Marijuana dispensaries across Southern California are selling counterfeit cannabis products that could be dangerous to use, an NBC4 I-Team investigation has found.
Ever since California enacted tough regulations last year that banned pesticides and heavy metals from cannabis products, the counterfeit market has been booming.
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But it's not always easy for customers to tell the real thing from a convincing illegal knock-off that could make users sick. Counterfeiters can buy packaging online for items like cannabis cartridges and fill them with cannabis oil that could be contaminated and lead to serious health problems.
So, the NBC4 I-Team did some shopping and found products with familiar names, like Stiiizy, Brass Knuckles and Heavy Hitter, that were actually fake. Some were in packages so convincing, even the people behind the original product had a tough time telling the difference.
A spokesperson for Heavy Hitters didn't recognize which was which, until she noticed a small hologram seal on the bottom of the real product's box.
"I didn’t see the holographic tape," said Heavy Hitters spokesperson Priya Sopori.
That's a small detail, one that many customers likely wouldn't notice at first glance. For example, Ruben Young said he thought he was buying Stiiizy cartridges at a Pasadena store for help treating a medical condition.
It turned out, the store wasn't properly licensed and Young's product was counterfeit. That dispensary has since shut down.
"Oh, my Lord. I was devastated," Young said. "I mean, this is people's health.
"I will not try to save a buck and go to an illegal dispensary where they are selling illegal product."
All of the counterfeit merchandise bought by the NBC4 I-Team for this report came from unlicensed dispensaries. The LAPD says there are more than 500 illegal cannabis shops in Los Angeles, many selling dangerous products.
As for the contents of the counterfeit products purchased by the I-Team, they were tested by at Brightside Scientific, a state licensed lab. All had large amounts of dangerous pesticides, banned by the state for use on marijuana crops.
One fake cartridge included and illegal amount of the toxic heavy metal lead.
"It could cause hearing loss, memory issues," said Brightside Scientific's Hinaxi Patel.
The most important rule to remember: Only shop at stores properly licensed by both the city and state. You can use this map to find the licensed locations in Los Angeles.
The I-Team reached out to the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation for comment about why the city has not shut down all illegal cannabis shops, but has not received a response. The office and that of Mayor Eric Garcetti have not responded to six emails seeking comment.
NBC4's Jonathan Lloyd contributed to this article.