How Big U.S. Companies Are Selling Weed Vapes in the United Kingdom

VICE U.K. originally published this article.

J.J. O’Brien has spent the last 20 minutes talking about weed, without once mentioning weed. At least, I’m pretty certain it’s weed the Vice President of Strategy at vape giant PAX Labs has been talking about. Unless his company’s latest state-of-the-art loose-leaf vaping device—the PAX 3—really is designed solely for inhaling herbs like lemongrass, lavender, and basil.

“I think what’s so unique about [the PAX 3 vaporizer] is the ability to vaporize at different temperatures, that allows you different flavor profiles to vaporize different herbs,” he says, raising a cherry-garnished whiskey cocktail to his lips. “Like lavender or lemongrass. Or any dry herb.”

But we’re talking about weed, though, aren’t we, O’Brien? Lemongrass is just a wink for cannabis, just as PAX’s tagline, “Life Elevated,” is one for getting high. Right?

Handsome, skinny, and neck-crickingly tall, O’Brien is reminiscent of Adam Levine, if Adam Levine had been stretched to 6’4″ and had the douchebag beaten out of him. He puts down his lowball glass and hoists his eyebrows in an expression of friendly exasperation. “No. We’re talking about various herbs that you can use, like lavender or lemongrass. It’s aromatherapy. And aromatherapy can come from many different herbs.”

JJ O’Brien in Shoreditch, London. Photo: Alexander McLuckie

PAX has been described as the “Apple of cannabis vaporizers,” and its PAX3 the “iPhone of vaping” (although its chief competitor, The Firefly 2, claims the exact same soubriquet). It looks cutting-edge enough, like the flashy thing from the Men in Black films used to wipe memories, or a silver Pez dispenser from the future. It works by crumbling a dose of “dry herb” into an oven-chamber where temperatures of up to 215 degrees Celsius [419 degrees Fahrenheit] bake the active ingredients into a vapor that can be inhaled. Its principle USP is that you can hook it up to an app and adjust the temperature depending on the herb you’re vaping.

“In the U.S. it can have other uses, but we sell PAX in the U.K. as a herbal vaporizer,” reiterates O’Brien. “And aromatherapy is a powerful drug.”

In America, the PAX 3, the Firefly 2, and Storz & Bickel’s The Mighty—to name a few of the many “dry flower” vaporizers crowding a legal U.S. market forecast to grow to $50 billion in 2026—are all marketed as devices for getting stoned. But then, in America—where weed is legal in 10 states recreationally and medicinal cannabis use is legal in 33 states respectively—it’s no more frowned upon to suck an after-dinner bong than a mint. In London, just possessing cannabis is punishable by up to five years at Her Majesty’s pleasure, while Section 9A of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 states that knowingly supplying an “article that may be used to administer or prepare a controlled drug for administration” can land you behind bars for a maximum of six months.

And yet, while they won’t divulge the numbers, PAX claims the U.K.—where the complete kit costs £220 [$278]—is its biggest market outside America and Canada. So how, really, do you market a legal product to an illegal market?

Simple answer: language. “In the U.K. there is no specific definition of ‘drug paraphernalia,’ and not all equipment that can be used for drug-taking is illegal,” says David Hesketh, a U.K. Customs agent for 42 years, now a lecturer at Charles Sturt University’s Centre for Customs and Excise Studies. “Vaporizers could be used with a wide range of products, including those containing controlled substances. As an individual item it would be difficult to classify a vaporizer as ‘drug paraphernalia,’ and therefore it would be difficult to restrict its importation or sale.”

Plus, there are many stories of products that evolved from one use to another, says Allyson Stewart-Allen, CEO of marketing consultancy International Marketing Partners. “Superglue was originally a medical product, invented during the Vietnam War to fill wounds and stem hemorrhaging,” she says. “It was only later that some doctors realized it was a fantastic adhesive and it was mainstreamed as a consumer product.”

Pertinently, it wasn’t long after that bored kids up and down the country discovered a tertiary use beyond lesion adhesion, sparking a glue-sniffing epidemic deemed so serious by the 1980s that the U.K. government introduced the Intoxicating Substances (Supply) Act to ban shopkeepers from selling sniffable substances to under-18s.

Anyway: “In [vaporizers’] case,” Stewart-Allen adds, “I would mainstream it by associating it with other things and let the consumer draw their own conclusions.”

The PAX 3 being loaded up with a dry herb. Photo: Jake Lewis

It comes down, then, to “between-the-lines” marketing. “Usually, suppliers of vapes, or any other paraphernalia, will state that the equipment is for some other purpose,” says Niamh Eastwood, Chief Executive of Release, the U.K.’s national center of expertise on drugs and drugs law. “In some cases they will say that it is for ornamental purposes or water filters, or that the material the equipment is for is dry leaves.”

In other words, banning PAX for selling weed vapes would be like banning a grocery store for selling tinfoil: You can use it to cook crack if you want, but what about the two-day-old roast that’s drying out in the fridge? Or, as a Rizla spokesperson told me: “Our king size papers were introduced in 1977 in the U.K. to reflect the change from regular to King Size length cigarettes. Our rolling papers are made for adult fine-cut tobacco smokers. We are aware that all rolling papers and loose tobacco can be used in connection with recreational cannabis use. However, we do not condone such illegal activities or endorse the use of our products for such purposes.”

