Check that grinder you just bought because it might be a counterfeit. Additionally, check out any product you buy. As the industry has stepped out of the shadows and into the mainstream, there’s been a renaissance of design, innovation and collaboration. But there’s also been a lot of fakes.

We’ve been selling quality, authentic smoking accessories to the industry for almost two decades. We’ve developed business relationships and friendships directly with the brands themselves. So last month when we saw an abomination of a grinder calling itself by another branded name, we had a serious WTF moment. We have had a long, tight history together (our owner also is an owner of this counterfeited brand) so when we see someone trying to sell fakes of their products, we take notice. The fake grinder was in-between the two standard sizes. The teeth were wrong. The locking mechanism was wrong. The colors were off. The grind support was from an entirely different brand. It didn’t look like our grinder but there it was– complete with the logo too. This was a definite imposter. And within days, the site selling it was gone, leaving the manufacturer of the grinder with little recourse to start any kind of investigation into it– a conundrum a lot of manufacturers undoubtedly face when staring at fakes of their own products. In an industry built upon mutual respect and an unsaid code of ethics, these kinds of infractions stick out like a sore thumb. Counterfeits don’t just present a problem for the end user– they can ruin a shop selling them, and they weaken the strength of a good brand. But why are they happening on such a wide-spread scale across the industry lately? And what can a smart consumer do?

First, it helps to understand the evolution of modern smoke & vape shops. The business was already a lucrative one to be in. Since the 60’s head shops & festivals have faithfully been the place for your daily dose of counterculture and tobacco water pipe needs. (“Tobacco use only” being key.) Head shops sold everything from imported glass to rolling papers to incense and have legally existed in the US for over half a century pretty peacefully– sans that one time the government tried to shut them all down during what they called Operation Pipe Dreams. They have a fascinating history and distinct aesthetic– like a well loved dive bar, they’re a little bit grungy, kind of dark & survived with little marketing and advertising. Head Shops were, without a doubt, instrumental in creating a culture that withstood generations and they faithfully nurtured the seed of the legalization movement.

When states began legalizing medical marijuana in the late 90’s, shops, in tandem with dispensaries, became even more necessary. Soon states had bills legalizing recreational usage on their ballots in addition to medical usage. And, much to the surprise of a divided country, green was a color the majority of Americans could agree on. In 2015 legal US pot sales soared to $5.4B, according to CNBC. Last year, that number was over $7B. The number of people who admit they use marijuana has doubled in just 4 years, and by 2020, it’s estimated the entire industry will be worth over $20B. In other words– the marijuana industry is set to be more valuable than the entire organic food industry. Financial projections aside, it’s a statistic that serves as the final signal of a societal shift in perception. And perhaps more importantly, it’s a major confidence boost for people to enter the market with new ideas, new looks, and new products.

But the stigma about the channel was still there– lucrative and legitimate or not. Words like “classy” or “hip” or “modern” weren’t ones you’d often hear used to describe them. And the products were admittedly mostly basic, cheap & imported.

Then vaping happened. Vaping heats up finely ground herbs or wax or juice to a temperature where the ingredients evaporate without causing combustion. Popular with medical cannabis users, this new way of smoking brought a sense of refinement to the industry. And opportunities for companies to develop new products. Add-ons. Grinders. Storage containers. Wallets. Cleaners. With the innovations that vaping brought to the market– modern smoke & vape shops were born.

Now with so many state-level laws (It’s still federally illegal to possess, sell or use weed or paraphernalia anywhere in the United States) differing about the legalities of recreational or medical marijuana use and paraphernalia, accessories have become an increasingly hot item. Shelves are being stocked with scientific glass, bright colored grinders, wallets with no-smell coatings, bubblers, vape pens, solid gold rolling papers and sifting boxes. New novelty items like butter makers, smoke rings & ice cubes are being marketed daily.

With such momentum behind it– there’s been no shortage of opportunities to capitalize on. The industry never had room for design or branding in the shadows of being illegal. But as the demand for new, higher quality, high tech smoking accessories has increased exponentially over the past few years– a gap in the market is quickly being filled. People from all walks of life use marijuana medicinally and recreationally– and the market is finally catching up. Head shops, convenience stores, dispensaries and retail spots are thriving in tandem stocking their shelves with products that look classy, feel good, and work well. Companies are offering premium collections designed exclusively to service the needs of the cannasseur (a cannabis connesur) lifestyle. And they’re doing it beautifully. Beyond innovative design, there’s a bigger mission to reframe outdated stereotypes about being an enthusiast. Social stigmas are fading and so are the preconceived notions of what it is to be a “stoner”. Companies like Cali Crusher, Santa Cruz, Grav Labs, 420 Science, Pax, Ryot, Kannastor, Purr and others have given the grungy juvenile head shop aesthetic a much cooler, much needed overhaul with gorgeous, well made products for those wanting a professional, sophisticated experience. And they’re doing something right because they’re often our top selling, most demanded brands. They also happen to be the most frequently ripped off.

