Greater than 1,888 People are sick and 37 have died from vaping-associated pulmonary damage (VAPI) this yr.
There are a lot of suspects, however one of the crucial distinguished is a brand new reducing agent present in illicit THC vaporizer cartridges throughout the nation. Tocopheryl-acetate, also referred to as vitamin E oil, surged in recognition on the road market forward of the lung damage outbreak final summer time.
Industrial chemical producers have bought vitamin E oil for years, however solely as an ingredient in hand lotions or gummy nutritional vitamins. So who turned tocopheryl-acetate right into a wildly well-liked and probably lethal vape cartridge additive?
A number of trade specialists level to a mysterious, low-profile Los Angeles firm referred to as Honey Lower. By creating a brand new class of “thickening” vape cartridge components, Honey Lower grew to become a nationwide phenomenon. Its formulation—and copycat merchandise identical to it—immediately turned up final yr in illicit THC vape cartridges nationwide.
The corporate itself seemed to be a type of company ghost ship. Its title was connected solely to an internet site and a P.O. field. No one knew who based Honey Lower, who ran it, or who profited from it.
Honey Lower founder revealed
Leafly’s investigative group adopted a path of company filings and on-line enterprise exercise that factors to 1 man, a former tv actor and casting affiliate named Joshua Mathias Temple, as Honey Lower’s founder and CEO.
Temple by no means discovered fame on stage or display. Throughout the mid-2000s, he nabbed a number of bit elements in TV exhibits. He did a 48-second scene with Kristen Bell on season one of many UPN collection Veronica Mars, and in later years principally labored as a casting assistant. (Temple is to not be confused with one other, better-known actor and TV host with the identical title, Josh Temple of Home Crashers fame.)
Josh Temple the actor/casting assistant didn’t hit it huge in Hollywood, however because the inventor of Honey Lower, he achieved a type of infamy throughout the hashish tradition of Los Angeles. He created one of many fastest-selling non-cannabis merchandise the illicit drug market has ever seen. And he might have dealt a crippling blow to your entire vaping trade within the course of.
Temple, his lawyer, and Honey Lower firm officers refused to remark to Leafly, or, to our data, communicate publicly wherever concerning the firm.
Exploiting lax federal enforcement and regulatory loopholes in California, Temple and his firm used little greater than a transport deal with and a brand to divert drums of vitamin E acetate into hundreds of thousands of illicit THC vape cartridges nationwide.
When accidents mounted and indicators pointed to the doubtless poisonous nature of inhaled tocopheryl-acetate, Temple shut down the Honey Lower web site and deleted what seems to be his Instagram account. No clarification has ever been given to the general public.
That is the story of the rise and fall of Honey Lower.
A newcomer arrives in Hollywood
Like many younger aspiring actors, Josh Temple got here to Los Angeles to construct a profession in motion pictures and tv. His former performing agent, Carol Shamon-Freitas, informed Leafly that Temple grew up out of state. Joshua M. Temple’s IMDB web page exhibits that he labored as an actor and casting affiliate from 2005 to 2010.
As an actor, he landed minor roles in TV exhibits like Veronica Mars from 2005 to 2007. He noticed steadier work as a casting affiliate, engaged on 39 episodes of Veronica Mars in addition to pilots and primary cable collection together with The Ex-Checklist, Terriers, American Heiress, Saints & Sinners, Depraved Depraved Video games, and Vogue Home.
Shamon-Freitas described him as “really one of many nicest, kindest, and most honest folks I’ve identified.”
Housing information from Zillow and numerous company filings point out Temple lived in Woodland Hills, California, from 2014 to August 2019. Shamon-Freitas confirmed that he transitioned from the leisure enterprise to hashish someday after 2010.
Shifting into the vape trade
Between 2011 and 2018, Temple labored within the unregulated vaping house, in response to archived statements on the now-defunct firm web site, Honeycutvapes.com. Throughout that interval, Temple doubtless grew to become fluent with the properties of various reducing brokers for nicotine and THC vaporizers, often called diluting brokers.
