Marijuana extract from Mexico could be a cause of vaping injuries

UPDATE: On December 20, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that vitamin E acetate is being blamed for the vast majority of vaping illness cases in the U.S.

Mexican drug cartels are smuggling a highly-concentrated marijuana extract into the United States. This previously unknown danger might be contributing to a the recent outbreak of lung injuries and deaths associated with vaping tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Due to its color and consistency, the concentrate is called "crude oil."

Marijuana in its natural form remains the primary cash crop for Mexican drug cartels, but demand in the U.S. for the relatively low-quality marijuana grown south of the border has been dropping. The cartels are reacting by manufacturing a product derived from marijuana but containing a higher concentration of THC, which is the psychoactive part of the marijuana plant.

Special Agent Matt Hall from ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is part of a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area multi-agency team working the Arizona-Mexico border. In May, the team stopped a group of smugglers in the desert south of Phoenix and discovered a type of cargo they had never seen before. Instead of marijuana bundles, the smugglers were carrying plastic containers. Special Agent Matt Hall says they became suspicious because the containers were being transported in the way backpackers traditionally carry drug loads through the desert.

When the containers were opened, the distinct smell of marijuana revealed the presence of a powerful concentrate. That discovery led to a disturbing revelation: Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel is now processing marijuana to create a more profitable export. The process, which creates a base for TCH end-products, might include contaminants like dangerous chemicals and pesticides.

The “crude oil” production process

Marijuana plants grown in open fields south of the border have THC levels as low as 4%, while strains grown indoors in the United States could have TCH levels as high as 30%. The cartels compensate for this handicap by extracting raw oil from marijuana plants. The extract is sometimes referred to as “crude oil”, which can have a concentration of 60-80% THC or CBD (which is less psychoactive).

Crude oil production involves rinsing the plants with butane or propane and then mixing the liquid with ethanol. Roughly 250 pounds of marijuana will produce 20 to 25 pounds of crude oil. Once processed into more refined products, the end result could be worth between $80,000 to $100,000.

The only known smuggling corridor used for this concentrate is through the desert region between Ajo and Three Points in Arizona's Pima County, where there have been 10 seizures so far. If crude oil is being smuggled through official Ports of Entry managed by Customs and Border Protection, it has so-far gone through undetected.

Crude oil is a likely source of injuries recently connected with vaping

Before crude oil is shipped out across the country for use in e-cigarettes, it's processed in labs in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Detective Matt Shay of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is emerging as one of the country's foremost experts on crude oil. He participates in a multi-agency team which is uncovering clandestine laboratories across Metro Phoenix, which were set up to process crude oil.

Detective Matt Shay asserts that, most likely, the informal crude oil production industry is adding to or causing the injuries and deaths that have become associated with vaping.

Through a series of glass tubes and other equipment, the crude oil is distilled to remove plant particles and other impurities. The resulting "distillate" is an extremely thick gel with a yellowish tint, containing up to 95% THC. The remaining 5% is what has investigators concerned. The end-product is never purified from any pesticides or chemicals involved in the various processing stages.

Detective Shay has no doubt that concentrated forms of different pesticides, nutrients and other chemicals are used in processing the raw marijuana.