How I Found ‘Trips Ahoy’ and ‘Blackberry Diesel’ ‘Weed’ Vapes in A State Where Marijuana Is Very Illegal!

How I found ‘Trips Ahoy’ and ‘Blackberry Diesel’ ‘weed’ vapes in a state where marijuana is very much illegal

When I inquired about cannabis products at a vape shop on Kansas City’s west side, the employee asked, “Do you have pain, or are you trying to get f— up?”

There were numerous options for the latter, particularly for someone with a sweet tooth. Chocolate lovers will enjoy “Trips Ahoy” cookies, THC “Snickers,” and “Cookies ‘n’ Cream” flavored chocolate bars. Gummies shaped like Haribo, Nerds Rope, and Starbursts are available for candy fans.

If I was the type of person who “got high before work,” the employee suggested I try THC-O products.

All of this was readily available for purchase, despite the fact that Kansas is one of only a few states in the country without laws allowing some access to cannabis products. Kansas has neither a medical marijuana program nor decriminalized marijuana. Even having a pipe or rolling papers in your possession can land you in jail.

To circumvent the laws, merchants are selling quasi-legal products containing slightly modified versions of marijuana: products containing the chemicals Delta-8 THC, Delta-10 THC, THC-O, or HHC. If you walk into almost any smoke shop in Topeka, you’ll find a diverse selection.

There are disposable “marijuana” vapes in flavors like the wedding cake, blackberry diesel, and Hawaiian punch, as well as pre-rolled joints and flower—green buds that look and smell almost identical to traditional marijuana.

“Every week, new synthetic variants emerge,” said Christopher J. Hudalla, chief scientific officer at cannabis testing facility ProVerde Laboratories, who raised numerous concerns about these products. “It reminds me of Mr. Potato Head.

You start with a base potato to which you can add various attributes such as different eyes, glasses, mustaches, arms, legs, hats, and so on. There are virtually infinite permutations or combinations of those attributes that can be applied to your base potato.”

The shops are open to the public. One, a block from the state capitol, bills itself as a dispensary and prominently displays a green cross outside — a common medical marijuana sign. Another had a drive-thru window and a laminated sheet that explained the various highs produced by each product. A third had a yard sign that reads “Legal THC.”

STAT spent a few hours in October visiting 10 shops openly selling the products in Topeka, Kansas, which has a population of about 125,000 people.

The trend is concerning public health officials, who are concerned that minor changes made to the chemical structure of cannabis to make it technically legal in states such as Kansas may change the way it affects the body.

Early research indicates that at least one of the products sold in Kansas emits toxic gas when vaporized. The same chemists believe the same reaction is to blame for the recent spate of deaths from vaping products, also known as EVALI. It’s also unclear whether these products contain what they claim because sellers are largely unregulated.

“These are simply products that have no quality control. “They may have what they say in it, they may not — they may have more, they may have less — you just don’t know,” said Stephen Thornton, medical director of The University of Kansas Health System’s poison control center. “This is very much a ‘buyer beware’ market.”

States across the country, including those where marijuana is legal, have struggled to deal with the rise of these “legal high products.” Colorado, arguably the most marijuana-friendly state in the country, established a task force to determine how to regulate them.

Regulators in Washington, where marijuana is legal, have expressed concern about the “impact of a generally unregulated product competing with a tightly regulated state cannabis marketplace.” Five years after Nevada voters legalized marijuana, the Nevada legislature passed legislation prohibiting the sale of all of these products in 2021.

It’s unclear how long the products STAT saw in Kansas will be on the shelves. The Drug Enforcement Administration declared last week that THC-O, one of the products sold in Kansas, is illegal under federal law. However, the products are still being sold for the time being. STAT was able to call nine of the ten stores. They have all confirmed that they are still selling the same products.

The rise of these products, nearly all of which appear to be imported from other states, has also irritated Kansas hemp farmers, who are attempting to establish themselves as legitimate business owners who follow the law. (Federally, hemp is legal as long as it contains less than 0.3% THC, the intoxicating compound found in marijuana.)

“They’re being made by people who are trying to game the system,” Kelly Rippel, co-founder of Kansans for Hemp, explained. “Otherwise, why would you want to go into a lab and try to [create these products]?”

Some of the substances for sale in Kansas are well-known in the world of drug control. The FDA has already issued warnings about the dangers of Delta-8 THC, for example. While it produces a milder high than traditional marijuana, regulators have warned that products containing the chemical have resulted in over 100 reports of adverse events such as hallucinations and vomiting.

The FDA has also warned that Delta-8 products may contain hazardous byproducts of the manufacturing process, which typically consists of adding a solvent and an acid to cannabidiol and boiling it.

Delta 8 products are becoming increasingly scarce in Topeka after the Kansas Attorney General raided several stores selling them last year. Shops are now stocking lesser-known strains such as Delta 10 THC, HHC, HHC-O, and THC-O. HHC and HHC-O products were the most common in the stores STAT visited.

HHC-O, in particular, appears to produce higher-quality highs than marijuana.

There is some scientific debate about whether HHC occurs naturally in very small doses in the cannabis plant, but experts agree that HHC-O does not. HHC-O is produced by acetylation, a chemical process that alters the original HHC compound. The procedure facilitates the passage of the resulting substance across the blood-brain barrier.

As a result, HHC-O is much stronger than pure HHC; one YouTube video referred to HHC-O as “HHC to the billionth power” and stated that the acetylation process was used to “get as high as humanly possible.”

There is almost no scientific research on the effects of these substances on the body, and several major universities with cannabis research programs declined or did not respond to STAT’s request to discuss HHC.

