaping did so because of the flavors. Some teens don’t realize that there’s nicotine in a device that tastes like fruit. A bedazzled Hello Kitty vape pen appears on the screen, and the room gasps.
“How many of you guys have heard of Juul?” she asks and then clicks to an early Juul ad that is now part of several lawsuits and federal investigations accusing the company of marketing directly to youth: On a yellow background, an Ariana Grande look-alike in a low-cut crop top and a varsity jacket vapes seductively while tossing her ponytail. “What do you think this says?” Lopez asks the room. The answers come back:
Lopez takes out a Juul, explaining that so-called vaporizer pens actually produce aerosol, not vapor.
“Oh, my God,” says a mother in yoga pants. “They should be arrested for making it look like a flash drive!”
A kid with a long mop of dirty-blond hair whispers to their mother, “And then you smoke it?” The mother nods.
Lopez explains that a single Juul pod — the disposable container of nicotine — has the same potency of a pack of cigarettes. More murmurs break out.
The girl with three scrunchies decides to weigh in.
“A lot of people say it’s safer than cigarettes,” she says. She’s right: Although there are still uncertainties about the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes as well as caveats about temperature and hardware, the scientific consensus is that vaping nicotine is significantly safer than smoking cigarettes. This is largely because it is not nicotine but different stuff in combustible tobacco that kills you: tar and other chemical carcinogens. But in this room, at this moment, bringing this up invites only glares.
“Do you think it’s safer?” Lopez asks her. The girl with three scrunchies looks nervous. She seems to know what the adults want her to say, but she also isn’t sure she believes them. She lets out a tentative, “No?”
“Correct,” Lopez responds. “I’m sure you guys have seen the headlines. There’s a lot of deaths and illnesses. A lot of the news is saying it’s THC, but some of it is nicotine. There’s something in the vapes that’s doing this.”
Lopez begins to describe how vaping can affect everyone around you: There’s secondhand aerosol, just like secondhand smoke. Not only that, but there’s thirdhand aerosol. If you vape indoors, she says, anyone who comes by later will be exposed to the aerosol that clings to the furniture and the carpet. It could even affect pets, she says. “There’s ultrafine particles that can go deep into your lungs!”
This part isn’t exactly true, either. There is zero reason to believe thirdhand Juuling is deadly to humans or animals.
“What are the schools doing?” asks a dad in a thick-striped shirt. “I’m hearing there’s vaping going on during the day.” Next to him, the girl with three scrunchies squirms. Clearly, she is the source of this information.
A school administrator gets up and tries to explain the plan: education, supervision, discipline. Someone asks whether there is any effective way to detect when someone has been vaping. (There isn’t.) “I don’t even think a smoke detector goes off for a cigarette,” Lopez interjects. The parents want to know if the school is confiscating Juuls when it finds them, and if so, how many it’s collected so far. The administrator seems overwhelmed. “How widespread it is, I don’t know,” he says.
“I think it’s really serious,” the mother in yoga pants says. “I think it’s more serious than cigarettes.”
“It’s certainly killing people quicker,” Lopez affirms.
The girl with three scrunchies raises her hand to ask a question, now looking concerned. “You said if someone Juuls in a room,” she starts, then takes a breath. “You said if a pet licks the carpet, they would, the particles…” she trails off, almost too afraid to ask her question. “So could it affect them the same as a human?”
Of course: The parents worry about the kids, but the kids worry about the pets. I wondered whether the girl had a specific memory, perhaps a time when she’d tried a Juul or her friends had tried a Juul, lounging in the living room after school before any parents were home. Then, hours later, long after her friends had gone home and the Juul stashed in some closet corner, had her dog come padding into that same living room, absorbing the poisonous ultrafine particles?
“Yes,” Lopez tells her. “It’s the same for pets as for humans.”
As a lot of people were panicking about teen lungs this fall, others were panicking about shareholder value. Juul’s initial response to reports of vaping-induced illnesses was to stick to the same message it’s been sending for the past few years: that the product is designed for existing smokers only and was never meant to attract new or underage users. CEO Kevin Burns, who previously ran the yogurt company Chobani, went on CBS This Morning at the end of August and addressed nonsmokers directly, saying, “Don’t vape. Don’t use Juul.”
By late September, the board decided it needed to change tack. In 2018, Altria, the maker of Marlboro and the country’s most profitable tobacco company, had bought a 35 percent stake in Juul. Big Tobacco knows scandal far better than a guy who used to sell yogurt. The board fired Burns and replaced him with K.C. Crosthwaite, a longtime Altria executive, who put the company on a media lockdown, making only an occasional, restrained comment about the uproar. Juul even said that it would stop selling all flavored pods but menthol. Still, none of this stanched the cash hemorrhage caused by the unfortunate PR disaster of dead people. By October 31, Altria had to write down its valuation of Juul from approximately $38 billion to $24 billion. That’s $14 billion, whoosh, goodbye, gone.
Twelve years ago, when two Stanford design grad students started the company that eventually became Juul Labs, they said their goal had been to compete with companies like Altria, and save the 480,000 Americans who die each year from smoking cigarettes, with a healthier alternative. Now, as many noted, the transition from plucky, virtuous Silicon Valley startup to tight-lipped, morally bankrupt Big Tobacco corporation was complete. But this narrative offered a false binary. Long before Altria acquired its stake, Juul was going to high schools to promote its product and running the youth-oriented ad campaign that is now being investigated by the feds. Altria, still chastened by the multibillion-dollar settlement and public shaming of cigarette companies in the 1990s, pursued the vaping market cautiously. It designed devices for existing smokers and successfully lobbied the FDA to evaluate the relative risks of nicotine products on a continuum, so the company could legally market electronic cigarettes as healthier than combustible tobacco.