Based on an archived “concerning the firm” assertion on Honeycutvapes.com:
“The Honey Lower’ model was formally based in 2011 however we only in the near past began taking off in [2018-2019]. For the previous 10 years we’ve been devoted to creating the very best diluting agent for our shoppers and on this previous yr our laborious work is all paying off.”
Los Angeles has all the time nurtured hashish. It’s been a fixture within the Hollywood scene because the early days of movie. However within the 2010s, a whole bunch of hashish dispensaries popped up across the metropolis, pushed by obscure legal guidelines, nonexistent regulation, and the sheer dimension of town and its large hashish market.
As town’s hashish trade grew, so did the marketplace for vaping and vape merchandise. The early e-cigarettes (suppose: Stephen Dorff hitting the Blu) have been a novelty at first, however the comfort supplied by the merchandise created a brand new trade. Nicotine vape gadgets went from disposable to reusable and refillable. Hashish entrepreneurs started filling vape setups with THC oil, they usually rapidly grew to become the hip accent to have.
Most vaping gadgets pair a chargeable battery with a screw-on reservoir (often called a cartridge) stuffed with both liquid nicotine or THC oil. Vapes distributed low doses of THC with out the telltale odor of burning hashish, and the small dimension of the gadgets supplied discretion amid the social stigma—and prison penalties—connected to using hashish.
In 2012, THC vape merchandise barely registered as a market class. Six years later, they accounted for half of all THC extract gross sales and 1 / 4 of all product gross sales, in response to BDS Analytics.
The primary vitamin E oil examine
In 2013, researchers at Northwestern College printed a examine which will have not directly impressed a number of unintended penalties.
“Two Faces of Vitamin E within the Lung,” printed within the American Journal of Respiratory and Important Care, described alpha tocopherol—one among eight closely-related chemical substances within the vitamin E household—as probably useful for some pulmonary circumstances. The examine discovered that the substance, obtainable in sunflower oil and olive oil, may defend people from adult-onset bronchial asthma and might need a “useful impact on lung operate.”
One of many examine’s vital particulars, although, was that the researchers have been learning the consequences of consuming vitamin E, not inhaling it.
Heating and inhaling it
Two years later, in 2015, Constance Finley utilized for a patent on a vape pen containing CBD and vitamin E. Finley is the founding father of the San Francisco medical hashish firm Constance Therapeutics,
Finley ran her thought by an natural chemist, a molecular biologist, and a scientific herbalist earlier than analyzing what occurred once they heated alpha tocopherol to 750°F. Giant-scale scientific analysis merely didn’t exist.
“We did what we may,” Finley informed Leafly. “We analyzed what got here out of the vapor in a balloon examine.”
Based on Finley, greater than four,000 clients over seven years used her firm’s product with out incident. She contends that one type of the chemical—alpha tocopherol—is protected in low quantities, whereas different types, like tocopheryl-acetate, will not be. No peer-reviewed research exist to verify or disprove this thesis.
Finley’s patent software for using vitamin E in vape pens might have impressed Honey Lower. Patent purposes are public paperwork, obtainable to anybody on-line.
“What we’re informed is all these those who began utilizing vitamin E acetate did so by copying our patent,” Finley stated. However the copy both proved to be imperfect, or the knockoff artists intentionally altered the formulation to keep away from infringing on Finley’s pending patent. “I used to be shocked and type of horrified to have this affect,” she stated. “As a result of it’s actually stupidity.”
Temple types a Honey Lower precursor
In early 2018, Josh Temple formalized his position within the vape provide trade by registering an organization referred to as See/Be.
Temple is listed because the CEO on the state incorporation doc for See/Be Well being, LLC, registered on Jan. 9, 2018. The corporate’s listed deal with was equivalent to a future deal with of Honey Lower. Temple described See/Be in California’s enterprise registry as a supplier of “well being dietary supplements.”
If you wish to import massive quantities of vitamin E oil into the USA for resale into the vape provide market, designating your organization as a well being complement supplier is a brilliant strategy to do it. Vitamin E is a typical dietary complement topic to little regulatory management. Anybody should purchase pails of it on-line.
