by Jane Parent
Susan was in her 16-year-old son’s room recently and discovered a weird looking sort of pen on his dresser. She didn’t know what it was, but she did a little digging and discovered it was a vape pen. “I was shocked,” says Susan, “to learn that my son could be using it to smoke any number of substances without any smell or smoke, in his bedroom while I was in the next room, and I would have no idea.”
Electronic cigarettes, or vape pens, are more popular than ever, especially among high school students. E-cigarette use among teenagers has been increasing nationally, and according to a 2015 study by Yale University researchers, 27.9% of high school students reported using e-cigarettes. “The good news is that middle and high school kids have really gotten the message about the health risks of smoking cigarettes,” says Laura Offutt, M.D., founder of online teen health resource “Real Talk with Dr. Offutt.” “Unfortunately, they’ve also absorbed the marketing message of e-cigarette manufacturers that these devices are a safer, healthier alternative.”
And teens are using vape pens to do more than just vape nicotine. According to the Yale study, nearly one in five e-cigarette users has also used e-cigarettes for marijuana, or marijuana byproducts like hash oil.
Law enforcement officials warn parents that teens looking to experiment with drugs are also using these devices to vaporize opiates, synthetic substances like flakka (an amphetamine-like drug similar to bath salts), and designer forms of “synthetic weed” such as K2 and Spice.
Using E-Cigarettes for Marijuana
How are teens using e-cigarettes for marijuana? E-cigarettes are powered by batteries that activate a heating element when inhaled to vaporize a liquid nicotine solution contained in a small tube. Hash oil can be substituted for the nicotine solution. Some vendors sell hash oil cartridges, but kids are also learning to make their own. “Some kids are dissolving hash oil or THC in glycerin or vegetable oil, or steeping the leaves in the liquid like you would with tea leaves, and then vaporizing that liquid” says Offutt. “Numerous social media outlets, such as Reddit, and websites have extensive discussion about how to do this, so it’s available online and pretty accessible to teens looking for this information.”
Here are 5 things parents should know about vape pens:
- Vape pens are a discreet way to use drugs. “These devices can look like a ballpoint pen, or a USB memory stick, or a stylus,” says Offutt, “and they’re easy to conceal. Some are specifically designed to disguise what they are. Kids can casually use them on the school bus or even in class and you won’t know they’re getting high because they are smokeless and odorless.” Parents should familiarize themselves with what a vape pen looks like so they can identify one in the hands of their teens.
- Inhaling pot from a vape pen intensifies the user’s “high.” Liquids used in vape pens to get high are infused with concentrated levels of THC, the active compound in marijuana responsible for the sensation of being “high.” Studies have found these liquids can be thirty times more concentrated than dry marijuana leaves. “Today’s pot is also much stronger than the pot that parents may have smoked when they were young, and now marijuana plants are specifically bred for higher THC concentration,” says Offutt. “Vaping may deliver a far more potent form of whatever drug is being used, intensifying the side effects and creating a higher risk of addiction.”
- Vape pens are easy to acquire. Federal regulations enacted this year make it illegal to sell e-cigarettes to children under 18, but these regulations do little to prevent teens from buying the devices online. Regardless of age, teens can order online a wide selection of vaping and legal weed paraphernalia and have them conveniently delivered, no questions asked. “If your son is suddenly getting packages delivered at home and is very enthusiastic about getting the mail,” warns Offutt, “this should be a red flag to investigate what he’s buying.”
- Marijuana is addictive and harmful for developing brains. According to the Centers for Disease Control, marijuana use interferes with brain development, causes short-term memory loss, slow learning, decreased sperm count, and lung damage. “It continually amazes me to discover parents who give their blessing to their kid’s pot use like it’s no big deal,” says Offutt. “Marijuana is addictive, and today’s marijuana is far more potent and poses a higher risk of addiction, particularly for kids with a family history of addiction.”
- Watch for physiological symptoms of drug use. If your teen is using e-cigarettes for pot and has an abuse problem, you may observe side effects such as nosebleeds, dry mouth syndrome, red eyes, and increased appetite. There may be behavior changes, such as suddenly becoming withdrawn, a degree of seclusion beyond what is normal for them, a different friend group, or erratic behavior.
If parents observe any of the above signs, they may have good reason to suspect that their teen is vaping drugs, in which case they should connect their child with treatment resources for help — before it’s potentially too late.
Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.