In light of the recent (mis-)reporting on the eight Wisconsin teenagers who ended up in the hospital, it’s time for organizations like Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes and the FDA to take responsibility for the monster they’ve created: the vape black market.
The United States has a long and shameful tradition of prohibition. Although this tactic has never been effective and has never benefitted the general wellbeing of American citizens, our government has taken a swing at banning just about everything people enjoy doing, from alcohol to gambling to narcotics. Most recently, legislators and the FDA have set their sights on vaping – and it’s going to take us right back to the 1920’s.
A Little Thing Called “Prohibition” – From WCTU to PAVE
On October 28, 1919, the United States Congress passed the Volstead Act and created the Eighteenth Amendment. As you may know, this was the beginning of America’s Prohibition era. The Volstead Act was the law of the land for roughly 14 years, until it was finally repealed in 1933. While the Prohibition can conjure romantic images of smoky speakeasies, suffragettes, and foxy flappers, the reality was far more violent, desperate, and grim. In those few years, Prohibition directly claimed the lives of thousands of Americans, maiming and injuring thousands more. It also did nothing to negatively impact the rate of alcohol consumption in the United States.
Prohibition was a concept pushed on people by the temperance movement, whose ranks were bolstered primarily by women and religious leaders. Leading groups in the temperance movement included the Women’s Crusade and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, latter-day analogs to the modern MAAD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) or PAVE (Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes). As Prohibition in the United States wore on, things grew increasingly dangerous. While the bill had been aimed at preventing the violence and health risks associated with alcohol consumption, the temperance movement had achieved precisely the opposite.
During the Prohibition, groups like the Italian Mafia and the Irish Mob enjoyed unprecedented power as they absorbed the entire alcohol industry. After the government forced out all legal manufacturing of alcohol, organized crime groups were quick to fill the vacancy. Throughout the U.S., alcohol production and trade were run almost entirely by organized crime. These groups made money hand over fist, cranking out the alcohol and keeping officials off the back of local bootleggers. Corruption reigned supreme, the alcohol was more deadly than ever, and crime reached an all-time high – all directly as a result of Prohibition.
The homemade hooch being run by these gangsters was incredibly unstable and often dangerous. Bootlegging operations had to be highly mobile and discreet as police were constantly raiding illicit stills and saloons. As such, bootleggers had to work quickly and hastily in dark, unsanitary conditions. The result was bootlegged liquor which frequently contained trace elements and harmful minerals which caused all kinds of health complications. People went blind, had seizures, suffered from paranoid psychotic episodes, and died. But even this was not enough to deter the American people from drinking.
Growing frustrated with the inefficacy of Prohibition, the U.S. government stepped in to do what they do best: make the whole situation even worse. During a period of the Prohibition known as the “chemist’s war”, the government poisoned industrial alcohols. Industrial alcohol was commonly stolen by bootleggers for refining into consumer-grade alcohol. By poisoning the source of bootlegged alcohol, the U.S. government incredibly believed that they could deter people from drinking. Instead, the government was directly responsible for hundreds of deaths as people consumed the poisoned alcohol.
Even at this point, with bootleggers poisoning their customers inadvertently and the government poisoning them on purpose, the American people refused to yield. People kept drinking, completely undeterred.
Today, the legacy of Prohibition is simple: thousands of people dead from unsafe liquor consumption and the rise in power of groups like the Mafia, which held the country in a death grip for decades beyond the repeal of Prohibition. Even though alcohol was completely illegal for a decade and a half, the laws were unable to make even the slightest dent in alcohol consumption.
The U.S.’ Long History of Not Learning Lessons
You’d think that the U.S. government and its people would have learned some valuable lessons from the death toll of the Prohibition, but you would be wrong. In fact, the same exact tactics have been used repeatedly since then.
In the seventies, eighties, and nineties, the “War on Drugs” was all the rage; but this “war” was merely a transparent repackaging of one of America’s darkest periods, now with a bit of extra racism for good measure. The War on Drugs posited that all drugs must be illegal for the same reasons that temperance zealots railed against booze: health risks and violence. Of course, instead of people giving up on drugs, we simply packed our prisons with non-violent offenders, destroyed the lives of millions of people, and forced drug addicts deeper into the black market.
We even repeated the mistakes of the chemist’s war in the early days of the War on Drugs. In the 70’s, American government officials took it upon themselves to spray Mexican marijuana fields with dangerous herbicides. Although this strategy was allegedly aimed at destroying crops, officials acknowledged the danger posed to marijuana users – and they welcomed it. The claim here was exactly the same as when poisoning the industrial alcohol in the 20’s: If we poison the weed, people won’t smoke it. You may begin to see a pattern developing here.
Just like with alcohol prohibition, the War on Drugs did little to nothing in terms of reducing drug use and addiction. The only outcome of this ridiculously expensive crusade was to push drug addicts into increasingly dangerous and unpredictable markets. We’re seeing the aftermath of this every day as people die from fentanyl-laced heroin or become shells of their former selves after smoking cocaine or methamphetamines cooked with unstable street recipes.