Upon additional inspection, that Santa Monica deal with seems to be an workplace house with a mailbox drop. An worker there informed Leafly that Temple solely used the deal with to choose up mail, and the account had been closed down by late September 2019.
An unintentional invention?
Arnaud Dumas de Rauly is CEO of The Blinc Group, a consulting agency that works with authorized vape makers to optimize manufacturing processes. He’s additionally helped set worldwide manufacturing requirements for vape merchandise. De Rauly has a principle about how Temple and See/Be invented Honey Lower: accident, not malice.
In making an attempt to repeat Finley’s analysis and patent-pending product, de Rauly speculates, Temple made an error in his formulation. “I’m fairly positive these guys had the very best of intentions,” he stated.
Vape trade insiders point out that Honey Lower started showing within the spring of 2018, about two to a few months after the See/Be Well being, LLC registration. The bottles promised a “Pharmaceutical Grade” product “protected to make use of in any desired ratio.”
Honey Lower itself contained no THC oil. It was a authorized additive that the makers of illicit THC vape cartridges used to dilute the THC oil of their carts.
Peter Hackett—proprietor of Air Vapor, a Harmony, California-based vape wholesaler that operates throughout the authorized sector—stated that round that very same time, a few of his Southern California clients began asking for a product referred to as Honey Lower.
A secret formulation: 90% vitamin E oil
Though Honey Lower by no means disclosed its secret formulation, testing by SC Laboratories in Santa Cruz confirmed 32 oz. bottle of Honey Lower purchased off Craigslist in September 2019 contained 90% to 95% pure vitamin E acetate. The remaining portion contained different types of vitamin E. Assessments by New York well being officers corroborated the discovering.
Honey Lower moved untold gallons of 90% pure vitamin E acetate into the nation’s illicit vape market. This wasn’t a case of vape makers utilizing Honey Lower for an off-label function with out the producer’s data. Honey Lower’s personal web site described the product as “A posh compound used primarily within the vape cartridge trade as a thickener to remove bubble motion and leakage.”
In the meantime, chemical firms making precise vitamin E acetate posted simply accessible producer’s security information sheets that warned towards inhaling the compound. If inhaled, one information sheet suggested, “take away from space of publicity. If respiratory is tough, give oxygen. Search medical consideration if signs persist.”
Buzz out there
Over the summer time of 2018, the brand new reducing agent rapidly gained momentum. Seemingly each illicit vape cart maker wished liters of the magical diluent. “For those who didn’t carry Honey Lower, you have been [seen as] a sore loser,” Hackett recalled.
Regardless of the demand, Hackett refused to hold Honey Lower or related thickeners, attributable to their unknown formulations and untested standing as a vape components. Though it value him loads of enterprise on the time, Hackett now believes the choice might have saved folks’s lives.
What made Honey Lower so well-liked?
Honey Lower took off as a result of it made illicit vape cartridge makers some huge cash. The product fooled customers into considering they purchased one thing pure. Honey Lower’s shade and thickness intently resemble that of pure THC oil. It’s obtainable on-line and doesn’t have an effect on the looks or taste of THC oil. As such, it fooled customers performing what’s often called the “bubble take a look at.”
Pure THC extract is a thick amber oil, and conventional THC oil reducing brokers skinny the oil. In response, clients realized to detect reduce oil by flipping over vape cartridges to see how the air bubble strikes contained in the tank—very similar to the bubble in a carpenter’s stage. A quick-moving bubble means the oil had been thinned with a reducing agent and wouldn’t ship the excessive THC efficiency a client needs.
Tocopheryl-acetate defeats the bubble take a look at by reducing THC oil with out thinning it. For years, THC oil had been blended with the frequent components propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin, used to permit the oil to stream and speak to the vape pen’s heating gadget. As a substitute of 10% or 15% propylene glycol cuts, vape cartridge makers may reduce THC oil by as much as 80%, Honey Lower promised, and customers would by no means know.
