FDA, DEA Seize 44 Websites Selling Illicit THC Vaping Cartridges

Federal, state, and local authorities continue to investigate supply chain of products associated with lung injuries.

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Illustration: decade3d / Depositphotos

SILVER SPRING, Md. – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration seized forty-four websites offering to sell illicit vaping cartridges containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive component of the cannabis plant. The action, which is part of Operation Vapor Lock, reflects ongoing work by federal, state and local authorities to investigate the supply chain of vaping products associated with recent lung injuries.

The online networks, some of which were identified based on interviews with patients and families, advertised cartridges in various brand names alongside pictures and statements about THC levels or other information clearly indicating the items for sale would be considered a controlled substance under federal law. To date, none of the products advertised on the websites have been confirmed to be linked to any cases of lung injury.

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The seizure of the websites is part of a joint effort by the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local health departments to investigate lung injuries and deaths associated with the use of vaping products. FDA, CDC, and state health authorities have made progress in identifying substances of concern; however, many different substances and product sources remain under investigation, and there may be more than one cause. The latest national and state patient reports and product sample testing suggest THC-containing vaping products, particularly from black-market sources like in-person and online dealers, are linked to most of the cases and play a major role in the incidents.

“We need to fully understand the causes of vaping related-lung injuries,” said FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, MD “Moreover, it is a federal crime to advertise the sale of illicit THC vaping cartridges online, and by seizing these websites [December 20], we are able to focus on other online and in-person sources of illegal and potentially dangerous vaping products. As more information comes to light in this complex and evolving investigation, we remain committed to taking further appropriate actions with our federal, state, and local partners.”

Acting DEA Administrator Uttam Dhillon added, “In the wake of recent injuries and deaths caused by vaping products, these seizures send a message to anyone seeking to capitalize on this dangerous trend. DEA will continue to work in lockstep with FDA and other federal, state, and local partners to use all our authorities to pursue anyone that violates our laws and puts Americans in harm’s way.”

The seized websites directed people to make payment through various financial services. Investigators were able to complete payment on all the sites, but to date have not received any of the product ordered, leading them to believe at least some of the websites existed solely to commit fraud, according to an FDA statement.

In addition to health risks of illicit substances or illegal drugs purchased online, “scam” websites such as those seized pose other risks to consumers, including credit card information harvesting, identity theft, and exposure to computer viruses. The FDA encouraged consumers to report suspected criminal activity to the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI).

Shortly after the emergence of the lung injuries associated with vaping products, the OCI began trying to identify particular products, constituents, or compounds that may be at issue and the related supply chain. The OCI is traveling throughout the country and attempting to gather evidence and conduct interviews.

The agency stated it is not pursuing enforcement actions individuals who use vaping products, illicit or otherwise. The agency’s sole interest is in suppliers.

To date, FDA laboratories have received more than 1,200 samples from thirty-one states and one territory. Roughly 1,004 of the samples were provided by lung injury patients; others were obtained from hospitals and state offices. Materials collected include devices and products containing varied levels of liquid as well as packaging and other documentation. The labs are analyzing samples for the presence of a broad range of chemicals, including nicotine, THC, and other cannabinoids, along with cutting agents/diluents and other additives, pesticides, opioids, poisons, heavy metals, and toxins. No one substance has been identified in all the samples tested, an FDA statement said.

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