“Targeting new users is definitely not the playbook of the large, established companies,” Brian Quigley told me. Quigley spent 16 years at Altria, the last six and a half as CEO of the smokeless-tobacco unit and his final months running Altria’s vaping business. “We were resolved to the fact that we were in a declining business and managing that decline was core to our business.”
But by the end of 2017, it became clear that, if Altria wanted to placate shareholders, the company would need to push vapes onto a much bigger market than just existing smokers. At an event held that November at the company’s headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, investors from the major banks repeatedly asked about how big Altria’s e-cigarette business would need to get in order to bring in substantial returns.
“Is there any guidance you can give us on what level of frequency or what level of conversion to more dedicated use you need to get to so you can approach those cigarette-like margins?” one asked.
“What kind of scale do you need, you know, for profitability?” another said.
“You hit it exactly,” then-chief operating officer and current Altria Chairman Howard Willard responded. “You need higher volume.”
Over the next year, Altria decided to change strategy and abandoned its internal vaping business. It invested in Juul, which saw revenues increase from $200 million in 2017 to more than $1 billion in 2018. Quigley quit the company.
He feels good about this decision. “The FDA has acknowledged they think switching from cigarettes to e-cigarettes is good,” he said, “but if you have a product where you have initiation” — meaning attracting people who have never used nicotine before — “where those consumers then might go use other tobacco products to get nicotine, that’s the fatal flaw.”
A few blocks from the UCLA campus there’s a vape shop and lounge that caters to people in their 20s — the legal end of the youth spectrum. The place looks like a nightclub, with trippy solar-system murals, mounted flat-screens playing music videos, and LED furniture pulsing with Day-Glo light. A paperback copy of The Astrology of You and Me sits on a coffee table.
I drop by on a quiet Thursday evening. A guy with a skateboard walks in. “What’s up, dude?” asks Andrés Carrillo, the 26-year-old behind the counter. Carrillo is wearing pink-tinted aviators, rings on every finger, and a cream button-down open to his navel, revealing an evil-eye tattoo on his chest. “Are you in finals or something, too?”
“Dude,” the guy with the skateboard responds, shaking his head sadly. He has a final at 8 a.m., so he came to pick up three Puff Bars — the disposable brightly colored vape-pen brand that seems to have supplanted Juul after it stopped selling most flavors. Almost every customer who comes in is here to pick up Puff Bars — Cool Mint, Lychee Ice, Blue Razz.
“I wanted to try out these new Puffs because I saw everybody having them, and I’m like, really like, I got seduced by the colors,” explains a thin boy with a metal feather earring, a quartz necklace, and a bucket hat. “It made me think I want to try all the flavors.” He’s a senior, and he started vaping when he was a sophomore — both nicotine and THC. He tells me he slept all afternoon, missing his dance rehearsal, because he got sick from a marijuana vape pen. “I actually got, like, so dizzy, like, I almost fainted while I was driving,” he says. This is not the first time a weed vape pen made him ill, he tells me. It’s happened several times before, but never with nicotine.
Phree Cole, who is 22 and has the next shift, comes in with his friend Jakobi Mulgrave, after a trip to In-N-Out Burger. Cole is wearing a gray beanie and a tie-dye hoodie over his shoulder-length blond hair. Mulgrave settles into a glowing chair for a game of giant Jenga, vaping on a Banana Ice Puff Bar. He comes here to hang out almost every night, he says. On weekends, the lounge stays open until 3 a.m., an hour after the bars close. He tells me he started vaping when he was 18 or 19 and has never smoked cigarettes. I ask him if his parents know. “Yeah, my dad saw a Juul come out of my pocket,” he says. “He got really pissed. He was saying it’s, like, killing people and all this stuff. I tried to explain to him that it’s, like, black-market-weed stuff that’s doing it.”
I ask if his dad understood.
“No, he wasn’t convinced.”
Carrillo overhears us as he’s mopping the floors. “What I saw was that vaping is 95 percent less harmful than smoking cigarettes,” he says, quoting research done by the Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom. “People in London are actually giving vapes away.” He’s right: Health authorities in the U.K. have been much more receptive to vaping nicotine than their counterparts in the U.S., even installing e-cigarette shops in some hospitals to discourage smoking. Carrillo says he used to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day. Now that he’s switched to vaping, he feels a lot better physically.
“Do you take in more nicotine?” I ask.
Robert MacCoun, the Stanford professor, had explained to me that the problem with saying vaping is safer than smoking is that once people see something as safer, more people start to do it, and they tend to do it more, negating a lot of the harm reduction.
“It could be more nicotine, yeah,” Carrillo says.
Cole, too, used to smoke cigarettes. He comes over with two Puff Bars, Sour Apple and Blue Razz, and takes a seat in a chair hanging from the ceiling, hitting both vapes at the same time.
“Jolly Rancher,” he says, explaining the flavor combination.
“Sick,” Mulgrave says.