The chemical created enormous revenue margins for Honey Lower. Temple may import uncooked vitamin E acetate for $eight.50 to $42.60 a liter (transformed from gallons), re-package it, and mark it as much as between $1,100 and $1,350 a liter. That’s a couple of 1,300% markup on each liter.
Even with the import markup, illicit THC vape cartridge fillers who spent $1,000 on a liter of Honey Lower may idiot customers by stretching their provides of THC oil and pocket an additional $5,000 in revenue.
Vitamin E acetate additionally stays completely authorized to promote in any type. Unlawful THC vape cartridge makers shoulder all of the authorized danger.
On-line chatter, booming gross sales
Insiders describe 440-pound drums of the stuff transferring out the back and front doorways of wholesale vape suppliers in downtown Los Angeles in early 2019. Honey Lower could possibly be discovered on many main ecommerce websites, in addition to by the Honey Lower web site.
Trademark, incorporate, promote promote promote
By the spring of 2019, Honey Lower’s success apparently made the corporate’s founder take into consideration defending his property. “Simply within the first 4 months of 2019, we had extra gross sales than all of 2018,” Honey Lower’s web site said. So Temple filed an software with the US Patent and Trademark Workplace (USPTO) on March eight to trademark the Honey Lower brand. On the applying, the Honey Lower founder listed the identical e mail as he did on his previous IMDB Professional account again in his performing/casting days.
Three days later, Temple registered Honey Lower Labs as a restricted legal responsibility company with the State of California.
Temple described Honey Lower within the USPTO software as an “digital cigarette liquid (e-liquid) comprised of flavorings in liquid type.” He said it contained propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, compounds broadly utilized in vaping merchandise. Nowhere on the applying have been the phrases “vitamin E acetate” talked about.
On June 19, Honey Lower posted to Instagram a video of containers and containers of amber glass jugs stuffed with the thickener prepped for transport. The operation was pumping.
First studies of lung accidents
The primary troubling medical studies got here in mid-July 2019. Public well being officers in Illinois and Wisconsin introduced the identification of an unprecedented cluster of lung accidents amongst teen vapers. Public well being leaders in Kings County, California, stated they too situated the same damage cluster.
These preliminary clusters triggered nationwide surveillance by the federal Facilities for Illness Management. Public well being officers started connecting dots. The victims weren’t contaminated with a virus or micro organism. As a substitute, they shared a historical past of vaping—particularly, for many of them, vaping THC from unlawful cartridges bought on the unregulated avenue market.
Seems like pneumonia, however it’s not
Early on, docs learn the onset of VAPI signs as odd instances of pneumonia. Sufferers have been despatched residence with antibiotics, solely to return a lot sicker days or perhaps weeks later.
Contained in the lungs, the damage worsened. Vitamin E acetate disrupts the operate of the lungs’ fluid lining, impeding oxygen switch, and triggering a progressive and extreme immune response. Some studies point out an individual’s lungs can start to lose operate as rapidly as every week after publicity to THC oil closely reduce with vitamin E acetate.
“Whenever you inhale this fatty substance, it type of acts like a cleaning soap,” stated Josh Wurzer, president of SC Laboratories, a state-licensed hashish testing lab based mostly in Santa Cruz, California. “When it will get in your lungs, it breaks up all of the floor chemistry that’s occurring together with your lungs and actually interferes with the trade of oxygen into your bloodstream.”
Testing one sufferer’s vapes: tainted and poisonous
One VAPI sufferer, Utah resident Kyle DeGraw, informed Leafly he had by no means heard of Honey Lower. Vape-related lung misery despatched DeGraw, to the hospital for 5 days in July. Over the previous yr, he usually shopped for unlawful THC carts by flipping a cartridge over to see how the oil moved. If the bubble moved too quick, Kyle refused to purchase it. However that trick didn’t work with Honey Lower.
“You may’t inform even when [the bubble moves] gradual?” DeGraw requested Leafly. A darkish realization came visiting him. “I don’t know, truly, what’s inside.”
