Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Black Market Cartridges: How to Spot a Counterfeit

Black Market Cartridges: How to Spot a Counterfeit

Cannabis users increasingly choose vape pens as their favorite method of consumption. With the rise in the legalization of both medical and recreational marijuana, legal dispensaries and government officials hoped to see a decline in the cannabis vape cartridge black market. Unfortunately, black market cartridges are still thriving and are almost four times the size of the legal cannabis industry in states like California.  


Surprisingly, states, where cannabis is legal, have some of the largest black markets in the country, causing politicians to call in the troops. Counterfeit retailers have become quite savvy at advertising black-market cartridges as legitimate products, with the use of misleading ads and packaging. This business practice is not only illegal and unethical, but it is also dangerous and sometimes fatal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have linked 193 cases of severe lung illness to potentially illicit cannabis vapes. It is up to the consumer to use wise buying practices and avoid life-threatening complications from bootleg cartridges. Here are six ways to avoid buying a black market cartridge, even in states where cannabis is legal.

Buy From a Licensed Shop

California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control started a program called “Get #Weedwise” to inform consumers about the risks of ingesting untested cannabis. The Bureau even set up an online location to report counterfeit products, with no repercussions to the reporter, due to the incredible health risks of black-market cartridges. One of the main differences between legal and illegal weed is the testing the former goes through. Illicit cannabis can be laced with everything from pesticide to cyanide, or even more harmless substances like Vitamin E, that are incredibly harmful when inhaled in the lungs. allows consumers to search for licensed retail locations. And other legal states offer similar checkpoints. Check for adequately labeled manufacturer information, and look for lab results to prove the product has been third-party tested. With some brands, you can even scan the QR code on the package to track ingredients, sourcing, and testing. While pop-up stores may be convenient or affordable, dispensaries are subject to scrutiny that ensures their validity.

Don’t Trust Cannabis Shipments to Illegal States

While empty cartridges, pens, and devices are safe to buy online, most legal weed dispensaries don’t take the risk of shipping cannabis into states where it is illegal. Even if you purchase from a legal state, several illegal vendors are selling there too. Black market cartridges haven’t been third-party tested, and often use counterfeit packaging. Dealers can buy empty vape cartridges online and fill them with anything they like. 

Illicit vendors can even purchase fake QR codes and websites to market their goods, purporting them to be sold from a legit company. But legitimate businesses know better than to ship products where they aren’t permitted, so don’t risk ordering from out of state if you live where it’s illegal.

Match the Packaging to Website Images

Counterfeit packaging can make it tough to spot a fake, but wise consumers will go straight to the source. If you buy a brand from a site other than the company’s website, or you were not the one who purchased it, check online for any discrepancies. Black-market brands can buy replica stickers and similar packaging, but there will be flaws in the design.


Check to be sure the packaging is fully sealed, with no evidence of tampering. Also, beware of brands that feature big names like Mario Cart, an illicit brand that seeks to capitalize on Nintendo’s name. Packaging that depicts or suggests ties to a national brand unaffiliated with weed is usually counterfeit.

Check For Price Discrepancies

If a half-gram cartridge from a legal dispensary costs $45, don’t buy it from a pop-up shop for $20. Legal cannabis costs more because of testing, taxes, and research. There are also fewer legal dispensaries currently to drive the prices down. In some states, there is an excise tax and local tax that can increase the cost of cannabis by 45%. But legal dispensaries are not charging consumers more for personal gain; their product is more valuable. 

Weigh the extra $20 against potentially astronomical hospital bills, loss of income due to illness, or the ultimate cost of your life, and it’s clear that legal cartridges are a bargain. Melodi Pirzada, chief of pediatric pulmonology at NYU Winthrop Hospital, reports an uptick in young, seemingly healthy patients acquiring severe lung disease rapidly after using illicit cartridges, stating, “It’s becoming very scary. Every day, new cases are adding up…we didn’t have this problem three months ago.”

Be Suspicious

Start with using a trustworthy supplier to avoid potential problems. Even then, check for reports of replicas for the brand to prevent issues like the 18-year-old who used a cartridge seemingly labeled by a licensed company, that turned out to be a counterfeit. The black market cartridge landed him in the ICU with acute lung injury and a medically induced coma.


Research by checking sites like MassRoots, Leafly, and Facebook to look for user reviews in the weed community sharing tips and sounding the alarm on black market products. Check out DankbustersOfficial on Instagram to learn how to avoid scams via Snapchat and Instagram ads. Brands like West Coast Carts and Dank Vapes get away with selling illegal products by using terms like “official” or “clean and safe,” and these sites help unveil the frauds.


Counterfeit versions like Bulletproof Vapes use fake product testing stickers to make them look more legitimate. But lab tests have revealed everything from fungicides, to lead, to insects in these untested products. If anyone offers to sell you a brand at a lower price than the dispensary, that probably means they aren’t paying taxes on it, rendering it illegal.

Take a Good Look at It

Licensed dispensaries sell cartridges with superior oil consistency. The oil should be thicker and move at a slower rate when you flip the pen upside down. Also, check for a Certificate of Analysis to find the batch number, which you can then check against the company’s website. While some black-market cartridges bear fraudulent stickers, you can start by matching the product to the site. 

If you can’t find a reputable website or storefront for the company with proper licensing and reviews, it’s a good idea to pass on the product. Also, pass on cartridges you get second-hand unless you know the point of purchase. Legitimate brands know the laws inside and out and are transparent in their sources and certifications. 

The government is making strides to eradicate the black market, as well as to boost the legal market by removing red tape for opening dispensaries and reducing the current taxes. In the meantime, it’s imperative to protect yourself against the health risks of black-market cartridges. With CBD and cannabis shops popping up everywhere, it can be tough to know what’s legitimate. Trust an industry expert like 3WIN Corp, a licensed CCELL distributor, to provide you with certified products. We have revolutionized the industry with research labs, extraction facilities, and customized packaging to offer you superior products. Contact us today to learn more!