More than 2 million U.S. middle and high school students — or nearly 1 in 11 — have vaped marijuana, a new study suggests.
Of those students who reported e-cigarette use in 2016, researchers estimate that nearly 1 in 3 high school students, or roughly 1.7 million, have used pot in the devices. Nearly 1 in 4 middle school students who reported vaping, or 425,000, have done the same, the team reports online September 17 in JAMA Pediatrics. The numbers are the first nationwide estimates of teens’ and preteens’ use of marijuana in e-cigs, based on data from 20,675 sixth- to 12th-graders who participated in the 2016 National Youth Tobacco Survey.
The most widely used tobacco products among U.S. youth, e-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat and vaporize liquids that usually contain nicotine (SN: 5/28/16, p. 4). But the devices can also vaporize dried marijuana leaves or buds as well as oils or waxes made from the plant’s primary active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
The number of youth using marijuana in e-cigarettes isn’t surprising, says Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a developmental psychologist at Stanford University School of Medicine who was not involved in the study. “It’s easy; it’s accessible; they can be stealthy in using it.” Vaping marijuana can be done more discretely than smoking a joint because there isn’t as much of the telltale odor, if any. And legalization of marijuana in some states has led to increased access to the drug, she says, and a change in social norms regarding the drug’s use.
But the number of youth vaping marijuana is concerning, she adds. “You’re basically using it in a very strong form.” In general, more potent marijuana is available today than in the past. Plus, the concentration of THC in vaporized oils and waxes can be four to 30 times as high as that in dried marijuana.
Because their brains are still developing, “youth are at a very vulnerable time,” Halpern-Felsher says. Adolescents are at a higher risk for addiction than adults and damage to brain function from the drug can be worse. Once marijuana is introduced, “you’re altering the brain forever,” she says.
Nearly 12 percent of high school students and 3 percent of middle school students reported e-cigarette use in 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On September 12, the Food and Drug Administration announced a crackdown on retailers who have illegally sold e-cigarettes to minors and warned e-cigarette manufacturers that flavored liquids could be removed from the market, citing worries of a crisis of teenage vaping.
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“We see clear signs that youth use of electronic cigarettes has reached an epidemic proportion,” said FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb in a speech at the agency’s headquarters.
Editor’s note: This story was updated September 20, 2018, to clarify that the breakout of the ratios of high school and middle school students who have used pot in e-cigarettes is based on the numbers who report that they have vaped, not all students.