Raphael Mechoulam, the first scientist to discover and isolate Delta 9 THC in the 1960s, responded to our inquiry about several of the compounds, asking, “What are HHC and HHC-O?”

At least two stores also sold THC-O, a synthetic substance created by acetylating Delta 8-THC. THC-O is also known to be significantly stronger than marijuana, earning it the moniker “spiritual cannabinoid” due to its psychoactive effects.

THC-O products are in an especially perilous legal situation. The DEA declared THC-O products illegal last week because the compound does not occur naturally in hemp. The agency was not asked to comment on the legality of HHC, but whether or not those products are eventually deemed illegal will likely be determined by whether regulators believe they can be found naturally in the cannabis plant.

Chemists have expressed grave concerns about THC-O, warning that the lab processes used to create it may produce dangerous and potentially lethal byproducts. THC-O produces the poisonous gas ketene when vaped, according to new research from two labs.

The same researchers have claimed that vitamin E acetylation played a role in the so-called EVALI outbreak, a wave of vaping-related lung injuries that injured over 2,800 people and killed more than 60.

Chemists say it’s obvious to anyone who knows enough organic chemistry to make these products that they’ll cause such a reaction.

“The substructure of the vitamin E acetate molecule and the substructure of the THC-O acetate are identical, and any chemist who could make that stuff… would have recognized that,” said Robert Strongin, a chemistry professor at Portland State University who studied THC-O.

Strongin did not conduct the same experiments on HHC-O but hypothesized that when vaped, it would also produce ketene gas. “The chemistry should be the same/similar in forming ketene for most any cannabinoid acetate derivative, including HHC-O,” he said.

However, there is little evidence that these products are causing people to visit the emergency room.

Strongin said it’s unclear how much ketene gas enters the lungs when people vape THC-O or HHC-O, or whether there are long-term cumulative effects. Overall, he argued, scientists know very little about ketene toxicology.

“No one wants to study ketene using human or even animal subjects,” said Strongin, whose study used a device to simulate vaping.

Thornton, of the University of Kansas Medical Center, who oversees the state’s poison control system, told STAT that he hasn’t seen many cases of people calling the hotline because of these products.

Thornton cautioned that due to the limited tools available to track adverse events from various cannabis products, medical toxicologists may miss warning signs. Most of the time, these cases go unnoticed unless someone self-reports using them.

“It’s difficult to know how big of an issue this is — other than driving around and seeing… the amount of these things being advertised,” Thornton said. “You can tell they’re making money because people buy it.”

While many manufacturers use third-party labs to confirm the contents and strengths of their products, there is no regulator checking the results — and some experts question the validity of those tests.

“Determining the presence and amount of all of these compounds is exceptionally difficult,” said Michelle Peace, a forensic toxicology expert at Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied these compounds.

“Only a few labs are capable of performing this testing well, despite the fact that many labs claim to be capable. I would not put all of these new compounds in the hands of a single certificate of analysis. The unregulated cannabis industry moves too quickly for labs to conduct accurate testing.”

The only DEA-registered hemp testing lab in Kansas told STAT that it couldn’t test for the compounds that are now openly sold in the state.

The products do not appear to cause severe adverse reactions such as seizures and psychosis seen with other synthetic “legal highs” such as Spice or K2. This is most likely due to the fact that those products were not derived from cannabis, but rather from plant matter sprayed with a variety of chemicals, some of which were far more potent than THC.

According to Jessica Kruger, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo who has studied the use of Delta 8 cannabis products, the lack of scientific knowledge about the products has made even those who take a “harm reduction” approach to drugs struggle to provide sound advice.

“We need to know more to provide guidance,” Kruger explained. “It really puts us in a difficult situation.” I don’t want to make recommendations that could endanger people, but I also want to provide users with information that will help them avoid harm.”

Kruger’s general advice is to start slowly, with a low dose, and to know where your product is coming from — and don’t buy it from a gas station.

Hemp farmers say the rise of these allegedly legal products is bad for their business and reputation.

Hemp farmers in America are only now being recognized as legitimate crop farmers, similar to those who grow corn or soybeans. Much of that recognition stems from advocacy efforts to explain that the cannabis plant can be used for more than just getting high — and that farmers can produce industrial hemp that isn’t intoxicating at all. These efforts resulted in a 2018 federal law legalizing hemp as long as it contained only trace amounts of THC, marijuana‘s primary psychoactive chemical.

However, companies are now attempting to claim that their products are both legal hemp and get people high — despite the industry’s previous claims that hemp is not intoxicating.

“It’s perplexing a lot of people,” said Jonathan Miller, general counsel for the U.S. Hemp Roundtable lobbying group.

Miller went on to say that not only are these intoxicating products driving non-intoxicating products out of the market, but they’re also causing state legislators to overreact by tightening regulations on legal hemp products. Miller cited bills introduced recently in Virginia and Washington state that limit the amount of hemp-derived compounds that can be used in products, even if they are not intoxicating.

The rise of these products comes at a critical juncture for Kansas’ nascent hemp industry, which is still working to establish itself as a potential cash crop in the agricultural state.

According to Rippel of Kansans for Hemp, the rise of legal high products has created a “misnomer in people’s minds about what hemp is.”

“Hemp can also mean — and should mean — all of the agricultural aspects: food, fuel, fiber, shelter. “Those are the things that we need people to focus on in rural Kansas because they will be the long-term sustainable economic drivers,” Rippel said.

Rippel hopes that Kansas will soon legalize medical marijuana, creating a regulatory infrastructure to ensure consumers have access to safe products while also cracking down on those who try to circumvent the law. This session, the legislature is debating a number of bills on the subject.

“Something has to happen - legislators really don’t have a choice but to put something in place that will at least try to rein in some of what these manufacturers are trying to do,” Rippel said.

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