Vape District in Los Angeles is a gateway to the black market

Vape District in downtown Los Angeles. (Heidi de Marco / California Healthline)

California healthline

A five-block section of downtown Los Angeles that used to be part of the Toy District has become the country's zero zone for counterfeit cannabis trade. While some of the toy stores offer spinners and teddy bears most sell cartridges, flavored vaping liquids, vaporizers and other wholesale supplies for smoking and vaping, including imitations made in China.

The vaping industry is under scrutiny as more people get sick with a mysterious respiratory illness related to the use of electronic cigarettes. Health officials are investigating almost 1,500 cases in 49 states and the District of Columbia, including 33 deaths. In California, more than 135 residents became ill, of which at least three died, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Although it is not clear what exactly causes the disease, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that most patients used products containing THC, the main psychoactive component of marijuana, particularly products obtained in the street, friends or family, or drug dealers.

In Los Angeles, some store owners blame vaping diseases for unproven products and devices sold to consumers on the black market, although some of them themselves are part of that distribution chain.

(Heidi de Marco / KHN)

Shipments of vaping supplies reach the alleys behind dozens of wholesale stores. This sordid district is bounded by Skid Row on the one hand and the skyscrapers of Little Tokyo on the other. It is considered a gateway of the black market to the United States, which allows the production and sale of fake products to flourish.

(Heidi de Marco / KHN)

Here, stores sell only to wholesale buyers, many of them owners of retail vaping stores, who come from all over the state with a shopping list in hand to purchase flavored liquids, cartridges and boxes of mods in bulk. Some store owners, who consider themselves legitimate, say that smugglers are buying fake containers and cartridges that mimic popular brands, and fill them with potentially dangerous counterfeit products.

(Heidi de Marco / KHN)

The flavors to vape that are exhibited in a wholesale store on Fourth Street attract buyers with names like "Sugared Nectarine" and "The Abyss." There are thousands of flavors of electronic liquids, which are often made by mixing nicotine and flavorings with a solvent, usually propylene glycol. A study in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research suggests that mixtures of certain ingredients and flavorings can create completely new and potentially dangerous chemicals. In early October, the Mayo Clinic reported that vaping-related diseases are likely caused by harmful chemical vapors, and that lung damage resembles a chemical burn.

(Heidi de Marco / KHN)

Employees of a vaping store download a shipment. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises consumers to avoid black market cannabis products, which could contain pesticides, heavy metals or other dangerous contaminants. In California, legal products are tested and monitored by the state's "tracking and monitoring" system, and consumers can search for labels on packages to confirm the authenticity of a product.

(Heidi de Marco / KHN)

Boxes of vaping products, of unknown origin, arrive at a store in downtown Los Angeles. Vendors of counterfeit products are afraid of the increased attention and impact on their businesses. The FDA has launched a criminal investigation into diseases with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which does not focus on people who vape, but on the manufacture and distribution of illicit products that make them sick. “Here you can buy counterfeit liquids and cartridges, but I haven't seen some of the people who sell them. They were scared of the news, ”said an employee who did not want his name used.

(Heidi de Marco / KHN)

A conveyor belt moves boxes in a vaping products warehouse. The California Department of Public Health is urging everyone to stop vaping, "regardless of the substance or source," while disease research continues. The CDC also advised people to "consider refraining" from using electronic cigarette products, especially those containing THC. (Heidi de Marco / California Healthline)

This is a story from California Healthline

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