For Mexican drug cartels, marijuana remains big business but they're turning their attention to an even more potent product now crossing our border.
It looks like motor oil but the black watery tar sitting in five-gallon buckets is nearly pure THC concentrate.
"I started to see the people that would usually backpack marijuana through the desert were now backpacking up crude oil," said Detective Matthew Shay with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
The concentrate is made using a complex process of stripping the THC off of plants. What's left is distilled and filtered even further, creating a product that began at about 6% THC into one that carries a THC content of more than 80%.
Shay says it takes about 250 pounds of low-grade commercial marijuana to produce a five-gallon bucket of crude cannabis oil. Once in a concentrated form, profits can skyrocket. Each bucket could produce more than $500,000 in vaping cartridges.
"These are all black-market cartridges -- none of these are from a licensed dispensary. These are all ones we've recovered in the last year," said Shay, pointing at packaging easily purchased on the internet.
Once the crude oil from the cartels hits the streets, local dealers begin cutting the product with additives like vitamin E acetate - a compound linked to the nationwide vaping illness.
ABC15 had a couple questions about the product:
ABC15: "Do you suspect vitamin E acetate will be found in any of this stuff?"
Shay: "Oh yeah, sure. Oh yeah, no doubt."
ABC15: "How much are Americans habits driving how they deliver what drugs to us?"
Shay: "Well that's the whole business right? If there isn't a market, there's no reason to be shipping the stuff up."
Using vape cartridges to deliver THC is now the most popular way of consuming marijuana.
It's that demand that fuels the cartel's new strategy - creating a risk no one should take.
"The black market cannabis cartridges are going to be hazardous, period," said Shay.
Labs are testing the crude oil to find out exactly what kind of chemicals are in this product.
At this point we don't know for certain that the cartels' concentrate is indeed linked to the nationwide outbreak of lung illness that's sickened thousands across the country.