I ask them what will happen now that Trump plans to ban all disposable flavored nicotine vapes but menthol. The majority of the sales at the lounge are of flavored vapes; hardly anyone buys electronic cigarettes that taste like tobacco.
“If they didn’t have flavors, I’d probably go back to smoking,” Cole says. And no one is clamoring to ban Camels and Parliaments.
“Do you like the tobacco-flavored Juul?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “That would make me want a cigarette.”
Left out of the media coverage of Juul Labs has been the company’s cannabis-focused sibling firm: PAX Labs, valued at a comparatively paltry $1.7 billion. Until the summer of 2017, PAX and Juul were one company, and its flagship products — the Juul and the PAX Era, a cannabis-oil vaporizer pen — are nearly identical. Years before the Juul and the Era hit the market, the company developed a dry-herb vaporizer for pot that was more effective than any other, which kept the business afloat. Since then, PAX has sold at least 5 million devices, which sounds impressive, until you consider that Juul has sold about 16 times as many.
Although the two companies no longer have any relationship to each other, PAX’s CEO was unexpectedly ousted the same week as Juul’s. (Two people I spoke with say the companies still share key investors.)
I arrive at PAX’s San Francisco headquarters on a clear day in early November and head straight past the banks of cubicles and the wall of free snacks to the restroom. Standing over the sink is a woman in her mid-50s, wearing a black belted blazer and powdering her nose. I smile in greeting, and she tells me she’s hoping the makeup will make her feel better: “As my grandmother always said, ‘There’s nothing a little lipstick can’t fix.’ ”
I chuckle. Headset, the cannabis data firm, has just released a report showing sales of vape pens were significantly down in legal cannabis markets, and a few weeks earlier, PAX had laid off 25 percent of its workforce after missing revenue targets.
Minutes later, I’m waiting in a conference room to talk with the company’s new interim CEO, a former tax attorney named Lisa “LD” Sergi. When she enters, our eyes meet. It’s the woman from the bathroom. Sergi speaks in a deadpan patrician tone and makes frequent reference to her time at Oberlin College. When the situation she and her team are calling “Vapegate” first began, she says, everyone at the company was concerned. “We were frantic here,” she tells me. “When you have an unknown like this, you just get this feeling in your stomach.”
Like Juul, PAX offers the most concealable kind of vape pen: a disposable cartridge, which both companies refer to as a “pod,” and a rechargeable battery. But unlike Juul, in order to avoid the legal risks of processing and selling a federally prohibited drug, PAX partners with other companies to produce the cannabis oil in its pods, similar to how Apple approves third parties to sell apps for the iPhone. Sergi says that she is now convinced that both the PAX hardware and the pods made by its partners are safe. That feeling in her stomach morphed into ire toward the CDC and the media, who were slow to distinguish between billion-dollar companies like PAX and an underground market.
“If you confuse people and don’t tell people what can harm them, people will die. It’s going to cost actual lives,” she says. “We can argue about teens and nicotine later, but this is illegal THC that’s hurting people.”
Sergi is the first in a merry-go-round of PAX executives brought in to talk to me. All attempt to shift blame onto the criminals who are making dirty products and the governments whose bad policies are pushing consumers into the illicit market. “We’re facing an existential crisis,” says Jeff Brown, who runs the company’s government relations. He cloaks the company’s financial motivations in a concern for public health, exclaiming that any government that bans vaping would be “in some way culpable for the illnesses and, God forbid, deaths that follow.”
I tell Brown and Sergi that for the most part I agree — that the riskiest weed vape pens come from operators who care far less about manufacturing standards than PAX does. But I think framing the conversation in terms of legal and illegal cannabis markets is overly simplistic. Vitamin E acetate, the additive identified by the CDC as the likely cause of lung injury, was legal to use in cannabis vape pens before the rush of new rules this past fall; the only reason you didn’t see it much in legal markets is because most legal concentrates are tested for potency, so diluted product would be reflected on the label.
More significantly, a legal cannabis vape pen in Oklahoma is not held to the same standard as a legal cannabis vape pen in Oregon. California has stringent rules around what insecticides can be used on cannabis crops, but Washington state, for example, does not require pesticide testing. I smoked a joint from a legal shop in Seattle this past August that had a disturbingly unnatural chemical taste. The cannabis-focused labs that test products are not always reliable; some are known for sending back whatever results a company would like.
When I bring up the inconsistency in state screening processes and lab accreditations, Sergi and Brown refuse to address the issue. When I suggest to Brown that it might be time for the FDA to step in, he winces. “We do not want the FDA to start treating cannabis like a drug,” he says. As with most marijuana companies, PAX’s goal is legalization with a minimum of government regulation. “I don’t want to sound cavalier, but we’re not freaking out about what’s in our partners’ pods,” he says.
A few weeks later, I meet up with Sergi at the Lowell Cannabis Café in West Hollywood for what the company calls a “pod tasting” — an opportunity to try a range of PAX’s vape offerings. The café is mostly outdoors, with leafy walls, wooden banquettes, and wicker chairs. The menu offers, among other treats, Bootylicious water hash ($90), lemon lavender weed-infused tea ($10), jalapeño mac and cheese bites ($13), and gravity bongs for rent ($85). At the table next to ours, two young women take hits off an improbably complex apparatus with someone who appears to be their mother.
