CARLSBAD, Calif. (AP) — Some of the people rushed to emergency rooms thought the CBD vape they inhaled would help like a gentle medicine. Others puffed it for fun.
What the vapors delivered was a jolt of synthetic marijuana, and with it an intense high of hallucinations and even seizures.
More than 50 people around Salt Lake City had been poisoned by the time the outbreak ended early last year, most by a vape called Yolo! — an acronym for "you only live once."
In recent months, hundreds of vape users have developed mysterious lung illnesses and more than 30 have died. Yolo was different. Users knew immediately something was wrong.
Who was responsible for Yolo? Public health officials and criminal investigators couldn't figure that out. Just as it seemed to appear from nowhere, Yolo faded away with little trace.
As part of an investigation into the illegal spiking of CBD vapes that are not supposed to have any psychoactive effect at all, The Associated Press sought to understand the story behind Yolo.
The trail 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.
When Janell Thompson moved from Utah to the San Diego area in 2010, the roommate she found online also vaped. Thompson had a background in financial services and the two decided to turn their shared interest into a business, founding an e-cigarette company called Hookahzz.
There were early successes. Thompson and her partner handed out Hookahzz products at an Emmy Awards pre-party, and their CBD vapes were included in Oscar nominee gift bags in 2014. In a video shot at a trade show, an industry insider described the two women as "the divas of CBD."
Hookahzz was among the first companies to sell vapes that delivered CBD, as the cannabis extract cannabidiol is known. Now a popular ingredient in products from skin creams to gummy bears, cannabidiol was at that time little known and illegal in some states.
The partners started other brands that offered CBD capsules and edibles, as well as products for pets. Part of Thompson's pitch was that CBD helped treat her dog's tumors.
By autumn 2017, Thompson and her partner formed another company, Mathco Health Corporation. Within a few months, Yolo spiked with synthetic marijuana — commonly known as K2 or spice — began appearing on store shelves around Salt Lake City.
Synthetic marijuana is manmade and can be manufactured for a fraction of the price of CBD, which is typically extracted from industrial hemp that must be farmed.
Samples tested at Utah labs showed Yolo contained a synthetic marijuana blamed for at least 11 deaths in Europe — and no CBD at all.
Authorities believed some people sought out Yolo because they wanted to get high, while others unwittingly ingested a dangerous drug. What authorities did not understand was its source.
Investigators with Utah's State Bureau of Investigation visited vape stores that sold Yolo, but nobody would talk. The packaging provided no contact information.
By May 2018, the case was cold — but not dead.
That summer, a former Mathco bookkeeper who was preparing to file a workplace retaliation complaint began collecting evidence of what she saw as bad business practices.