This is why head shops up and down Britain have openly sold stoner supplies from grinders to gas-mask bongs for decades. Though, in 2016, Camden’s Safer Neighborhoods Team did promise to shutter every drug-accessory seller on Camden soil in a bid to end the borough’s reputation as “London’s Amsterdam,” which they said fueled drug dealing by creating a “culture of tacit acceptance.” So, with the full force of the law in their sails, they sent out a threatening letter to all head shops in the area, then prosecuted a souvenir stall holder for selling bongs and grinders. Ramalar Munjal, 55, got a conditional discharge, was forced onto benefits, and here we are.

But PAX, as London Cannabis Club founder Orson Boon points out, are no tarp-covered tourist trap. “PAX are a serious company,” he says. “They’re huge. So they will always be extremely careful when it comes to advertising their products, especially in countries like Britain. But everybody in their right mind understands that when you buy one of these products from any high-street shop, probably 80 percent of them are going to be used to consume cannabis.”

Has nobody passed on this information to the Home Office? “Of course they know,” rails Boon. “Everybody knows. The British government are taxing these products. Let’s not be silly. This is the thing with society; we’ve got to pull our head out the sand and stop pretending we don’t really know what’s going on.”

It is, according to Boon and other campaigners, as if the government is getting high on its own hypocrisy. “Bless them, [they] really don’t have a grip on any of this,” he says. “Of course, they’re very happy to make millions and millions of dollars on grow lights, grow tents, bongs, seeds, Rizlas, grinders, vaporizers, and a plethora of other stuff… and yet, even after making medicinal cannabis legal, they’ve made no product available for the medical cannabis users. It’s lunacy.”

That story goes as follows: Early last year, the United Nations outed the U.K. as the biggest grower of medical marijuana on Earth (producing a mind-bending 44.8 percent of the world’s total). Then, a severely epileptic 12-year-old hit headlines when U.K. Customs confiscated the Canadian-bought cannabis oil that made his condition manageable. Outcry ensued, so Home Secretary Sajid Javid reviewed the law and legalized medicinal marijuana on November 1. But still no dice for the chronically in-pain, as it emerged that almost nobody who needed it could get it because few doctors were prepared to prescribe it.

Meanwhile, in June, Britain learned that Prime Minister Theresa May’s husband Philip works for the largest investor in GW Pharmaceuticals, the only company in Britain with a Home Office license to grow and sell medical cannabis, cultivating 20 million tons of it a year. That snafu was compounded when Home Office minister Victoria Atkins—who had previously spoken out against the class B drug—was forced to stop speaking about cannabis after it was revealed that her husband, as head of British Sugar, runs GW’s marijuana farm.

In short, the British government’s pot policymaking appears hazy at best. “So, Theresa May’s mortgage is being paid by cannabis money [and] our own drugs minister can’t even talk about cannabis because she’s now profiting from it,” says Boon. “It is bonkers. And this is why we’re not getting any answers.”

Are U.K. weed laws likely to change any time soon? “Privately, I think a lot of Tory MPs are very pro-recreational cannabis,” says Boon. “The only problem is Theresa May, who’s a staunch right-wing prohibitionist. She really does believe that people who use drugs are bad.”

But the ban does appear to be lifting. “The rest of the world is changing,” adds Boon. “The U.S. is legalizing across the states. Canada is already fully legal.”

He thinks the U.K. will one day be the industry’s most important European market. “We’re the gateway to enter Europe and the powerhouse of Europe. London is going to be a very powerful cannabis-based space. We’re already seeing huge investment firms from North America, Israel is coming in and establishing links in London, ready for this to move forward. It’s not a matter of if, but when.”

JJ O’Brien in Shoreditch. Photo: Alexander McLuckie

Back at the Ace Hotel, O’Brien is finally talking about weed. “We look at the U.K. as we do the rest of Europe. It’ll develop initially as a medical market. Some of the products we sell in the U.S. would be fantastic here in the U.K. But I think it’ll probably open up way behind the rest of Europe in my view, especially if Brexit happens.” He chuckles: “It’d be the stuffy British thing to do.”

Legalization, of course, would also bring standardization to a black market funneling millions to drug gangs from Acton to Albania. A 2016 report by think-tank the Adam Smith Institute, backed by several cross-party MPs, said it would not only ensure the drug meets acceptable standards, but remove criminal gangs from the equation, raise up to £1 billion [$1.27 billion] a year for the Treasury, ease criminal justice costs, and protect public health.

“In the U.S., for example, we have all sorts of testing on things from pesticides to heavy metals, that there are no controls for in the U.K.,” says O’Brien. “We spend a lot of money making sure our products deliver an experience that could go through the wringer like that. And what we get most excited about with the global legalization trend is that it brings a standardization that is best for consumers and best for the industry. And, you know, it’s not like we’re doing harm. Health and safety is our highest priority.”

Beyond that, Eastwood, from Release, hails the rise of vapes as a “positive development in harm reduction. The reality is that millions of people smoke cannabis every year in the U.K. and the vast majority will mix the substance with tobacco, which we know is harmful for health,” she says. “Encouraging people to vaporize can improve health outcomes for those who use cannabis and significantly reduce risks such as cancer or respiratory problems.”

And as for the establishment’s other main argument for outlawing weed—that it’s a drug, a bedfellow of heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy, and drugs rot society from the inside out—Boon has this to say: “Do we get weed smokers running around stabbing and throwing acid in people’s faces? No. They’re at home eating pizza and playing FIFA.”

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