Sergi has just come from Katsuya, the gaudy sushi chain, and tells me she’s in town for a feminist fundraiser held by someone in her family. It’s a few days after Apple announced it was banning vaping apps, and she’s annoyed. One of PAX’s solutions to the vaping crisis was an app called Pod ID, which was supposed to convince consumers of the trustworthiness of the company’s pods by affirming each batch has passed local testing standards. Still, she hopes some people will end up using it: “There are these people called Android users.”
Our stoner sommelier this afternoon is PAX’s chief strategy officer, JJ O’Brien. Even though it’s a Tuesday afternoon, he looks like he’s dressed for Burning Man: shirt with neon embroidery, tie-dye buff holding back his blond curls, and, after he gets cold, a floor-length cashmere robe with a floral lapel. O’Brien, who is 38, recently moved to Los Angeles, he says, because there weren’t enough single women in San Francisco; he belongs to Soho House and later mentions, in passing, his gardener and his architect.
We order vegan nachos and an eighth of Kushberry Cheesecake, which O’Brien rolls into a joint with a hemp leaf. Talk turns to the cannabis cafés in Amsterdam, and Sergi mentions that she first walked through the red-light district there at the age of 10 with her grandfather. “He was an economist,” she says, by way of explanation.
As we pass around the joint, Sergi says that she loves cigarettes but won’t allow herself to have them anymore. “If it didn’t give me wrinkles,” she says wistfully.
O’Brien has arranged four pods for us to try. “I’m going from our highest end on down,” he says. First up is the same brand as the café: Lowell Herb Co. Pink Lemonade. Before we take a pull, I declare that I don’t like the packaging, which claims we are about to vape “extra-virgin cold-pressed cannabis oil.” These words are meaningless when it comes to pot, I say, but O’Brien and Sergi defend the language, insisting that consumers want words they already understand.
In the past five years, industrial cannabis extraction has advanced to six-figure steel machinery and hot presses that instantly liquefy weed. The Pink Lemonade pod that O’Brien hands me is, in fact, very fancy, filled with the kind of expensive-to-produce extract that mostly appeals to marijuana connoisseurs. I have to admit, it tastes good.
We start to talk about how the advent of vaping has allowed people to get high in all kinds of situations where smoking is uncouth or stinky. Sergi says she likes to vape as she is falling asleep. I tell them I’ve vaped on a bus in Cuba and in my childhood bedroom when home for the holidays. The company’s communications person, Dianne Gleason, chimes in: “I wish they’d had vaping when I was younger.”
“Oh God,” Sergi says, “don’t say that.”
O’Brien is dismissive of the current moral panic around teens and e-cigarettes. “Before kids were vaping, they were putting Tide pods in their mouths,” he says. I point out that this is a myth — kids were never eating Tide pods — but he reiterates his point. Kids are always going to get into some kind of trouble. Why not vaping?
O’Brien takes out the second PAX pod he wants us to try, called California Sauce, and the conceit of the pod tasting becomes clear: Each pod has been more aggressively extracted than the last, and therefore each successive pod is higher in THC and lower in a kind of organic compound known as terpenes.
Although compounds like THC and CBD are better known, in recent years both cannabis researchers and serious potheads have become increasingly interested in terpenes. They primarily give cannabis its odor and flavor: A terpene called limonene, for instance, makes weed taste like lemons, and one called pinene smells like a pine tree. You can find terpenes in all kinds of products, including beer, but their role in cannabis is particularly intriguing. Which terpenes are present in marijuana seem to influence how it makes you feel, whether it leaves you drowsy, say, or creative, or introspective. In September, the National Institutes of Health awarded $3 million in grants to study the pain-relieving properties of terpenes and other non-THC cannabis compounds.
Weed snobs talk about terpenes the way wine nerds talk about tannins. O’Brien hates the product he is leading us up to at the end, the product that is in most legal vape pens these days: a high-potency, zero-terpene cannabis oil called “distillate,” meaning it has been distilled in the same process used to make whiskey and to refine crude oil. O’Brien compares distillate to Everclear, the notoriously high-proof grain alcohol, which would make the first pod we tried akin to a $200 bottle of French wine: lower in potency but with more nuanced flavor. The packaging of that first pod even included the phrase, “Distillate is trash.”
Because distilling cannabis oil removes all of the terpenes, vape manufacturers usually add terpenes back in — sometimes from cannabis, sometimes from other sources. The distillate that O’Brien brought for us to try is called Mango Haze, and it has a disgusting, artificial mango taste. As I take a pull, and the fruit flavor fills my mouth, suddenly I start to laugh. At this point, I’m half a joint and several pods in, and I realize that the tasting is highlighting just how far the conversation about how to combat vaping lung injury has strayed from the origins of the problem.
Cannabis extraction has long been an imprecise science, where no one really knows what’s healthy. There is not enough clinical research yet, and people buying off the illicit market have only message-board rumors to guide their purchasing decisions. But among the potential risks of a weed vape pen assembled with minimal regulatory oversight, terpenes are relatively negligible — they are the domain of marijuana purists who want their weed to taste like weed, not the cause of serious safety concerns. Now, though, terpenes might be considered flavors, and flavors are considered evil, thanks to their association with marketing nicotine to adolescents. Not only that: Terpenes can come from dubious sources. Several of the businesses that sold vitamin E acetate to vape-pen makers in the past year also sold terpenes. When I remember this, I stop laughing.
Early one morning, I’m wandering the labyrinthine lobby of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles waiting for a trio of drug traffickers from south Florida.