The fake grinder that we got our hands on isn’t the only instance of counterfeiting in recent memory. It’s such a prevalent problem in the industry that Pax’s website has entire section devoted to counterfeiting. Grav Labs provides an authenticity guide to their products. And last year, Raw issued a memo to all it’s sellers to be on the lookout for fakes.

Regardless of if you’re the manufacturer, the distributor or the seller, counterfeits are bad business. As a manufacturer– counterfeits weaken the strength of your brand & can confuse your customers. Branding is such a delicate relationship based in feeling that smaller, newer brands need to spend decades fostering. With new products in a new industry– the damage counterfeits can do can mean success or failure. As a distributor you hold financial responsibility to the manufacturer to ensure their product is being circulated. If you aren’t buying direct from the maker or a reputable source, you run the risk of unknowingly circulating fakes. And while there are some chinese wholesale marketplaces selling branded items at enticing low price points that would allow for larger margins, there is a substantial amount of risk involved in doing business with them. The hard truth is that many of the items sold in these online, chinese based marketplaces are fake. If you buy these and import them to your country, they’ll likely get intercepted by customs who may report you to the brand owner who has every right to sue you, even if had no idea they were fake. If you do manage to get them through customs, and stock them there’s a very real possibility you’ll be asked to prove their authenticity by providing a letter of authorization from the brand owner. Don’t have one? Expect for your online or your brick and mortar store to be held responsible.

So how do you avoid buying counterfeit products? It’s simple: Buy your products directly from the manufacturer. And if that’s not an option, often times they will direct you to a reputable wholesaler or distributor. Want to know if you have a fake? Here are the three red flags to look for:

1. It’s too good to be true.
You know when someone comes into your store and says they have RAW papers for half off what you normally pay? Big red flag. These products are definitely either FAKE or STOLEN– neither of which you want to touch with a 10 foot pole. Do your market research and know the average selling point of an item before you onboard it.

2. It’s a little off, there’s no picture or there’s little information about it.
Ever seen popular apparel and purse brands that everyone knocks off? They’re convincing on a quick first take. But looking closer, the color scheme is off or the material is different or the logo is tilted wrong. They look off. If you are physically looking at the item, google a picture of the real thing and compare it on the spot to make sure it’s authentic. If your looking online at it and the listing is bare, missing up close detail pictures, or there’s no additional photos or information– be cautious.

3. It looks like other products.
In the instance of the Cali Crusher Homegrown fake we had, parts of it looked like other popular grinders put together then stamped with a logo. This is likely because the source of these counterfeits probably purchased molds or make their own based on the real thing and manufacture multiple different kinds of counterfeits. If the product looks like one kind but also kind of looks like something else, and even has elements of other brands– you can be sure it’s a fake. Familiarize yourself with major brands so you can easily recognize these frankenmolds.

They say imitation is a form of flattery– and, while counterfeiting is taking imitation to a much different level– it says something powerful about how explosive the industry is: popular things get knocked off. And this market is potentially the biggest thing to happen in the US since the industrial revolution. Consumers are desperate for quality, design & innovation. But the rise in counterfeiting should cause manufacturers, distributors and shops to pause, do their research and make sure they’re sustaining responsible sourcing.

Fakes aren’t going away. These knock-offs are made cheaply but nefariously priced high. The sellers work quick and disappear quicker. They are purposely designed to trick and exploit the consumer. And they can ruin a business’ reputation by circulating inferior stock. Do your part by using your judgement and taking a second look at what you’re buying. Contact the brand with any questions or suspicions you have. And most importantly: buy direct from the manufacturer or a reputable wholesaler or distributor. SVBS

Jennifer Oswalt Kneese is the Marketing & Creative director for Windship Trading Co. Wholesale– a company with over fifteen years of industry experience that offers insurmountable product knowledge, competitive pricing on some of the most popular smoking accessories around, and cutting edge marketing support to its customers and manufacturers around the world. Prior to her role at Windship, she was a successful freelance graphic designer & marketing consultant in Austin, Tx who taught after-school coding classes to girls in 4th and 5th grade. In her free time, which is rare these days, she plays music, knits & likes to hang out with her pet mini pig, Eleanor Pigby.