Jay Jenkins said he hesitated when a buddy suggested they vape CBD.
“It’ll relax you,” the friend assured.
The vapor that Jenkins inhaled didn’t relax him. After two puffs, he ended up in a coma.
That’s because the vapor he inhaled wasn’t CBD, a natural compound that marketers say can treat a range of ailments without getting users high. Instead, it was spiked with a powerful street drug.
Some operators are cashing in on the CBD craze by substituting cheap and illegal synthetic marijuana for real CBD, an Associated Press investigation found.
Spiked vapes have sent dozens of people like Jenkins to emergency rooms over the past two years. Yet people behind the products have operated with impunity, in part because the business has boomed so fast that regulators haven’t caught up while drug enforcement agents have higher priorities.
AP commissioned testing of the vape that Jenkins used plus 29 other vape products sold as CBD around the country, with a focus on brands that authorities or users flagged as suspect. Ten of the 30 contained synthetic marijuana, commonly known as K2 or spice.
One brand, a pod compatible with Juul electronic cigarettes called Green Machine, contained a different kind of synthetic marijuana depending on the flavor and even location of purchase.
“It’s Russian roulette,” said James Neal-Kababick, director of Flora Research Laboratories.
The results echo what authorities have found. At least 128 samples out of more than 350 tested by government labs in nine states had synthetic marijuana in products marketed as CBD, according to law enforcement information provided by states. Gummy bears and other edibles accounted for 36 hits, while nearly all others were vape products. Mississippi authorities also found fentanyl, the opioid involved in about 30,000 overdose deaths last year.
Because testing by both authorities and AP focused on suspect products, the results are not representative of the overall market.
Vaping has come under increased scrutiny because hundreds of users have developed mysterious lung illnesses, and several have died. The AP’s investigation focused on yet another set of cases, in which psychoactive chemicals are added to products presented as CBD.
CBD, short for cannabidiol, is one of many chemicals found in cannabis, more commonly as marijuana. Most CBD is made from hemp, a cannabis variety that doesn’t get users high. Sales of CBD have been driven in part by unproven claims that it can reduce pain, calm anxiety, increase focus and prevent disease.
Jenkins had just finished his freshman year at the Citadel, a South Carolina military college, when he tried CBD in May 2018. He said a friend bought one called Yolo! — the acronym for “you only live once” — from a convenience store.
After Jenkins became unresponsive his friend drove him to the hospital, where Jenkins suffered acute respiratory failure, his medical records show. “I thought that I actually was already dead,” Jenkins said.
Lab testing found a type of synthetic marijuana that has been blamed for at least 11 deaths in Europe and a rash of illnesses in Utah. Authorities never caught anyone.
The people behind spiked vapes leave few clues about who makes them or what’s inside. Packaging doesn’t identify the companies. Newcomers can simply design a label and outsource production to a wholesaler.
The opaque system of manufacturing and distribution hampers criminal investigations and leaves victims with little recourse.
The AP bought and tested Green Machine pods in flavors including mint, mango, blueberry and jungle juice. Four of the seven pods were spiked and only two had CBD higher than a trace level. Mint and mango pods bought in Los Angeles contained one type of synthetic marijuana. But while mint and mango pods sold by a vape shop in Maryland were not spiked, a “jungle juice” pod was. It had yet a different synthetic marijuana compound — one blamed for poisonings in the U.S. and New Zealand.
Green Machine’s packaging has no information about who is behind it. AP tracked pods to a warehouse in Philadelphia and then to a Manhattan smoke shop and Rajinder Singh, who said he is Green Machine’s first distributor. Singh, who is on probation for a federal synthetic marijuana conviction, said he purchased the pods from a man he knew as “Bob” who drove a van from Massachusetts. To substantiate his account, he provided a phone number associated with a man who died in July.
Singh said his 2017 guilty plea taught him a lesson and blamed counterfeit products for the synthetic marijuana detected in Green Machine. “100 percent, what you tested is a duplicated product,” he said.
Marielle Weintraub, president of the U.S. Hemp Authority, an industry group that certifies CBD cosmetics and dietary supplements, said,“There are some fly-by-night companies trying to make a quick buck,” but the industry does has many reputable companies.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved one CBD-based medicine for treating seizures associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy, but says it cannot be added to food, drinks or dietary supplements.
Because CBD is the active ingredient in an FDA-approved drug, FDA is responsible for regulating its sale in the U.S. But if CBD products are found to contain narcotics, the agency considers the investigation a job for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. But the DEA has to prioritize drugs causing more severe problems, said spokeswoman Mary Brandenberger, such as fentanyl and methamphetamines.
Experts such as Michelle Peace, a forensic scientist, said the federal government should act quickly to protect the public. “As long as it remains unregulated like it currently is,” Peace said, “you just give a really wide space for nefarious activity to continue.”