BRISTOL, Wis. – The drug bust broke early silence in this well-kept subdivision in southeastern Wisconsin. Police pulled up outside a brick-and-mortar apartment, and popped neighbors out of their beds with the thrust of heavy knocking on a door.
What they found inside was not the crystal or cocaine or fentanyl, but slender boxes from vaping cartridges labeled with flavors like strawberries and peaches and cream . Another 98,000 cartridges were empty. Fifty-seven Mason jars nearby contained a substance similar to dark honey: THC laced liquid used for arming, a practice that is now at the heart of a major public health scare that is sweeping the country.
Vaping devices, which have grown in popularity as a way to consume nicotine and THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, have been linked over the last few months to nearly 400 diseases and six deaths. State and federal health investigators have not yet determined a cause, but authorities are focusing on whether harmful chemicals have found their way to vaping supplies, perhaps from a booming nationwide black market of vaping products driven by online sales and escaped regulation.  This month's bust in Wisconsin, where THC is illegal, gives an intimate look at the shady operations that serve a large number of teens and adults around the country who use black market app products, sometimes without knowing because It's hard to tell them apart from legitimate ones.
"When we went in there, we were like & # 39; Oh boy, & # 39;" said Captain Dan Baumann at the Waukesha Police Department. "This was what we were looking for, but we didn't know it was that big."
Key players in the operation, authorities said, were brothers barely in their 20s, Jacob and Tyler Huffhines, who lived in a small town nearby . Both are now in custody at Kenosha County Jail. More arrests and charges in the case are likely to follow, according to police.
Tyler, 20, is being held on charges of manufacturing, distributing or delivering marijuana; Jacob, 23, is being held on a charge of possession of cocaine and for being a felon who was in possession of a firearm. Authorities said Jacob was being investigated for his involvement in the drug operation.
Across the country, public health officials are waking up to a massive underground market for illegal weapons products, both for nicotine and for marijuana. The products are sold online and on the street, in pop-up shops and individual transactions, sometimes arranged through social media.
"I would meet people at Starbucks, a cross street in front of an apartment, no matter what they tell you," said a 17-year-old who was one of the people hospitalized for New York State's weapon-related lung disease. that his name was not used to protect his reputation and privacy.
"It never comes up where they come from," he said. "You don't ask."
Investigators have not determined whether it is a However, public health officials across the country, including Mitch Zeller, director of the Center for Tobacco Products for the Food and Drug Administration, say that street-made vaping products should be avoided by all consumers and poses the greatest health risk.
Vaping works by heating fluid and turning it into steam to inhale. The original purpose was to give smokers a way to satisfy their nicotine cravings without inhaling the carcinogens that come with burning tobacco.
But steamers and cartridges can be used to heat many substances, including cannabis-based oils, and some of the solvents used to dissolve them may present their own health problems.
Wednesday the Trump administration said it planned to ban most flavored e-cigarettes and nicotine pads – including mint and menthol, in an effort to reduce teen pleasure. But the move may expand the underground demand for the flavor. And it does nothing to deal with the robust trade in illegal cannabis weapons products.
The Wisconsin operation is quite characteristic of a "very advanced and mature illegal market for THC vape wagons," said David Downs, an expert in marijuana trade and California chief of Leafly, a website offering news, information and reviews on cannabis products. (& # 39; Carts & # 39; is the regular cartridge for cartridges.)
"These types of operations are integrated into the distribution of contaminated THC-based vape wagons in the United States," said Mr. Downs.
They are known as "Pen factories," which play an important intermediary role: The operations purchase empty vape cartridges and counterfeit packaging from Chinese factories, and then fill them with THC liquid which they purchase from the US market. Empty cartridges and packaging are also available on eBay, Alibaba and other e-commerce sites.
The filled cartridges are by definition no health risk. However, Mr. Downs, along with executives from legal THC companies and health officials, says the illegal operation uses a tactic common to other illegal drug operations: to cut the product with other substances, including some that may be dangerous.
The motif is profitable; An operation makes more money by using less of the core ingredient, THC – which is expensive – and diluting it with oils that cost significantly less.
Public health authorities said that some cutting agents could be the cause of the lung disease and had been home to a particular vitamin E acetate, an oil that can cause breathing problems and pneumonia if not fully heated during the evaporative aerosolization process.
Middle-class THC can cost $ 4,000 per kilo and higher-quality THC costs twice as much, but additives can cost pennies on the dollar, said Chip Paul, a longtime Oklahoma gun entrepreneur who led the state's drive to legalize medical marijuana there.
"That's what they do, they cut this oil," he said of illegal operations. "If I can cut them in half," he described the thought, "I can double my money."
The black market products are supplied as the THC weapons products that are legal in some states. Sometimes the packages are direct counterfeits of mass-market brands sold in places like California or Colorado, where THC is legal, and others just look at it.
"Some will not acknowledge that this is not a legitimate product," said Dr. Howard Zucker, commissioner for the New York State Department of Health, adding that this is a huge risk. "The counterfeit handbag you buy on the corner is not going to kill you, but the counterfeit gun device you buy has a chance to kill you," he said.
In Wisconsin, the nicely wrapped weapons units had logos such as Dabwoods, Chronic Sour Patch and Dank King Louie. Police say that the Huffhines operation produced close to 3,000 cartridges a day . Cartridges are sold for around $ 35 to $ 40.
An attorney for Tyler Huffhines declined to comment.
Wisconsin police say they were stunned by the scale and ambition of the Huffhines operation, and only began to understand how far it could have reached.
There was a teenager in nearby Waukesha whose actions eventually led police to the operation in Bristol, a town just miles from the Illinois border.
That teenager's parents discovered that he had weapons and brought him to the Waukesha police station. He then told the police where he got his weapons supplies; Authorities tracked the sellers step by step, and several degrees of separation later, they were led to the Huffhines brothers.
The Bristol apartment, rented under a false name, was believed to be their operating base. But on an afternoon last week, it looked deserted, with the blinds inside closed tightly and a belly on the front door.
Until recently, the apartment was buzzing with quiet activity that only attracted the attention of neighbors. The operation employed at least 10 people, according to police, who were paid $ 20 an hour to use syringes to fill cartridges with oil. The Huffhineses carefully kept records, and used time cards to note when employees worked. The cartridges were sold in packages of 100, through channels such as the authorities, which also seized 18 kilos of marijuana and three cash counting machines, saying they had not yet fully understood.
It may have been the perfect place for a drug operation, said a neighbor, who described the subdivision as a mix of busy professionals and families who didn't socialize much.
Another neighbor said she had believed the Huffhines brothers had started renting the site a few months ago, and described a steady flow of young men in and out of the apartment, usually nicely dressed, and driving expensive cars.
I can't give my name, she said, lowering her voice. "These are drug lords."
Inside Huffhine's home in the nearby community of Paddock Lake, a five-minute drive from the apartment, investigators found last week $ 59,000 in cash, eight guns, 10 grams of marijuana, as well as scales and other drug-related equipment.
At Westosha Central High School, attended by the Huffhines brothers, they were seen as ambitious and privileged, and lived with their mother, real estate agent and grandfather in a quiet neighborhood overlooking a lake.
Students leaving school on Thursday afternoon described a system of easy access to nicotine or THC vaping devices, despite severe penalties from administrators if caught.
Students often vape in the bathrooms, they said, and providing vaping devices is as simple as asking someone for contact.
News of gunfire deaths and injuries has spread throughout the school, a 16-year-old said.
"People are afraid of being caught," he added. "Now they are also afraid of getting sick."