Searching for Dank
As the nationwide health scare surrounding vape products continues to grow, counterfeit THC cartridges are taking the blunt of the blame
It’s fall, and innocent Americans are still getting sick and dying from THC vape cartridges. While nobody has a conclusive answer to this summer’s biggest nationwide health scare, the brunt of the blame is pointed at unregulated and counterfeit cartridges, purchased online and shipped through the mail.
Last month, SN&R exposed the underbelly of counterfeit brand-name THC cartridges. After seeing the article, a local pop-up “sesh” market banned two suspicious vape cartridge vendors.
Now consumers should beware of scams involving another category of unregulated cartridges, such as the elusive Dank Vapes brand.
In September, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention named Dank Vapes as a culprit in the Wisconsin outbreak of vape injuries that affected 38 people. One of those victims, Patrick DeGraves, was put into a medically-induced coma, while his brother showed a local TV news crew the package of Dank Vapes he claimed was responsible. The CDC report also stated that health officials in Wisconsin and Illinois interviewed 86 injured patients after vaping incidents, and 66% said they used Dank Vapes.
As of Oct. 31, the CDC reported 37 total deaths and 1,888 confirmed or probable cases of the mysterious illness linked to vaping.
While it is among the most popular vape cartridge brands, it’s not a cannabis company. Dank Vapes is a packaging company with no cannabis license, no public headquarters and elusive owners. Anyone can buy Dank’s packaging in bulk from storefront outlets in Southern California, or through the Chinese e-commerce site DHGate.com. The cartridges are then filled by unlicensed distillate makers.
“Dank Vapes is an illegitimate company,” said an administrator of Dankbusterofficial, an Instagram page centered on cannabis safety, who asked to remain anonymous.
And Dank packaging has also been counterfeited, further adding to the confusion. “Even the ’real’ ones have been tested dirty,” the administrator said. “So it’s a waste of time to label Dank Vapes as anything but a fake company.”
Other popular, but problematic, brands include Cereal Carts (which mimic famous children’s cereals), Chronic Carts, Dabwoods, Exotic Carts, Mario Carts, Monopoly, Runtz and Smart Carts. These are all popular with underage and out-of-state consumers who have no legal access to cannabis in their area. Thousands follow these brands on Facebook and Instagram, believing they are buying legitimate California products. But what they’re really getting is anyone’s guess.
Last December the cannabis forum InternationalHighLife.com posted a warning about Exotic Carts and the unknown vendors who ship that brand across state lines.
“Don’t get fooled by the sealed packaging from Exotic Carts,” it stated, “because anyone can be them online without any problem.”
Illegal online market
SN&R found 14 websites claiming to ship Dank Vapes “anywhere.” When we asked one site where it was located, the chat person said “Denver.” But the address they posted was a residence in Van Nuys and the phone number was in Fresno.
Several more websites that market unregulated brands are designed similarly to the Dank websites. Each homepage has an instant chat window on one side and pop-up announcements touting recent sales on the other. These sites all promise to ship anywhere in the world, which is a federal crime. Every site also has misleading or incorrect contact information.
One website, Greensolutions dispensary.com, misrepresents itself as the real Green Solutions dispensary in downtown Sacramento.
“We encountered these scammers over a month ago,” said Forrest Heise, general manager at Green Solutions. “I had a cease-and-desist letter sent to their email address provided on the website, but aside from that there is not much we can do.”
SN&R also hit roadblocks when trying to trace the origins of these marketing websites. Jordan Alen, a computer analyst from Silicon Valley, said the operators are probably using “proxy-networks, or spiderwebs of servers that obfuscate the source.” A common method is to hide behind a network of gatekeeper servers, so that searching for the original is “the equivalent of wandering through a maze,” he said.
Then there is Cannacureshop.com. This website offers Dank as well as the other fake brands and also claims to ship anywhere in the world. But it also has a side scam: Cannacureshop.com takes money for orders and tells customers their package was held up in transit, without ever having shipped it.
Several customers registered complaints after paying for their goods with Bitcoin or other electronic payment services. “They emailed me, telling me my package was ’detained’ and I had to pay $500 more to secure my package,” reported Lissie626, on the website ReportScam.com.
AmberW1998 wrote, “They have you pay them by the Google pay app, they will take the money out right away, and keep telling you that your order will be shipped, and after a week nothing is shipped.”
Cannacureshop.com makes customers complicit in its own scam. “The big secret is that a LOT of marijuana goes through the US Postal system,” its website reads. While warning customers about the possibility of a “controlled-delivery” by authorities, it advises, “Don’t sign for anything.”
Cannacureshop.com is not a real dispensary. But it poses as the Koreatown Collective dispensary in Los Angeles. Koreatown Collective’s lawyer, Scott Yahraus, said that he can’t send out a cease-and-desist letter because he doesn’t know the physical location of the online sellers.
SN&R traced the phone number back to North Dakota. Then, we visited its website pretending to make a large order. “If you are located on Melrose Avenue in LA, then why do you use a North Dakota phone number?” we asked. The chat person answered, “Because some THC products are still illegal and we can’t have a number that traces us here.”
The website Stop419scams.com keeps a list of 55 other cannabis-shipping websites using the same non-delivery scam. Site operator Lysander London cannot say how many more sites exist on a global scale, but said he believes the way Cannacureshop.com operates matches that of several scams coming from West Africa.
Closer to home
Ryan, a former counterfeiter who withheld his last name for legal reasons, told SN&R that an operation he worked at near Oakdale was filling cartridges for several fake brands, “but mostly Dank.” Ryan said the operation was buying its bulk empty cartridges in Southern California.
The empties originate in Shenzhen, China, where 90% of all empty vape cartridges are manufactured, according to NBC News. But Jason Vegotsky, president of KushCo, a company that provides products and services to the regulated cannabis industry, says anyone can buy them over the counter. He said that illegal cart makers shop for cheap products at retail outlets in Los Angeles because those stores will take cash for large purchases without filing the federal tax form, which is required to report cash transactions of more than $10,000.
Vegotsky sent an employee into one such store and had him purchase empty counterfeit boxes of his own KushCo “C-cell” type vape cartridges. “The Chinese manufacturers know that we are the largest provider of cartridges,” he said. “And that ’K’ on the bottom? They laser engrave it.”
Vegotsky showed SN&R the fake box of empties. Then he flipped it on its side, where it was labeled “Dank.” Vegotsky alleges that some Chinese manufacturers counterfeit the same ceramic-tipped C-cell cartridges that another Chinese company is manufacturing for him.
The trademark for “Dank Vapes” clothing has been owned by Jake Lindsey of Los Angeles since 2018, according to the California Secretary of State’s office. Our public search effort also found the owners of Exotic Carts, Trang Nguyen and Edward Manalos, also based in Los Angeles. The registered owner of Mario Carts is Natalie Gelfand, of Encino.
SN&R contacted each person to ask if they were directly involved in selling illegal vape cartridges or shipping cannabis across state lines. None responded.
Is there any way to stop these illegal sellers?
“While the illicit cannabis market will never totally disappear, the vape scammers are almost guaranteed to get caught eventually,” Green Solution’s Heise told SN&R.
The state Bureau of Cannabis Control wants your help.
“We encourage the public to report any unlicensed commercial cannabis activity they’re coming across,” said Aaron Francis, the bureau’s public affairs analyst. It can be done anonymously on its complaint page: https://bcc.ca.gov/consumers/file_complaint.html