In every single instance of American Prohibition, the outcome has been the same:
- People turn to dangerous alternatives, most commonly “the black market”
- Substances become more deadly and dangerous, as bootleggers and drug runners have to create them in less-than-ideal circumstances, and nothing is subjected to any type of regulation.
- There is absolutely zero net impact on drug or substance use
- The death toll skyrockets
- Drugs, gangs, and mobs gain power, influence, and money as they take over markets once owned by legitimate vendors
But if there’s one thing you can count on in the good ol’ U.S. of A., it’s that we don’t learn from our mistakes. As they say: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result, and nobody is nuttier than American policy makers.
What’s with the longwinded history on the Prohibition, you ask? The events of the last century provide us with the historical context and framework we absolutely need to understand exactly what’s going on today with vaping. Last week, a handful of teenagers in Wisconsin were hospitalized, and the unfortunate event immediately became the most recent wellspring for anti-vaping propaganda.
While coverage of this story was wildly slanted towards the anti-vaping bias of middle class America, there is in fact a story here; it’s just not the one they’re covering.
While major news outlets fell backwards over themselves tying these teens’ illness to vaping, not a single source spent an adequate time discussing what these kids were actually vaping, nor did they draw the connection to the current political climate surrounding vaping.
In each of these cases, the teens reported buying and vaping something called a “street vape”. For adults living in areas where both vaping and THC are legal, the idea of a “street vape” seems almost laughable, but they do exist - and they are quite dangerous. Like buying any other street drugs, the process of acquiring a street vape passes you through all the same shady and disreputable channels you might travel to pick up heroin or cocaine.
And, just like hard drugs, you never really know what you’re going to get with a street vape. There have been reported instances where these “vapes” are laced with spice (a mixture of drugs and herbs which is often far more potent than marijuana) or other dangerous chemicals, including rat poison.
While the vast majority of vapers are adults looking to quit smoking cigarettes, street vapes are for an entirely different market altogether. These illicit devices rarely contain just nicotine and are almost exclusively marketed in areas where cannabis is not yet legal. In places like Wisconsin, teenagers may pick up these Chinese knockoffs as the easiest and most affordable access to marijuana. While there are a handful of reputable weed vaporizer companies out there, street vendors are often pawning counterfeit versions. With these fakes, it’s essentially impossible to know what you’re actually vaping, and therein lies the danger.
While the manufacturers of legal cannabis in states like California or Colorado are subject to regulations and guidelines set forth by government agencies, drug dealers are beholden to nobody. For instance, if you buy a vape cartridge by King Pen in California, you’re probably buying it in a nicely lit, air-conditioned marijuana dispensary or vape shop. In these shops, all cartridges are tested thoroughly by state-approved labs and distributed by licensed companies. You know exactly what you’re getting, and you can expect it to be the same every time.
In the Midwest, however, your experience picking up a King Pen cartridge is entirely different. Shadowy corners, shady figures, and cash hastily exchanged are the hallmarks of buying THC vapes in states like Wisconsin. As such, Midwesterners and others have no idea what they’re actually getting. Dealers are often able to create quite believable replicas of popular brands like King Pen, but the contents of these vapes are completely unregulated and untested. Which is exactly how people end up sick or dead.
Just like with the criminalization of alcohol, illicit manufacturers and dealers are more than happy to fill the void when legal suppliers are shut down. For proof, all you have to do is check out the #weed hashtag on Instagram. There are now dozens of accounts selling empty replicas of cartridges by leading marijuana manufacturers. Drug dealers can buy these fakes in bulk, fill them with whatever they like, and sell them to their customers. These customers may experience a false sense of ease and security when they see that reputable logo, but they may very well be surprised by its contents – and lately these surprises have been turning dangerous.
The (Misplaced) Blame Game
These street vapes are particularly interesting, as they illustrate a cross-section of modern prohibition. On the one hand, you have the bizarre and irregular semi-legalization of marijuana. On the other hand, you have vaping, which is rapidly approaching the same legal shade of grey, as various cities individually ban or restrict them, creating a nonsensical patchwork of legislation which can be challenging to navigate.
When the Volstead Act banned alcohol, people immediately began making bootleg alcohol. The market was there, and all the legal vendors had been put out of business overnight. In the same fashion, modern bootleggers have stepped in to fill the void where gaps in legalization have created markets for illicit marijuana and vapes. Without any oversight or incentive to provide safe, high-quality products, these counterfeiters are happy to charge high prices for dangerous products.
Interestingly, this recent spat of “vape-related illnesses” instantly became the talking point of choice for anti-vapers throughout the country. The Wisconsin Eight have become a sort of totem for these people, and the story really does contain all the elements they love so much. Vapes are involved? Check. A bunch of helpless kids are in the hospital? Check. At the same time, the one minor detail which entirely blows their narrative out of the water was quietly omitted or glossed over in every single major publication’s coverage.
