Student vaping epidemic

School resource officer Leanne Knutson of the Colusa County Sheriff’s Office explains to parents how easily “vaping” is disguised in devices that look like everyday electronics, at a community meeting at Pierce High School on Oct. 10.

In a time when new electronic devices are developed rapidly, kids seem to be a step ahead of their parents in disguising the way they now take drugs.

But with the help of the Colusa County Sheriff’s Department, teachers and parents are starting to catch on that “vaping” nicotine, liquid marijuana (oils), and other drugs is being concealed within devices that look like computer flash drives, key fobs, pens, and other everyday items and electronics.

“We’ve seen an increase in vaping, and are just learning about it ourselves as educators; what it is and what to look for,” said Carol Geyer, superintendent at Pierce Joint Unified School District, at a community meeting at Pierce High School, on Oct. 10. “We thought we needed parents to know as well.”

Parents learn about all the potential hiding places kids may have for drugs or electronic vaping devices, like soda cans with twist off bottoms, which are available online or at any “smoke shop.”

About 50 concerned parents listened to two presentations held at the high school, in English and Spanish, about the rising popularity of vaping among teens.

The Colusa County Sheriff Office will provide the presentation to all local school districts, as the problem with vaping in local schools has skyrocketed, officials said.

“It’s epidemic,” said Mike Bradwell, commander of the Colusa County Narcotic Task Force.

A 2017 National Institutes of Health study found that more than one in four high school seniors reported vaping, but educators and law enforcement officials believe the problem has become even more prevalent, even among students in the elementary and middle schools.

Even the CDC said vaping has increased among teens and preteens, despite studies that show that not only are kids becoming addicted to high levels of nicotine, but just the flavored aerosols in e-devices contain chemicals and heavy metals that may harm lungs worse than conventional cigarettes by causing cell death and inflammation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week gave e-cigarette manufacturers of products like JUUL (the most popular among teens because there is no telltale smoke or tobacco smell), Vuse, MarkTen, blu e-cigs and Logic to submit to the FDA within 60 days plans describing how each firm will address the widespread youth access and use of its products.

The Colusa County Sheriff’s Office displays some of vaping devices that have been confiscated from students on school property.

On Friday, the FDA sent out 21 warning letters seeking information about whether more than 40 products – including some flavored e-cigarette products – are being illegally marketed to youth outside the FDA’s current compliance policy. These new actions build on those already taken by the FDA in recent weeks as part of its Youth Tobacco Prevention Plan to address the epidemic of youth e-cigarette use, including cracking down on the sale and marketing of e-cigarettes to kids and educating youth about the dangers of using these products.

“Given the explosive growth of e-cigarette use by kids, we’re committed to taking whatever measures are appropriate to stem these troubling use trends,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., in an Oct. 12 statement. “We’re going to address issues related to the access kids have to e-cigarettes, as well as the youth appeal of these products.”

Although the FDA has threatened to ban all flavored vaping products, local educators and law enforcement officials fear that students, even those in elementary school, are not just getting addicted to nicotine, but may or are already using the devices to ingest liquid marijuana, meth, opiates, and other drugs.

One of the biggest problems is easy access to the devices, Geyer said, because children can legally purchase prepaid Visa cards, which are available everywhere, and then use them to illegally purchase vaping devices and products online.

“If they can beat mom or dad to the mailbox, then they’ve got it,” she said.

While the FDA demands manufactures to figure out a way to keep vaping devices out of the hands of kids, Colusa County Sheriff officials said parents should get better at recognizing vaping devices, the clothing and items designed to conceal the devices, and the signs of drug use, particularly changes in eating and sleeping patters.

Marijuana, for example, may cause an increase in appetite, whereas methamphetamine use will cause appetite decrease and weight loss, Bradwell said.

Bradwell also said that since marijuana became legal in California for adults over 21, law enforcement officials are seeing an increase in marijuana use among kids as young as grade school, as well as the increase use of edible drugs, like melted candies laced with marijuana oil.

“There is an abundance of the product, so they have easy access to it,” Bradwell said. “When we teach the kids at the high school, we teach them to know what they’re friends are giving (them), and to know what is in it, because you never know what they’re making. We see brownies, but with brownies, you never know how much marijuana they are putting in there.”

Bradwell said edibles pose a higher overdose risk (hospitalization, drug-induced psychosis, accidents resulting in serious injury or death), because marijuana has far higher concentrations of THC (up to 90 percent in some oils) than what was previously common (under 15 percent) in marijuana.

Parents, at last week’s meeting, were cautioned to look for signs of marijuana overdose like severe nausea, vomiting, increased heart rate and blood pressure, confusion, chest pain, anxiety, paranoia, and panic attacks.

“We are seeing kids literally frying themselves, just off marijuana, and parents don’t understand it,” Bradwell said. “Everyone thinks ‘its just marijuana.’ It’s not. To us, it’s a problem.”

Bradwell said meth, heroine, fentanyl, ecstasy, and other drugs coming up from the southern border are everywhere, with kids using more drugs than ever before, largely due to decriminalization from felonies to misdemeanors.

The problem has become so bad, Bradwell said, parents should no longer fear ruining their kids’ lives by calling law enforcement if they catch them using.

“We are after drug dealers,” he said. “If you call us with a problem with your (children), we are not coming to arrest your (children). We are coming to talk to them because our biggest approach now is we’re just trying to make a difference. We attack the drug dealers, but this is where we need to start early. We need people to call us because this needs to stop.”

Educators and law enforcement officials agreed that with more kids using nicotine and drugs, parents need to pay more attention to what their children are doing, notices changes in behavior, speech, sleeping habits, eating habits, energy levels and hygiene.

“If you notice changes, then ask them,” Bradwell said. “If it is a problem, then call us.”

While Bradwell said that kids vaping might not mean they are using other drugs, parents should be aware there is a chance they are or will use the same vaping devises for other drugs.

“Even if they are just vaping flavors, they are toxic; batteries have exploded,” he said. “There are a lot of issues just with vaping. But marijuana is the number one we are seeing in the vapes. If they are putting in marijuana, they will put in the other things. If they are hiding the marijuana, then they will figure out what else to put in there that they can use.”

While the Colusa County Sheriff’s Department continues to offer the DARE program, an educational program targeting fifth graders, parents at last week’s meeting said it’s not enough, and that drug education should continue through high school, largely because teens are being introduced to new things all the time and may not fully understand the danger.

“It’s a scary time for parents,” said Susie Stassi, who is also a teacher. “In fifth grade, they kind of get it, but by junior high all this other funky stuff starts happening. They just need more education.”

One mother said she didn’t know her child, an otherwise excellent student, was vaping until caught at school with a vaping devise. “Parents need to be proactive,” she said. “I didn’t know about it until it was a problem. It’s a national epidemic.”