PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Mexican cartels are smuggling a highly-concentrated, stripped-down form of marijuana into the United States. CBS 5 Investigates reporter Kris Pickel worked with Homeland Security Investigations and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office to expose this previously unknown danger, possibly contributing to an outbreak of lung injuries and deaths associated with vaping THC. Due to its color and consistency, the concentrate is referred to as "crude oil."
Marijuana continues to be the No. 1 cash crop for Mexican cartels, but as demand drops for the low-quality marijuana grown south of the border, cartels are adapting to feed Americans' growing appetite for THC. THC is the psychoactive part of the marijuana plant, which produces a high.
UNUSUAL DISCOVERY AT THE BORDER
In May, the border patrol stopped smugglers in the Arizona desert south of Phoenix and discovered the group carrying a cargo law enforcement had not seen before. Instead of bundles of marijuana, the smugglers were carrying plastic containers.
Special Agent Matt Hall with Homeland Security Investigations is part of a High Intensity Drug Traffickin Area (HIDTA) team working along the Arizona-Mexico Border. The multi-agency team includes HSI, U.S. Border Patrol, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Tohono O'Odham Police Department, Bureau of Land Management and United States Attorney's Office.
"We knew that it was something of value because it was being carried in the traditional way backpackers have carried drug loads through the desert in the past," says Special Agent Hall.
When he opened the container, a distinct smell of marijuana revealed it was a powerful concentrate. The discovery also led to a disturbing revelation: the Sinaloa Cartel is now processing their marijuana south of the border to create a more valuable product. It's a process that could be creating a base for TCH products, contaminated with dangerous chemicals and pesticides.
CREATING CRUDE OIL
Marijuana plants grown in open fields in Mexico contain THC levels as low as 4%, while strains of marijuana grown indoors in the United States may have TCH levels as high as 30%. Lower TCH levels mean lower demand for Mexico's marijuana. Instead of losing business in the U.S. with the legalization of marijuana, cartels are gaining a growing customer base hungry for THC products. Lower quality marijuana plants are being stripped down into crude oil, which can be as high as 80% THC. The process involves rinsing the plants with butane or propane to strip the high-inducing THC off the plant for collection. That creates a cannabis oil, which is then mixed with ethanol to create the crude oil.
"The cartels are a business, so as they see their products becoming more or less valuable, they're going to make the transition to make that product relevant," says Special Agent Hall.
It takes roughly 250 pounds of marijuana to create 20 to 25 pounds of crude oil. Once that oil is processed into more refined products, the value could be between $80,000 to $100,000.
Detective Matt Hall shows how many bundles of marijuana it takes to make 5 gallons of crude oil. If the crude oil is being smuggled through ports of entry, it's getting through undetected. The only known corridor used for smuggling the concentrate is through the Arizona desert between Ajo and Three Points, where there have been 10 seizures so far.
Crude oil is a valuable product, but it's not consumable in that form. Before the product is shipped out across the country, it's being processed in labs in the Phoenix area and surrounding cities.
Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Detective Matt Shay is emerging as one of the country's foremost experts on crude oil. The team, which had members from MCSO, DEA, Phoenix Police Department, Tempe Police Department, Buckeye Police Department , Border Patrol and the Arizona Attorney General's Office, is finding clandestine laboratories across the Valley, set up to process crude oil.
"Most likely, this whole process is what is adding to or causing the injuries and deaths that are coming with vaping," says Detective Shay.
Through a series of glass tubes and equipment resembling something you might find in a college science lab, the crude oil is distilled to remove plant particles and other impurities. The result is "distillate," an extremely thick gel with a yellowish tint that can contain up to 95% THC.
It's the contents of the remaining 5% that have investigators like Detective Shay concerned. He points out, any pesticides used on the marijuana plants and chemicals involved in the processing, are not filtered out.
"I have no doubt that you have concentrated forms of the different pesticides, nutrients and other chemicals that have been used on the marijuana," says Detective Shay.
CRUDE OIL AND VAPING
To create a consistency suitable for vaping, oils such as vitamin E acetate are added to thin the distillate. The vitamin E acetate is currently being looked at for causing lung damage.
The discovery of the cartel's crude oil raises concerns that a contaminated THC product may be spreading across the country. Smugglers were first discovered bringing crude oil across the border in May. In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began warning doctors about a sudden outbreak of deaths and lung injuries linked to vaping THC. With the exact cause of the lung damage not determined, the FDA is warning people to stop vaping all THC products.
In early December, the CDC reported a total of 48 deaths and 2,291 hospitalizations connected to vaping.
A majority of the patients reported using DANK vape cartridges. DANK is a popular but unlicensed brand. The packing is sold online and is not connected to any licensed distributor.
MCSO believes those black-market cartridges are one way cartels are distributing their products across the country. Investigators are also looking into the possibility that licensed dispensaries are buying cheaper THC products off the black market to increase their profits.
"Not every dispensary is going to operate completely aboveboard. We have a great number of dispensaries who are operating perfectly here in the state of Arizona, but it would certainly be tempting for them to be able to get a product that would be inexpensive from the black market and be able to sell that through dispensaries. Do I know they're doing it? Absolutely not. Is it something that would be tempting for them? I would imagine it would be," says Detective Shay.
Homeland Security Investigations and MCSO are currently working on getting the seized crude oil tested to determine exactly what chemicals and pesticides it might contain.
The smuggling of crude oil is in its infancy, expected to grow as a threat to the safety of THC products across the country. Lung injuries caused by vaping have not been narrowed to any single THC-containing brand, but patients who were injured overwhelming report getting their vape products from family, friends or online sellers. The CDC and FDA recommend people refrain from using all e-cigarette or vaping products while they investigate.
If the cartel's concentrate is contributing to the outbreak of lung injuries, the safest approach for anyone who vapes is to only purchase TCH products directly from licensed dispensaries.
THC and CBD are both in marijuana and hemp. However, CBD products do not appear to be affected.