‘I’m too high. Something’s wrong.’ Teens caught vaping marijuana in scary new trend

3 May 2019
Emma Kate Fittes and Shari Rudavsky

As more teens vape, schools have struggled to keep the practice in check. Now, some schools are seeing a worrisome twist — students vaping marijuana.

Just as with tobacco, students can vape right under a teacher’s nose and go undetected. There is no telltale odor, and the handheld devices used are small enough that a surreptitious student can indulge in class.         

Compounding the trouble, experts say, is the potency the devices can deliver, giving a student a much more intense high than expected. Often adults don’t realize a student has indulged until the teen confesses.

School resource officers at one large Indiana high school has seen a surge this year in something they have never dealt with before.

Several students were sent to the emergency room by the school nurse after vaping THC, the chemical compound in marijuana that produces a high.

“I’ve walked down the hallway, and you can visibly see kids who are so stoned that they don’t know where they are,” school resource officer at Carmel High School in Carmel. Ind. Shane VanNatter said. “They’ll self-report. They’ll come to the nurse and say, ‘I’m too high. Something’s wrong.’”

Seventeen students, including those who were hospitalized, had been caught this school year either using, possessing or dealing THC vaping products, VanNatter said.

One vaping cartridge VanNatter confiscated was 83.6 percent THC.

THC levels in plant marijuana generally range from 15% to 24%.

What students are vaping

Although there has been much hand-wringing over soaring vaping rates among teens, less attention has been focused on what they are actually vaping. 

Vaping devices burn liquid, or sometimes leaf, using a battery-powered igniter in a self-contained chamber that resembles a pen or USB flash drive. The aerosol inhaled and exhaled is not smoke but resembles water vapor. The liquid can be a tobacco product or THC.

Four years ago one of the first studies to explore teen marijuana vaping looked at a sample of Connecticut teens. About 5% reported vaping marijuana, and 18% of teen e-cigarette users said they filled their vaporizers with cannabis.

As more teens have started to vape, adults’ fears about teens vaping in general and vaping marijuana have intensified, said Meghan Morean, an assistant professor of psychology at Oberlin College and one of the study’s authors.

“My guess is that this is going on and they’re just not aware of it and they have recently become aware of it,” she said. “We get lots and lots of schools calling and freaking out about regular vaping. It’s a thing, and I think it’s a continuing thing that people need to be aware of.”

Not only is it continuing, it appears to be growing.

The Monitoring the Future study found that nationwide from 2017 to 2018 teen vaping of any substance in the past 30 days among high school seniors nearly doubled from 11% to 21%. Marijuana vaping also rose from 4.9% to 7.5%.

And odds are many of those who vape do so at school.

The Center on Addiction recently conducted a survey that is not yet published that asked more than 1,000 12- to 17-year-olds where they witnessed their peers engaged in substance use. The most frequent answer? On school property.

“That surprised me,” said Pat Aussem, the center’s director of clinical content and development. “I would have suspected that it would have been sneaking away after school in a park.”

More available in more forms    

The legalization of marijuana in many states has helped fuel the problem, experts say. Not only does legalization make products more readily available, it also sends a message that marijuana does not have the same risks as other drugs or even tobacco.

“As we have normalized it, the perceived risk of marijuana use among 12- to 24-year-olds has consistently decreased, and as they have perceived the risk as being less and less, the use has gone up,” said Rachelle Gardner, chief operating officer of Hope Academy, an Indianapolis high school for students in recovery. ”And with the opioid crisis, I have had parents say, ‘It’s just pot. At least they’re not doing heroin.’’’

In addition to marijuana being easier to obtain, it now comes in several different forms. There are vaping devices made specifically for THC cartridges. Some common e-cigarettes also can be modified to vape THC instead of tobacco.

Dabbing involves a concentrated dose of THC and other cannabinoids in a sticky oil that is often vaped using a long thin pen that looks more like an iPad stylus, Gardner said.

One device estimates how much THC you get with each puff. Another allows the user to vape either dry leaf marijuana or oil and integrates with the user’s iPhone to control variables such as the temperature at which the substance being used is heated.    

Edibles now come in a variety of forms, from the traditional brownies and candies like gummy bears to even energy drinks. And of course, there’s the traditional smoking.

A recent paper in the Journal of Adolescent Health that surveyed a national sample of adolescents who self-identified as using cannabis found that the most frequent form was smoking it, with nearly all reporting having tried at some point. About 60 percent said that they had tried edibles at least once, and 44 percent had vaped cannabis. Most said they started using by smoking.

Still statistics reported by students may be misleading. In another Indiana school district, officials thought that they were seeing a decrease in marijuana use in recent years, said Chase Lyday, a township school resource officer.

Then this year for the first time, they saw a few cases involving vaping.

“Leafy marijuana is down pretty significantly,” Lyday said. “We celebrated that a little bit, and then we discovered that some kids aren’t including liquid THC.”

About 18% of teen e-cigarette users said they filled their vaporizers with cannabis, another study says.

Marijuana’s effects on teens

Experts debate the effects of marijuana use, but there is less controversy over its impact on minors. The consensus: not good.

Experts say that the drug has a different impact on developing brains than on adult ones. Studies have shown that marijuana use can affect a teen’s critical thinking skills, memory, and ability to learn and make good decisions and that younger users are more likely to become addicts. Other studies have shown a correlation between psychosis and marijuana use.

Withdrawal can lead to symptoms, such as moodiness, insomnia and headaches, Gardner said.

And the bulk of these studies have been conducted on the effects of smoked marijuana. Still unknown is the impact of using marijuana at higher concentrations, which can happen with both vaping and edibles.

“Certainly we don’t have studies with these higher potency levels, and that’s of significant concern,” Aussem said. “When you take an edible and you don’t get effect, then if that effect isn’t enough, you eat more, and then all of a sudden you have a real problem on your hand.”

Studies suggest that marijuana use in the adolescent years increases the risk of addiction, as much as fivefold. 

Schools look for solutions

Schools have struggled with finding the best way to respond to vaping in general as well as vaping marijuana.

One Indiana school district said that students found with vaping devices that contain cannabis face arrest or criminal charges such as misdemeanor possession along with school discipline, up to suspension or expulsion.

Other Indiana school districts are requiring mandatory counseling classes for those caught vaping and another is attempting to combat the rise of vaping by piloting a new education program to inform students on the negative effects of vaping. 

“Eventually what you want to happen is that kids know so much about it that their awareness is so high that it’s something that they’re not interested in investigating,” a district Supervisor of Learning Ramona Rice said.

Experts agree that parents, teachers, and students all need to be aware of the risks of vaping — especially when it comes to vaping THC.

“This came about so quickly that we didn’t really wrap our heads around prevention as quickly as it arose,” Gardner said.      

USA Today


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