The guy in charge is 27 and says he has been moving illicit substances since he was 17, when he had his first kid and dropped out of 11th grade. He’s dressed in head-to-toe hypebeast leisurewear: Louis Vuitton fanny pack, Versace slides, distressed acid-wash jeans. For obvious reasons, he and his associates prefer to stay anonymous.
“We need to roll up, bro. We gon’ go to the rooftop,” he tells his two henchmen. “We finna go smoke a blunt. We finna explain to her about the pens.”
He’s smart and charming, speaking with a drawl so thick I often need to ask him to repeat himself. At one point, he mentions junkie customers dying from fentanyl so casually that it takes my breath away. We walk around the lobby looking for a place to buy a bottle of water.
“We came up here to chill out, look at bud. This the motherland!” he says. He is awestruck by the legal marijuana industry in L.A. and the whole California vibe. The night before, he got a massage at the hotel and realized excitedly when he saw a set of stairs that this was where Rush Hour 3 was shot.
We step outside onto the pool deck, and I ask him how cannabis vape-pen sales have been going. “I’d say the last year and a half, like, it just took a fucking tremendous uproar in the market like whooooo! Shit just went crazy,” he says, “and then it was like the fucking stock market crashed.”
He had lost quite a bit of money recently — “a chonk” — because all of a sudden, no one wanted to buy vape pens. “Trump kinda like, he fucked it up. They went and badmouthing the pens and shit,” he says. “If that shit woulda kept going for me, I’d probably be filthy rich.”
He explains that the margins on vape pens were similar to the margins on heroin; he could triple his money, whereas with regular old weed, he could make only a few hundred dollars extra off each pound.
We light the blunt just as one of his contacts in California arrives, wearing a black Adidas track jacket and a diamond ankh chain. “What’s up, my brother?” The two spend some time trying to figure out how they missed each other the previous night — unanswered phone calls, too much liquor — and then talk turns back to the shifting consumer demand for vape pens. The guy from Florida says he thinks a small percentage of people will continue to buy pens but that mostly the market is dead.
“I think it will bounce back, though,” the guy from California says.
“You think so?”
“Once it’s legal, it’s selling, ’cause, like, vaping is, like, the future,” he says. These days, the guy from California is working both the legal and the illegal cannabis markets. This is not unusual in the state. A prominent weed brand called Kushy Punch had been caught, just weeks earlier, operating in both the licensed market and the illicit market. So, too, had Lowell Herb Co., the brand with the “extra-virgin cold-pressed” Pink Lemonade pod.
The guy from California explains that legal products are still selling because they’re safe. “You have certain regulations you gotta meet. It can’t have no plastic, no heavy metals, none of that stuff,” he says. “In the streets, you get that shit from China. You don’t really care what it has, what it doesn’t have.”
“They throw whatever in that shit,” the guy from Florida agrees.
“At the same time, it’s like, people know you get this shit for $15. It’s $45 in the store,” the guy from California asserts. “Come on, you get what you pay for.”
The guy from Florida thinks on this and remembers that his home state does have legal cannabis, too, if you can get a doctor’s recommendation.
“My auntie done bought a pen from me before, and then, like, when I was gone, she had went to the dispensary and got one. Once she got that dispensary pen, she didn’t want that pen I got,” he tells us. “She was like, ‘I ain’t gonna lie. I don’t know what the fuck is going on with your pen, but I hit this. Here, try!’ I was like, ‘Auntie, I already know.’ ”
They all laugh.
“I was at a fucking crop out there in Paris, man, and the old Mexican dude said he ain’t even smoke his weed,” the guy from Florida says. “I was like, ‘Cuz, why you don’t wanna smoke your weed, man?’ He’s like, ‘Man, you know what type of shit we put in this motherfucker?’ ”
“That’s real,” the guy from California says. “The problem is, who is making that shit?”
The following week, I head up to Humboldt County in Northern California, where hippies and rednecks mix with gangsters and entrepreneurs to produce most of the country’s pot supply. In a yellow house on a quiet street in the town of Eureka, I find 46-year-old Adam Lustig, a man with intense blue eyes and close-cropped hair who keeps his High Times World Cup Best Vape Pen 2017 trophy on his mantel. Lustig took a popular path to growing and distributing and eventually concentrating cannabis: He followed the Grateful Dead from show to show, falling in with the band’s traveling superfan culture of selling drugs to make ends meet. After lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia died in 1995, he made weed his full-time profession.
I ask Lustig about why people might be getting sick from illicit vape pens. He tells me about the first grow he ran himself in 2006.
“Everyone around here is always like, ‘It’s organic!’ ” he says. “Then I get spider mites, and they’re like, ‘Go to the grow store and ask for this guy and tell him.’ And I’m like, ‘OK.’ I go, and he comes back and hands me this unlabeled brown vial with some handwritten instructions. I start asking around, and it turns out this is illegal pesticides, like Floramite and Avid, that they go and buy in Oregon and sell behind the counter for a huge markup, and that everybody’s using it. I couldn’t find anybody not using it.” Floramite and Avid are meant to be used only on ornamental plants because their active ingredients, bifenazate and abamectin, are known to be toxic.
When the cannabis got powdery mildew, Lustig explains, farmers would turn to a product called Eagle 20, whose active ingredient is myclobutanil. When myclobutanil is heated to about 400 degrees, it turns into hydrogen cyanide. According to PAX, its pens go as high as 700 degrees.
