One hit after another, the high begins to slowly set in. As Alex* gently releases the smoke from his lungs, he watches it dissipate into the cool afternoon air. Not knowing what’s to come, Alex continues to smoke the cartridge that he had bought only a few hours before.

[Ed. note — names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect the person’s identity.]

Alex is a normal kid. He’s wearing grey athletic sweatpants and a Nike athletic jacket. Both seem crafted especially for comfort (a trait in clothing that seems almost necessary to high school). We interviewed Alex on one of those early-winter Tuesdays that feels almost oppressive after the freedom that the warmth and timelessness that summer brings. Although he was not particularly happy to relive what had happened to him almost a year before, Alex seemed prepared to help out our cause and he started right away into his encounter with a “boof” cartridge. Boof is the name given to off-market and bad quality THC vape cartridges; they could contain all sorts of contaminants — including pesticides, mold and cutting agents — or could even be laced with other drugs.

A fake (or “boof“) vape cartridge packaged to look like the real thing. Photo: Fiona Murphy.

“I got a cart from someone I didn’t know,” Alex tells us as he begins to break down his experience of using a boof cart. The cartridge he bought “looked like a normal cartridge,” he said Unfortunately, Alex was not aware that both packaging and empty cartridges can be bought in bulk online. The packaging can be made to look exactly like brands that are legal in California, such as Kingpen, TKO Extracts and Dank Vapes.

A bit after smoking, Alex went home and began to notice that something was off. What started off as a normal high had turned increasingly confusing and frightening. “I kind of started tripping,” he explained as he told me of the growing intensity of the high. Although he couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong quite yet, Alex knew he wasn’t supposed to be feeling like this. Knowing he could trust his parents to know what to do, Alex hurried to their room seeking help.

At the door, Alex jammed his hand on the door knob while reaching out to open it. “I lost most of my depth perception,” Alex said. That’s when he started to panic. Stumbling into the room, “everything was blurry. Faces were changing, and it almost felt like I had left reality,” he told us.

The final sequence of events in Alex’s story are such a blur that he had trouble remembering exactly what happened. What Alex does remember is how his heart started to race and his breathing quickened by the second, both symptoms characteristic of a panic attack. Alex could feel his body tingle as his vision began to fade into black, becoming darker by the second. “I blacked out, but I could still hear everything,” Alex told us.

His parents decided that he needed immediate medical help, so they carried him down the stairs to the car and rushed to the emergency room. He reflects back, “People think ‘It won’t happen to me,’ so no one thinks about it when buying cart.” This “It,” that Alex is referring to is the likelihood that a cartridge is contaminated with a substance that has the potential to hospitalize its user.

Alex’s experience of using an unregulated boof cartridge, laced with an unknown substance, is a story that has become all too common within the last six months. Media outlets seem to be focused on a “A National Vaping Crisis.” CNN flashes pictures of atomizers and vape cartridges across the screen. Fox News gargles out lines about the potential dangers of vaping. My parents come home to tell me that they had heard on the radio that someone had died of a vaping-related disease in Mendocino County. A Snapchat Discover News Story explains in as few words as possible how the Center for Disease Control has identified a possible source to the “vaping epidemic.”

Across the nation, there have been 2,172 (as of November 13, 2019) cases of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI) as reported by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). This statistic, along with the 37 deaths that have been reported, has led the CDC to launch an investigation into the source of this epidemic. After laboratory testing of patients with EVALI, the CDC found vitamin E acetate in all samples. This data, corroborated with other research done by the New York Department of Health, solidifies vitamin E acetate as the central maleficent component in black market cartridges. Alex had no idea what was in his cartridge and it was most likely not vitamin E. He is extremely lucky that it wasn’t.

Vitamin E acetate is a lipid (oil) commonly found in cosmetics, but is used as a cutting agent in cartridges for its color and viscosity, according to the CDC. Although the chemical is considered safe in makeup, the combustion and inhalation of it coats pulmonary tissue and saturates macrophages (immune cells). These engorged white blood cells, although normally integral to the body’s natural immune response system, start to attack lung tissue, inducing respiratory illness.

