Officials with the state Department of Health Services said Thursday that 24 of the 27 individuals with confirmed lung injuries in the state reported vaping oil with THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.
Officials cautioned, however, that they have not ruled out nicotine vapes as potential culprits as well. Sixteen — nearly 60% — of the same 27 people hospitalized said they vaped nicotine. Health officials would not say how many reported using both.
“There is a lot of overlapping use,” said Jonathan Meiman, chief medical officer with the department.
Meiman said federal health officials are doing lab testing and trying to pinpoint specific chemicals or ingredients that may be responsible for the damage.
“That’s the question we and every other state are trying to answer,” he said.
The list of brands and flavors of both nicotine and THC products used by the injured patients varied, he said.
Federal health officials on Friday said they are considering all possibilities and cautioned consumers about counterfeit vaping products.
“Anyone who uses e-cigarette products should not buy these products off the street (e.g., e-cigarette products with THC or other cannabinoids) and should not modify e-cigarette products or add any substances to these products that are not intended by the manufacturer,” officials from both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wrote in a joint statement.
Those with intimate knowledge of the cannabis market in Wisconsin have told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that THC cartridge sales have soared recently, with a huge uptick in counterfeit products.
Police in Milwaukee in recent months arrested two men suspected of selling drugs that included THC cartridges, some of which were counterfeit and sold under the popular Supreme and Brass Knuckles brand names.
One alleged dealer, Muhanad “Mo” Wardeh, was living downtown in the upscale North End apartment complex along the river, and in tandem with two other dealers, was making $800,000 to $2 million per month selling THC cartridges, according to a criminal complaint filed in Milwaukee County in April.
Wardeh, 24, claimed he was a member of “the cartel,” the documents state.
A source familiar with the case told the Journal Sentinel the cartridges he sold had names such as Blueberry Haze, Sour Diesel, Tropical and Girl Scout Cookies.
Some of the THC cartridges were found on students in Milwaukee-area high schools, the source said.
Another of the alleged dealers, Joel McGinn, was also selling Supreme brand and refilling the cartridges himself, the complaint states. McGinn told police he and Wardeh, together with another dealer, sold about 20,000 THC cartridges per month — accounting for the up to $2 million in revenue.
When McGinn was arrested last year, a drug-sniffing dog named Sunny pointed officers to McGinn’s pockets and backpack, according to a search warrant. Inside, police found $49,320 in cash, a warrant states.
A subsequent search of his apartment in the 1400 block of North Jefferson Street turned up nearly 1,000 small empty boxes labeled “Hybrid Supreme Girl Scout Cookies — 96% THC,” court records state.
Police also found plastic test tubes, additional THC packages and multiple cell phones, the records say.
In a news release Thursday, Wisconsin officials said they were continuing to investigate “all possible causes” of the lung injuries, which have been reported across the country in recent weeks.
“Vaping cartridges containing THC may include chemicals or additives that are unknown, unregulated, and unsafe,” DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said in the release. “We strongly urge people not to vape.”
There are 32 “confirmed and probable” cases in Wisconsin, with an additional 11 patients whose cases need further investigation, state officials said.
Fourteen Wisconsin counties have cases: Dane, Dodge, Door, Green, Kenosha, La Crosse, Milwaukee, Portage, Racine, Sauk, Walworth, Washington, Waukesha and Winnebago.
One patient died in Illinois last week, but no deaths have been reported in Wisconsin. Federal officials are investigating 200 possible cases in at least 22 states.