This detail? The kids weren’t vaping, they had bought illicit THC and nicotine laden devices of some kind from someone on the street. The kids were hitting street vapes, which have very little in common with reputably manufactured devices and which have been known to be dangerous, even lethal, for years. In fact, the U.K. suffered almost the exact same incident which just took place in Wisconsin. The response by British officials and media, however, was markedly different.
The British Wisconsin
In a country where they’re considering measures to allow vaping in their state-run hospitals, it may not be particularly surprising to learn that British press and government officials had a much different response to an event exactly like the Wisconsin Eight.
In the towns of Bury, Oldham, and Rochdale, at least nine teenagers collapsed and were hospitalized after using street vapes. Later tests on the vapes in question revealed that they contained chemicals found in the street drug “spice”. However, the media response was quite different, with articles warning people against picking up “THC vape” from street dealers. Rather than trying to skew the facts of the case to fit some misguided moral agenda, these articles covered the story accurately and provided their readers with actionable warnings.
Likewise, British police put out images and information on the offending vape devices and cartridges, allowing people to see the dangerous items for themselves. By providing people with this information, the British police were likely able to save lives as people were discouraged from making a potentially lethal purchase from their local drug dealer.
In the United States, however, journalists entirely brushed the most vital fact of this case aside in order to tailor the story to an anti-vaping agenda. The term “street vapes” was replaced by just “vapes”. The fact that the teens thought they were vaping THC wasn’t mentioned anywhere, nor was the fact that these so-called “vapes” were bought from street vendors. One could be forgiven for thinking this to be a simple oversight, but it’s become increasingly clear that the anti-vaping agenda and hysteria regarding the “youth vaping epidemic” have taken hold of people at every level of power – and when a story like this pops up, it’s time to make hay while the sun shines.
Welcome to the Black Market
The way the Wisconsin story has been spun is one of the most ironic elements of the entire situation. As we’ve seen for the past century, prohibition creates black markets. In every single instance where we’ve criminalized an addictive substance or behavior, the outcome has been a far more dangerous black market – and we’re doing it all over again.
Instead of proving the zealots’ assertions that vaping is a deadly and unknown quantity, the recent spate of “vaping”-related illnesses should be seen as proof for the exact opposite point. Blame for these children’s ailments falls squarely upon the shoulders of the prohibitionists.
By keeping marijuana illegal throughout vast stretches of this country’s mid-section, legislators typically voice hope that they will be able to prevent people, especially young people, from using dangerous drugs. They may also trot out the old “it’s a gateway drug” line, which is always entertaining. In either case, teenagers always have and always will, find a way to obtain marijuana. By keeping it illegal, the system is simply forcing teenagers to associate with criminal elements – criminal elements who wouldn’t think twice about selling a cheap and dangerous knockoff to a child.
Same goes with vaping. The stated hope of most prohibitionists is that a nationwide vape ban would prevent their teens from getting addicted to nicotine. But we already know the outcome of prohibitionist policy, and we’re beginning to see it happen already. If groups like PAVE and the FDA have their way, a handful of injured teenagers in Wisconsin is only the beginning. As vapes become increasingly outlawed and more difficult to get a hold of, people are going to turn to the black market more and more. We’re seeing it happen with teenagers, for whom both e-cigarettes and marijuana are illegal, but soon we’ll see it with adults as well.
Happy Anniversary, Mr. Volstead
Death, black markets, and criminality will be the legacy of modern prohibition, just as it was in the 20’s. As we approach the centennial anniversary of the passing of the Volstead Act on October 28th, it’s time for Americans to genuinely take a look back through our history and ask ourselves some hard questions.
In the anti-vaping camp, there are two types of people. The first type of person is the genuine article, a true believer who sincerely wants to protect the kids from the evils of vaping. The second type of person is a whole different breed, a cynic who fully understands their legal maneuvers are more harmful to children than they are helpful and who is willing to capitalize on legitimate misfortunes like the Wisconsin kids to advance their agenda. The idea of honest self-reflection is wasted on the cynic, and there’s no point debating the subject with them.
For the others, those who genuinely want the greatest good for this country and have simply been misled by government officials and media, a meaningful reflection on the past hundred years is essential.
If we are to truly protect our youth, prohibitions, bans, and a war on drugs are not a viable way forward. History has proven this time and again. Not only can we not wipe out drugs or addictive substance with sweeping bans and criminalization, these measures almost always actively make things worse. Young people will continue to engage with these illegal substances, only they will be forced to do so with added risks and dangers which weren’t present before.
To the non-cynical anti-vapers out there, it doesn’t have to be this way. Educating yourself in the deep and complex history of prohibition in this country is vital, now more than ever. If vaping is banned, it will not disappear; it will continue to live a grimy half-life in the tradition of American bootleggers. A law won’t stop your kid from smoking, but it will stop your kid from vaping devices which are manufactured in a safe facility with high quality standards. The choice is not between a society which allows vaping and one which doesn’t. It’s a decision between allowing people to vape or forcing them to choose between dodgy black-market dealers and (the always-legal) cigarettes. The black market can be a game of Russian roulette and cigarettes kill half their users, so it’s up to you: which one would you choose for your son or daughter?