What was in Alex’s cartridge? Where did his cart come from? We decided to try and find out. Alex gave us the name of the peer that gave him the cartridge he used that night — Sam*. We went out to find her, and we didn’t have to look more than a few buildings away from the journalism lab. The weather was cold and with the assurance of anonymity, Sam was eager to answer our questions and go back inside.

“It was mostly [fake] TKO carts,” Sam told us. “I don’t really do that anymore. It was just for a bit while my friend was selling them.”

Although she was not able to recall a customer by the name of Alex, she was willing to answer some of our more “off topic” questions regarding the subject of cartridges, telling us of a girl she knows trying to get a few fake “carts” off her hands.

“She orders Kingpen packaging online, fills them with stuff she has and sells them for like eight dollars. They’re fake,” Sam explained.

With our investigation into the source of this cartridge beginning to feel more and more like the plot to an old noir novella, Sam led us to a former dealer named Davis* who she said she once helped flip product.

We caught up to Davis later that afternoon. Lucky for us, he seemed to be educated on the topic of fake cartridges and their state in the black market.

“They’re all fake. If they aren’t from a dispensary they’re fake and sometimes even those are,” explained Davis. Just about anyone can order nice fancy packaging that is designed to look like legitimate branding. This makes it all too easy for dealers to fill carts with whatever they please.

“They can add stuff to it or just make it from moldy or bad product,” Davis told us, and all the high schoolers and other customers that buy these boof cartridges wouldn’t know the difference. Customers feel safe purchasing these black market products because they see no noticeable difference between these cartridges and the ones sold at dispensaries.

Mariellen Jurkovich, the director of the Humboldt Patient Resource Center (HPRC), a local dispensary, has been working in the cannabis industry for the past 14 years. She shed some light on the subject of boof carts. Everything that is sold in the State of California through licensed dispensaries is required to go through testing with labs that have to be licensed through the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC). Anyone who sells cannabis products to dispensaries must have a license in the State of California through the BCC, and they must turn in their testing results. The rigorous process that a product must go through before hitting the legal market ensures that all products are safe for consumption. But even before regulations were required, HPRC was testing its product.

“I required testing back then, and we were seeing [that] a lot of growers were using very bad pesticides in their plants,” Jurkovich said.

The problem with the black market sale of these cartridges is that this illegal sale is not regulated. The off-market product does not have to meet any testing standards. Along with that, packaging can be ordered that appeals to people looking for product at a lower price. Fake warning labels and strain testing labels provide a false sense of security that their products are safe for consumption.

Along with the appeal of lower prices, people under the age of 21 cannot go into dispensaries, making the black market their only option. The CDC has reported that 14% of patients that have vaping-related illness are under 18 years old, suggesting the impact unregulated black market products have on minors who are unable to obtain cannabis in a safe, and legal form.

As Jurkovich put it, “A lot of parents are feeling like they need to get their kids products because they know they are using them. It’s kind of like ‘I’m going to pick you up if you’ve been drinking and I’m not going to say anything because I don’t want anything to happen to you.’”

Another problem with black market cartridges are the cartridges themselves. “Some of the cartridges they are using are not regulated cartridges, so when they get too hot and you burn them, they’ll cause some really serious toxins to go into your lungs,” Jurkovich explained.

With the national media coverage of the deaths and illnesses related to vaping, people are scared.

“We have noticed a decrease in purchasing of vape pens. Even with us, some people are so scared of what they’re seeing right now that they’re not going to be buying anything like that,” Jurkovich said.

Boof, or bad, cartridges have left their mark across the country. With thousands of families affected, it is only a matter of time before the crisis affects someone you know. Just because someone has not experienced the effects of boof cartridges firsthand does not mean they have nothing to worry about. It is imperative that teenagers are aware of what they are using. It is naive to remain oblivious the dangers of boof cartridges.


Gabe Sanchez and Levi Robbins write for The Pepperbox, Arcata High School’s student newspaper.