The Increasing Prevalence of Marijuana Vaping

By Laura Stack

Vaping was supposed to be a good thing. We know better now.

Some clever person invented electronic cigarettes—little vaping pens that heated nicotine-infused liquid and released it as a vapor (technically an aerosol), rather than smoke. Initially, vaping was perceived as a safer way to ingest nicotine; indeed, it was going to help many people quit smoking cigarettes. In the years that followed, vaping in general became increasingly popular—in part because it came in flavors, and it was touted as much healthier than smoking.

Until suddenly, it wasn’t. Marijuana manufacturers (often the same as the tobacco companies) realized that marijuana could be vaped too. Children discovered they could vape in secret at home and in school bathrooms. In fact, they could vape THC oil right under their parents noses without their parents’ knowledge. Like Johnny is saying in the cartoon, “It’s just vape, mom, no big deal.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Deadly Vapors

In August 2019, an outbreak of a previously unknown lung disease broke out across the United States. Physicians working together in different states concluded that frequent vaping of marijuana oil caused the new disease. The CDC named it EVALI (E-cigarette or Vaping product use-Associated Lung Injury). Within a year, it had taken over 70 lives, with more than 2,700 known cases in the U.S.A. The CDC predicts life-long effects for many of those who survive the illness. Symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, chests pain, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills, diarrhea, rapid heartbeat, and rapid and shallow breathing. The CDC has traced many of these cases back to contaminated THC vape solutions—so now we have yet another ailment to add to the litany of marijuana-related illnesses and conditions.

It’s worth reciting that litany again. In young users, marijuana use can cause:

Because their brains are still forming, adolescent and teen users are particularly vulnerable. They are hit hard by these outcomes, particularly when they vape high-THC solutions or use vaping rigs to “dab” THC products like wax and shatter that contain 90+ THC content.

The CDC recommends young users avoid vaping altogether. However, the vaping industry (now largely controlled by Big Tobacco and nascent Big Marijuana) has pushed back, suggesting instead that the government legalize and regulate the sale of THC vaping solutions. 

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released their recent data in their Healthy Kids Colorado Survey (HKCS) that showed in 2019, smoking marijuana is going DOWN, and VAPING marijuana and DABBING marijuana are going UP (see graph below). The problem is that marijuana vapes are SO much more potent than flower (30% vs 90%+ THC potency).

Any Method of UseHigh School Students % (95% Confidence Intervals)Current User in High School % (95% Confidence Intervals)
Smoked15.3% (14.0, 16.6)74.0% (72.3, 75.7)
Ingestion (Ate)7.0% (6.4, 7.7)33.8% (32.0, 35.6)
Vaporized6.8% (6.1, 7.4)32.7% (30.3, 35.0)
Dabbed10.2% (9.4, 11.1)49.4% (47.2, 51.7)
Other method1.6% (1.4, 1.9)7.9% (7.1, 8.8)

Marijuana use among adolescents was already bad enough, given the long list of mental and physical defects it can cause, mostly because it interferes with the development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Increased THC concentration even in “bud” marijuana has contributed to the danger; the modern strains can be as much as 35 times stronger than the classic “Woodstock weed,” which rarely rose above 1-2% THC concentration. Now, with EVALI, the risk of long-term physical damage has become even worse. These days, vaped marijuana might as well explode in the user’s mouth.

The Endangered Age Gap

Sadly, vaping is rapidly becoming more popular. According to a recent study conducted by Monitoring the Future at the University of Michigan, marijuana vaping has increased significantly in what I define as the young adult “gap” age group—between ages 18 and 21, where adolescents are legally adult and lack supervision, but are still in danger of brain damage from marijuana use. The study focused specifically on individuals 19-22.

The results are alarming. Between 2017 and 2019, the percentage of full-time college students aged 19-22 who had vaped marijuana in the previous month almost tripled, increasing from 5% to 14%. Keep in mind that those percentages apply to the entire American population of college students in the selected age range, so we’re talking about one in seven 19-to-22-year-olds in college. For those not in college, the relevant percentage rose from 8% in 2017 to 17%, or about one in six. Daily use in 2019 rose to 6% for college students (one in 17), and 15% for non-college students (1 in 7). Those are terrible odds.

According to one study of 1,313 first-year college students who vaped marijuana, the greatest risks for initiating vaping of marijuana were previous cannabis use and having friends who already vaped marijuana. This may seem like common sense, but it’s nice to see it borne out by scientific study. In another study of 428 college students, 29% reported they had vaped cannabis in the past. Easy availability was a factor in its use, as were “convenience and discreetness for use in public places.” Use was most common among those who used other substances, and who had a favorable attitude toward marijuana use—again, no surprises.

The Vaping Epidemic

Today, vaping has become so well-established it may prove impossible to eradicate. Some progress has been made to block adolescent use of nicotine in recent years. Until 2016 and the FDA’s Deeming Rule on product sales, some localities allowed adolescents under 18 to purchase vaping products and paraphernalia. The Deeming Rule set the minimum legal vaping age nationwide to 18. Then, in December 2019, the Tobacco 21 Laws raised the legal vaping age to 21, where it remains today. Now, we just need to prevent access to marijuana products until they are 21. They are easy to get with the loophole of medical marijuana at age 18. The first person to get a med card becomes the dealer.

It’s hard to say what we might do to quash the marijuana vaping risk for teens, beyond continuing efforts to raise awareness of and educate kids about the potential harms to their mental and physical health. Recent federal laws, like the Deeming Rule and Tobacco 21, have helped. Now we have to keep enforcing these regulations, cracking down harder on scofflaws and providing more inspectors and other regulators to more firmly control the industry.

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