By the end of 2012, Lustig noticed that dispensaries were paying big money for a form of concentrated cannabis known as wax or butane hash oil. Back then, most people made wax by releasing lighter fluid over weed stuffed into a tube with cheesecloth at the end, producing a golden oil. It’s a dangerous process that fills the air with butane and has caused hundreds of explosions in recent years. Lustig bought a safer contraption and spent months experimenting before he felt he had something good enough to sell. “We were playing with all the different textures, trying to see what we could get,” he says.
Each texture of butane hash oil has its own name: shatter for the hard, snappy amber kind; budder for the thick, opaque fudge; honey oil for the viscous liquid. On Instagram and YouTube, self-styled “extract artists” share amateur purification methods, such as heating the wax over boiling water or purging it in a vacuum oven.
Lustig was one of the first people to start putting wax into vape pens, back in 2014 — a move that shifted butane hash oil from stoner secret to something discreetly consumed by the masses. “Nobody was making cannabis-
specific vape hardware,” he explains, only pens designed for nicotine, so he spent a lot of time testing out different devices and talking on the phone with factories in Shenzhen, China. These days, dozens of Chinese factories make hardware for the cannabis industry at a range of price points.
“The buyer just wants cheaper and cheaper and cheaper,” Lustig says. “So China is like, ‘OK, you need it cheaper? We’ll use this cheaper solder.’ ”
A Colorado chemist named Frank Conrad — one of the industry insiders who predicted years ago that illicit cannabis would eventually make people sick — had recently published a blog post detailing why he thought the cadmium solder in vape hardware from China was contributing to lung disease. Lustig had read the post and agreed it was a possibility. “It’s a toxic soup,” he says. The pesticides. The lighter fluid. The vitamin E acetate. The thinning agents. The crappy hardware. The high temperatures. “They end up with this dangerous fucking product because they wanted it so goddamn cheap. That’s why you have vape lung illness.”
One underground wholesaler told me that the demand for cheap vape pens got so desperate by early summer 2019 that someone tried to sell him 20 liters of wood rosin, glue, and epoxy meant to look like distillate. After it tested negative for THC, he wouldn’t buy it, but he says the guy shipped it to a dealer in Ohio.
Lustig rolls us a joint of a strain called Zkittlez Cake.
“As a business owner, I know what it’s like,” he says. “You gotta survive. You got employees. You got a family. You have to make money. You have to keep up with the other people in the industry. If they’re using vitamin E acetate and you’re not, then all your customers are going to run over there because they’re getting shit cheaper. This is what happens with unregulated capitalism. There’s no rules, and you got to play by the no rules to compete, because your competition — nobody’s regulating them from cheating. So what are you going to do? You’re going to be honorable and broke?”
As the vaping hysteria reached a crescendo in mid-September, Governor Gavin Newsom went on TV to launch a public-awareness campaign about the dangers of vaping and to issue an executive order looking for recommendations from state agencies on “ways to ban illegal and counterfeit vaping products,” as the Los Angeles Times put it. How, exactly, the state might ban something that was already illegal was anybody’s guess.
When it comes to marijuana policy, Newsom has been inconsistent. Back when he was the lieutenant governor, he led a blue-ribbon-commission report on what cannabis legalization should look like, including the recommendation that small businesses be allowed to thrive. A few months later, he endorsed ballot-initiative language that did the opposite.
Newsom’s senior cannabis adviser is Nicole Elliott, who previously ran the cannabis office in San Francisco. Her husband is Newsom’s director of executive branch affairs, and on the day I arrive in Sacramento, she is eight months pregnant with their first child. At 17 minutes past the hour, Elliott arrives for her 10 a.m. meeting in a conference room on the first floor of the state Capitol, with an assistant deputy director from the California Department of Public Health, as well as two lobbyists for, and a representative from the Mendocino-based cannabis company Flow Kana. Elliott, who is 34, has that warm, pregnant-lady glow. She’s wearing pointy black ballet flats, sparkling earrings, and a form-fitting gray turtleneck dress.
As an umbrella brand for more than 200 small cannabis farmers in northern California, Flow Kana serves as a sort of community steward in contrast to the better-funded megagrows in Santa Barbara County that take up much of California’s legal dispensary shelf space. It hasn’t been easy; a few days earlier, the company laid off nearly 20 percent of its workforce, a few dozen people. Michael Wheeler, Flow Kana’s vice president of policy, begins to explain to Elliott, with a fair amount of sycophantic posturing, that the company doesn’t yet sell vape pens, but it’s hoping to do so in 2020 — depending on what she and the governor decide.
“Teen vaping, as a father of three boys, I’m concerned about that,” Wheeler says. “But illicit and dirty vapes is a different topic. Do you see those as different?”
“We see them as separate,” Elliott responds, “but there are points of overlap.”
“That’s fantastic,” Wheeler says. “With regard to the teen-vaping issue, is there going to be any kind of ban on flavors designed to address that?”
“Flavors is such a convoluted question,” says Miren Klein, a no-nonsense type from the Department of Public Health. “Flavors in e-cigarettes is clearly a marketing tool, but then there’s cannabis, and with that, when people say ‘flavor,’ they mean so many things.”