All summer time, DeGraw had inhaled cart after cart from containers labeled Dank Vapes and Rove. Leafly had the remaining oil in DeGraw’s spent cartridges examined by SC Labs.
These assessments turned up disturbing outcomes. SC Labs President Josh Wurzer stated DeGraw had inhaled “important quantities of alpha-tocopherol” in addition to troubling quantities of lead from his illicit THC carts.
Wurzer additionally discovered sky-high ranges of “actually dozens” of pesticides in “insane concentrations.” SC Labs’ machines, he stated, aren’t set as much as detect such excessive quantities. “This would possibly take the prize for [the] most pesticide-contaminated pattern now we have ever examined,” stated Wurzer.
Honey Lower begins closing down
As information of the outbreak unfold, the Honey Lower group seems to have reduce and run.
The corporate Instagrammed an image of one among its distributors’ cubicles at an occasion Aug. 16, however later deleted it.
Public well being officers reported the primary vaping-related demise on Aug. 23. On that very same day, Honey Lower modified its registered company deal with to a postal field at Ace One Cease Mail Plus, close to the wholesale storefronts that bought a lot of the corporate’s product. “Don’t listing a PO Field” the official LLC type states. Temple did it anyway.
On Aug. 27, Temple modified the official possession of See/Be Well being so as to add an individual named Ashley Angstadt. Based on now-deleted (however nonetheless cached) Instagram exercise, it seems that Angstadt and Temple have been relationship on the time and lived collectively. After Aug. 27, Angstadt appeared in state enterprise information as proprietor and supervisor of the corporate.
On Aug. 30, Leafly printed its investigation into unlawful vape cartridge components—the primary to call Honey Lower and spotlight the corporate’s suspected position within the outbreak. In response, Honey Lower referred to as its downtown Los Angeles wholesalers and ordered a recall of its merchandise. Firm officers demanded that storefront wholesalers take away Honey Lower from retailer cabinets.
By Sept. 6, Honey Lower’s web site had gone offline.
Honey Lower officers subpoenaed
On Sept. 9, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a subpoena for Honey Lower and two different makers of thickening brokers after well being officers found the merchandise contained “practically pure vitamin E acetate oil.”
New York State public well being officers need particulars on Honey Lower’s security testing, substances, gross sales information, and “the standard of the uncooked supplies and the ultimate product,” in response to division spokeswoman Jill Montag.
Panicky file adjustments at See/Be
On Oct. 9, Leafly’s investigative group contacted See/Be Well being CEO Ashley Angstadt by e mail. She didn’t reply, however two days later Angstadt’s title disappeared from state information linked to See/Be. She by no means responded to Leafly’s requests for info and remark.
See/Be Well being has additionally modified its function of enterprise in state information—usually. In late August, the enterprise function switched from “well being and sweetness dietary supplements” to “distribution.” On Oct. 11, it grew to become “well being complement manufacturing.” On Oct. 14, the corporate’s said function modified to “well being and wellness providers”—eradicating the time period complement totally.
Since Oct. 14, neither See/Be Well being, nor Honey Lower or any of the corporate’s officers, have supplied a press release. Officers on the New York State Well being Division informed Leafly they’re involved with Honey Lower, however declined to supply particulars attributable to their ongoing investigation. Josh Temple seems to have moved out of his Woodland Hills residence in mid-August. It’s unclear whether or not he stays within the Los Angeles space.
No one paid consideration
Trade insiders who spoke with Leafly have been at a loss to clarify how vaping merchandise, unlawful or not, ended up tainted with vitamin E acetate—one thing so clearly not meant to be inhaled.
“It’s unconscionable to promote something to folks the place you may’t ensure you’re not going to injure them,” stated J.D. Ellis, a widely known hashish trade engineer who moderates the influential on-line hashish discussion board IC Magazine.
The dearth of scientific trials on tocopherols for inhalation ought to have given Honey Lower officers pause, stated Blinc Group CEO de Rauly. “Whenever you’re working with folks’s well being,” he stated, “you need to go in there and determine it out and study. For those who don’t do this, you’re not being accountable.”
