KIRAN: Vaping with THC among children on the rise; laws slow to catch up

Updated: Apr. 4, 2019 at 9:56 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - It’s the newest form of an old habit. You’ve seen and smelled the smoke, but now it’s what you don’t smell that’s grabbing attention.

A survey done in 2018 says there has been a dramatic increase in young people across the country using e-cigarettes, popularly known as “vape pens" and “vapes.” Usage jumped from 11.7 percent in 2017 to 20.8 percent in 2018 among high school students. Among middle school aged kids, usage jumped from 3.3 percent in 2017 to 4.9 percent in 2018.

In Louisiana, Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi says deputies have arrested high school students and young adults for having vape pens which use THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

“This is something we have never seen before and it is something new and the scary part,” said Stassi. “You think everything is OK, but when the door shuts and the computer comes on, [children] have access to bring it right to their home.”

Stassi says the way the devices are advertised online, especially with the extensive selection of flavors, seems as though manufacturers are specifically targeting young people. In fact, nearly 70 percent of kids say the reason they vape is the love of the flavors.

Outside of the obvious health impacts, minors may fool their teachers and parents by purchasing vapes designed to look like USB flash drives, however, the user would unwittingly fail a drug test, possibly landing themselves and their parents in trouble.

Members of law enforcement say lax oversight may be a contributing factor. Anyone can purchase the pens online, and one of the only safety checks, a pop-up asking if the purchaser is over the age of 18, has no way to confirm if the buyer is telling the truth or not.

“What’s alarming about it is they are using pre-paid money cards like this one that you can purchase for $1 at Walmart or at any store. They load it with birthday money. They load it with their Christmas money,” Stassi said.

The Office of the Louisiana Attorney General (Attorney General’s Office) does not have authority to regulate vape pens. Instead, Monica Taylor, a special projects representative in the Attorney General’s Office, is hoping to make parents aware of the warning signs.

“Blood shot eyes, change in attitude, increase in appetite, wanting to sleep more... people under the age of 18 who use marijuana or vape pens with marijuana, that they have a much higher rate of adult depression because of what it attacks in their brain when they’re still developing," she said.

Taylor says the lengths minors go to in order to use vapes on school grounds should be a cause for concern.

“They just hide it behind their hand and the teachers don’t even know," Taylor said.

Several studies say brain development ends at the age of 25. Others claim marijuana attacks the brain’s ability to think critically.

The Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control’s (ATC) deputy director, Ernest Legier, says Louisiana’s 2018 Legislative Session gave the ATC the responsibility for the manufacturing, wholesaling, and retail sales of vapes. However, Legier says the law does not give ATC a road map or structure on how to enforce.

“It’s a new paradigm, for lack of a better word, but it’s not an issue that is entirely exclusive to Louisiana,” said Legier. “Many jurisdictions and many other states are struggling with the same issue. Because it is a new industry, and as I mentioned, sometimes our laws take a little time to catch up to technology, we’re all struggling with how to bring it in within regulation and how to enforce the rules and what the rules look like.”

It’s part of the reason House Bill 244 will be introduced in Louisiana’s 2019 Legislative Session.

U.S. Postal Inspector Silvia Torres says there’s an increase in the number of vapes being mailed in discreet packaging, which she says is possibly due to the legalization of marijuana in certain states. However, Torres says this can lead to serious consequences for kids.

KIRAN: Can the post office stop vapes with THC from coming into Louisiana?

TORRES: We are authorized to intercept and stop those types of packages.

KIRAN: Regardless if it’s legal in those states, it is still illegal to mail?

TORRES: It is still illegal under the Federal Substance Control Act, therefore, it’s illegal to mail even within states that have legalized marijuana

To combat the increase in use, members of law enforcement urge parents to check their children’s cars, rooms, and online accounts for the devices.

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