“Can we talk more about that?” Wheeler asks. His primary concern is, of course, around terpenes. Was the state going to ban terpenes that hadn’t originally come from the cannabis plant, like the intense mango flavoring that PAX’s O’Brien had pooh-poohed?
“The core public-health perspective is around naming,” Klein says. “For example, ‘cherry bomb.’ ” She pauses, suddenly unsure of herself, and then laughs. “I don’t even know all the strain names.”
“Zkittlez?” suggests one of the lobbyists, a woman named Pamela Lopez.
“Yeah, Zkittlez is so appealing to kids,” Klein says. “It’s very easy to conflate the flavor issue because there’s flavors in the names of products. The cannabis industry can be very creative with product names that look like flavors but really don’t have any flavors in them.”
Satisfied that Klein had an appropriately nuanced view, Wheeler moves on to a bigger issue: the prevalence of the illicit market. Everyone in the room knows that California already has the strictest set of standards in the world for legal cannabis. The problem is the illegal market is five times bigger than the legal market, and consumers often can’t tell the difference. So millions of Californians are unwittingly purchasing vape pens that are just as unsafe as the ones you’d buy from a dealer in Iowa.
This is largely a legacy of the mess that developed when only medical pot was allowed. Although there have been brick-and-mortar marijuana stores in California for more than two decades, the state didn’t consider any of them legal until 2018. In order for pot shops and farms and manufacturers to become legal, they need to get a license from their city or county and then from the state. But about 65 percent of the 539 cities and counties in California aren’t even giving out licenses; those that do often cap the number of legal businesses that they’ll allow or are moving at an excruciatingly slow pace. In Los Angeles, the biggest marijuana market in the world, unlicensed storefront dispensaries outnumber legal storefront dispensaries by at least four to one. Illicit shops attract customers with lower prices, made possible because they don’t pay the state’s licensing fees and steep cannabis taxes.
“So, Nicole,” Wheeler asks, “how do you plan to address the retail-access challenge?”
“That’s a multifaceted issue,” she says. “For the governor, it’s a five- to seven-year process in his mind, though we see the challenges municipalities have created and also the level of illicit activity. We’re trying to ensure consumers know what’s going on. I’ve secret-shopped in L.A. myself, and I can understand how it can be exceptionally challenging for consumers to know if a dispensary is legal or illegal. When it comes to enforcement, that’s the never-ending question: How to do it effectively?”
She starts to talk about the difficult balance between shutting down illegal shops for good and encouraging cities and counties to create a pathway to legality for their rampant illicit businesses. The phrase “carrot and stick” comes up multiple times.
“Is the state looking at local vaping bans?” asks Max Mikalonis, the other Flow Kana lobbyist in the room. Mikalonis is a highly regarded policy wonk. Back in 2015, as a staffer for a state Assembly member from pot-friendly Oakland, he helped develop the state’s first-ever comprehensive medical cannabis law, which formed the basis for the regulatory system.
“Contra Costa unincorporated county just passed a ban on retail and delivery of vaping products,” Mikalonis says, “so you’ll no longer be able to legally order vape products, and retailers can’t sell them. Now, as the cannabis industry will be the first to tell you, the effectiveness of bans is sorely lacking.” What he means is that almost every city or county that has banned legal cannabis has been overrun with illegal dispensaries and delivery services.
Then it’s 11 o’clock, and everyone has another meeting to get to. “Our door is always open,” Elliott says in a sunny tone, though she has revealed little about what she and the governor are planning to do.
Later, in her office, she walks me through the limits of what she and Newsom can accomplish. “I don’t believe anything we do right now will be the silver bullet, but we can be helpful,” she says. “People will choose to vape whether or not a ban is in place, and so steering people to regulated and tested products is important.” She’s acutely aware, though, that access to safe vape pens is dependent on access to legal products, and access to legal products is dependent on cities and counties. “If local jurisdictions want to do their own thing, they will,” she says. “That is not something we are intervening in.”
Down the street, over a 3:30 p.m. cocktail, Mikalonis has a gloomier view. “The vape crisis is stress-testing an already stressed system,” he tells me. “The cannabis bubble is starting to burst. Venture capital is drying up.” And the illicit market dominates — even though, as Mikalonis puts it, “California consumers don’t think there is an illegal market.” He sighs. “We wouldn’t have made the same decisions five years ago if we knew what we know now.” He wishes the law hadn’t given cities and counties so much power. He wishes the law hadn’t made taxes so high that shoppers head to the unlicensed shops to save money. And now that people are dying from unregulated cannabis products, he wishes the governor and the Legislature understood that performing outrage and implementing a ban would just make everything worse.
“The instinct of government is to do something,” he says. “But just because you’re acting doesn’t mean it’s helping.”
A cannabis company called Sunday Goods invited me to a dinner party in November. The brand’s events are usually populated by well-known chefs and entertainers and are more tasteful than any other marijuana-themed gathering I’ve been to. So this seems like the perfect place to see whether, after all the backlash, vaping might persist as a cool habit — as something still considered acceptable behavior.
I arrive shortly after 7 and find actor Eric Wareheim standing behind a bar in the backyard, wearing a pink button-up, pouring a 2018 sparkling carignan for whoever approaches. Wareheim is the hulking goofball on the Netflix show Master of None and part of the comedy duo Tim & Eric. The dinner party is primarily in celebration of his wine label. A long table covered in white linen, scattered with marigolds and candles, stretches out toward a view of the Silver Lake Reservoir.
