Before the vape-related illnesses began causing a nationwide emergency, a preview in Utah caught many by surprise.
More than 50 people around Salt Lake City were poisoned by the time an outbreak ended early last year, most by a vape called Yolo! — the acronym for “you only live once.”
The Associated Press reported that people inhaled this CBD vape, and its vapors delivered a jolt of synthetic marijuana, and with it an intense high of hallucinations and even seizures.
At least 33 deaths across 24 states have now been linked to vape-related illnesses, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting that illegal or black market THC products are largely fueling the outbreak, but stopping short of identifying these products as the main cause.
Of the victims in 1,479 confirmed EVALI (e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury) cases, 849 of them were able to identify which products they used before falling ill. Of those cases, 78 percent reported using THC-containing products, with or without nicotine-containing products, in the three months prior to developing symptoms.
Yolo was different as victims immediately felt dangerous side effects.
In this May 8, 2019, file photo, a Yolo! brand CBD oil vape cartridge sits alongside a vape pen on a biohazard bag on a table at a park in Ninety Six, S.C. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed, File)
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Who was responsible for Yolo?
The trail of the Associated Press led to a Southern California beach town and an entrepreneur whose vaping habit prompted a career change that took her from Hollywood parties to federal court in Manhattan.
Janell Thompson, who had a background in financial services, moved from Utah to the San Diego area in 2010.
Thompson founded an e-cigarette company called Hookahzz.
Prosecutors, after the fallout, linked her to dealers charged in New York, where she pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy to distribute synthetic marijuana and a money laundering charge. The only brand federal prosecutors cited was Yolo.
Thompson was the exclusive salesperson.
U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman called Thompson a “drug trafficker” who used JK Wholesale to distribute “massive quantities” of synthetic marijuana as far back as 2014. She faces up to 40 years in prison.
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Reached by phone the week before she pleaded guilty, Thompson declined to discuss Yolo and then hung up. In a subsequent text message, Thompson said not to call her and referred questions to her lawyer, who did not respond to requests for comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.