Don’t assume it’s protected
When Honey Lower got here available on the market, illicit vape cart makers assumed it was a innocent variation on propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin.
SC Labs co-founder Josh Wurzer understands how customers have been taken in. “You simply assume, ‘Properly this wouldn’t have even been allowed out there if somebody hadn’t checked out it and located it to be no less than comparatively protected.’ That’s simply not the case.”
Honey Lower didn’t fall underneath the regulatory authority of California’s Bureau of Hashish Management (BCC), in response to BCC spokesman Alex Traverso. The company oversees the regulation of hashish licenses and merchandise, however Honey Lower didn’t include hashish—it simply occurred to finish up in merchandise that did.
California hashish regulators preserve a prolonged listing of prohibited contaminants and pesticides. Vitamin E acetate was not on that listing. Wurzer and different chemists have described the listing as ever-evolving. They are saying it merely doesn’t embody all the pieces it ought to—principally as a result of it may possibly’t.
Vape cartridge makers are constantly growing extra novel components, simply because the makers of performance-enhancing medication maintain innovating to remain one step forward of anti-doping businesses. Antonio Frazier, vice chairman of operations on the licensed Los Angeles-area hashish lab Cannasafe, described the problem as “going after a transferring goal.”
Legal guidelines damaged? It’s not clear
Authorities haven’t introduced any prison costs or civil penalties towards Temple or his two firms. Honey Lower and See/Be stay a legally registered firms within the state of California, and Honey Lower the product stays authorized to purchase and promote.
However with greater than 1,800 VAPI victims, it could possibly be solely a matter of time. FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless informed members of Congress on Sept. 26: “To be clear, if we decide that somebody is manufacturing or distributing illicit, adulterated vaping merchandise that triggered sickness and demise for private revenue, we might contemplate that to be a prison act.” Sharpless spoke usually, not particularly in reference to Honey Lower or vitamin E acetate.
In an e mail to Leafly, FDA spokesman Michael Felderbaum stated the company, working with federal prosecutors, may pursue authorized motion in response to the VAPI outbreak underneath the Federal Meals, Drug, and Beauty Act. He indicated the company is ready to make use of its authority “to the fullest extent.”
Finish of innocence for vaping
Because the nation’s VAPI sicknesses stay underneath investigation, the comparatively younger vape trade faces a reckoning of types.
After sleeping by the rise of e-cigarettes and vaping, the FDA plans to control e-cigarette makers and their substances by 2020. It’s not clear if the FDA’s pending CBD laws will take care of vaping, however the lung illness outbreak has actually raised that risk.
The state regulation of authorized hashish merchandise appears to have given the authorized market extra immunity to contamination than the unregulated avenue market. As concern about vitamin E acetate grew to become widespread in September, main hashish labs started testing state-licensed vape cartridges for the additive.
In Washington, Confidence Analytics has cleared a whole bunch of merchandise with no single cartridge testing optimistic. Anresco Labs in California has finished the identical. Oregon’s provides are much less pristine; no less than one THC vape maker who added vitamin E oil acquired his product into licensed hashish shops within the state. In Colorado, the Drugs Man chain introduced the invention of 1 product with vitamin E acetate—and its recall—after initiating testing of its stock. In the meantime, Colorado state officers are banning some components in THC vapes by January 2020.
In Los Angeles’ downtown wholesale district, the place Honey Lower as soon as flowed out the door in untold gallons, the product is now nowhere to be discovered. All that’s left are remnant indicators and stickers that after marketed its availability.
Nonetheless, Honey Lower has discovered an afterlife of types on-line.
Firm founder Josh Temple has apparently ghosted the media and state authorities. However with a number of clicks, anybody can discover photos of the corporate’s brand on-line, print it out on stickers, and begin promoting re-labeled jars of vitamin E oil on Ebay. Chinese language authorities have promised to start out clamping down on provides, however the product stays only a Google search away.
Did you’re employed with Honey Lower? Have details about the model? E-mail California editor David Downs [email protected]