I turn to mingle, but I am intimidated by how stylish these people are. It feels like I’m walking around a Vogue spread. No one is vaping. I soon find the founder of Sunday Goods, Yoram Heller, chatting with Gina Correll Aglietti, the CEO of one of Heller’s other projects, the trendy, women-run alcohol company Yola Mezcal. Aglietti has dark pigtail braids and is wearing a long black dress. “Yoram helped me start my business!” she says. “We’re family.”
Heller is wearing gold boots, burgundy corduroys, a psychedelic silver wolf ring, and a matching blue tie-dye T-shirt and scarf. In addition to Sunday Goods and Yola Mezcal, he sits on the board of Go Get Em Tiger — the millennial-friendly café chain that offers turmeric almond macadamia lattes and is spreading across Los Angeles. He starts expounding on the Sunday Goods philosophy, explaining why he sponsored this event but didn’t staff a table with brand ambassadors handing out free vape pens. He prefers a more subtle approach. “With brands, you can feel when something is trying too hard. Effortless chic is what we aspire to,” he says. “We want to provide a safe space for wonder and daydreams and having a breakthrough.”
It all sounds quite groovy, until I remember we’re talking about vape pens filled with distillate and non-cannabis-derived flavorings — the stuff that weed snobs think is gross. Heller tells me sales haven’t taken much of a hit since the vape backlash started, but that Sunday Goods is mostly surviving off its business in Arizona, where pot dispensaries were regulated from the start, so there isn’t as much of a problem with the illicit market.
“The margins in California are so bad,” he says. “The reality of weed right now is, ‘How much can I get for how cheap?’ ” In the long term, Heller says he thinks the vaping lung illnesses will turn out to be “a good thing. We need to crack down on the black market. If this is the thing that catalyzes a real response, then so be it. People had to die. Literally.”
Wareheim calls the 30 or so guests together, to sit down for the first course. I find myself next to a woman named Sharon with matte-black acrylic nails. I ask her what she thinks of vaping, and she says, “Apparently, it’s not that great for you. Like vapors cause cancer? But also I think water causes cancer.”
The air smells of burning wood. Down in the yard, two chefs from a pop-up called Chainsaw are preparing the next course. Wareheim is floating around, pouring the first of what will be three different pinot noirs. Heller comes by to pass out Sunday Goods vape pens labeled Delight. He also offers my end of the table a joint from a silver tin, but the only person who wants it, a guy with a man bun and beard, seems to regret lighting up almost immediately, as there’s no one to pass it to.
I take a pull from the Delight pen; it tastes like vanilla. Sharon has some, too, and tells me she thinks fears about vaping are like fears about vaccines: visceral and irrational. I offer the vape pen to the folks sitting across from us, and a woman in a sheer top over a black bra accepts immediately. Alex, the guy she’s sitting next to, asks what’s in the pen — cannabis or nicotine? — and the woman stops mid-toke to laugh at herself for not even checking. “I wouldn’t have wanted it if it were nicotine!” she says.
“Well, at this point,” he responds, “the nicotine ones can cause your immediate death, right?”
Alex tells me he is a musician and that he used to smoke cigarettes, though now he uses nicotine lozenges. He thinks the federal government is about to ban vaping. “Juuls are going to go the way of the dodo,” he predicts. That seems unlikely, though the FDA is finally going to review the device, starting in May.
We’re still passing the vanilla-flavored Delight pen back and forth. A woman in an ethereal chartreuse sweater asks what’s in it. “Weed,” we tell her. She looks disappointed — she’d wanted nicotine — but takes it anyway for a small puff.
This is about the time that I decide that Alex exudes coolness and is the right person to help me figure out the future of vaping. Later, I find out he was the lead singer of Phantom Planet, the band that sang the theme song for the early aughts teen soap opera The O.C., that he works with producer Mark Ronson, and that he recently got out of a multiyear relationship with the actress Brie Larson, and I feel affirmed in my impression: certifiably hip.
“I don’t think the vaping element is cool,” Alex says. “It’s that it’s an easy way to ingest a substance, and it’s more polite, more subtle, more private. It’s a delivery system that’s easier on everybody, especially the person using it.” I recall how almost no one wanted the joint earlier, even though we are outside. “I can’t think of anyone in my entire musician circle that thinks vaping is cool, but it’s convenient and it’s covert, and that’s what makes kids want to do it. And adults, too.”
People start to drift away from the table, and I head home, stoned and a little paranoid. I think back to a conversation I had with Emily Pahxia, the managing partner of a cannabis hedge fund, who estimated that 80 percent of the people in the weed business are only in it for the short term. “When money moves fast, that’s where I look for corners being cut,” she said.
We talked about how a few years back, vape pens were the hot investment, and these days, the trend is CBD — the nonintoxicating cannabis compound being sold as a miracle drug. CBD is federally legal now, but the supply chain remains unregulated, and it’s an open secret in the cannabis world that most over-the-counter CBD products — the stuff you buy online or find at your neighborhood health food store — don’t contain any CBD. With so little oversight, and with so many people downing CBD coffee and CBD tinctures, it seems almost inevitable that some unassuming ingredient might make people sick. “I’m afraid we’re going to see part two of this,” Pahxia said. “I always say, with cannabis we cannot move fast and break things, because look what happened. It broke big time.”