Teenager vapes through nose

As stories about marijuana and vaping dominate the news cycle and a budding dispensary industry makes access to the drug greater than ever before, the need for parents and teens to understand its dangers also increases. 

The use of vaping devices to consume marijuana and other cannabis products has recently grown in popularity. Research shows that more than one in five high school seniors reported vaping marijuana in the past year. Other studies indicate that vaping-related injuries and mortalities are also on the rise, as a key ingredient present in many marijuana vapes has been linked to health complications in people of all ages. 

But the risk of injury or death is not the only reason parents should be concerned if they discover their teen is vaping marijuana. Like vaping devices for nicotine and other e-liquids, marijuana vapes work by heating a liquid that is then vaporized and inhaled by the user. Traditional nicotine vapes can also be “hacked” to work with marijuana, and resources to guide users through this process can be easily found online. 

By vaping marijuana, teens expose two vital organs — their brain and their lungs — to extreme risk. Because the human brain continues to grow and develop well into early adulthood, marijuana can impact the brains of young people differently than those of fully mature adults. Vaping marijuana during this critical growth period can interfere with the development of critical problem-solving skills, impulse control, the ability to anticipate consequences, and more. 

Marijuana use can lead to long-lasting or permanent impacts on the adolescent brain, including:

  • Impairment of critical thinking skills such as attention, problem-solving, and memory
  • Worsened reaction time and coordination, particularly while driving
  • A decline in academic performance
  • Heightened risk of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and in some cases where there is a family history, psychosis 

According to recent studies, teens who use marijuana are also twice as likely to become addicted to the substance compared to adult users. Research has also linked several thousand lung injuries and deaths to the use of vaping devices containing THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) and Vitamin E Acetate (a thickening agent commonly found in e-liquids). While most of the devices containing Vitamin E Acetate were acquired illegally, the dangerous additive has in some cases been found in vaping products that were purchased through a regulated marijuana dispensary.

The vaping-related lung illness linked to THC and Vitamin E Acetate is known as EVALI (E-cigarette, or Vaping, product use Associated Lung Injury). Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss
  • Night sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Low oxygen levels
  • Lung failure and death (in severe cases)

What signs can parents and caregivers look out for to protect their child from the dangers of vaping marijuana?

It can be challenging to detect the signs of vaping. The process produces no smoke and little to no odor, and the vapor that is produced often dissipates too rapidly to see. However, individuals who vape marijuana may exhibit physical and behavioral changes that are easier to spot. Bloodshot eyes, dry mouth and excessive thirst, increased appetite, and changes in mood or behavior are all signs that your teen may be vaping marijuana. They may also begin spending time with new or different friends or pulling away from activities they used to enjoy. 

Keep an eye out for devices that look like flash drives, gel jars containing dabs, or pods and cartridges containing THC oil as well — this high-tech-looking equipment could be vaping paraphernalia. Not sure what you’ve found? It may be time to talk to your child about vaping marijuana. 

Ezra Helfand is CEO/Executive Director of the Wellspring Center for Prevention.  You can reach him at ezra.helfand@wcpnj.org.

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