There have always been issues with teenagers and smoking, whether it’s smoking cigarettes or smoking marijuana. But, Wright County is dealing with an epidemic of young smokers who have taken to vaping – smoking out of a cartridge that most times is odorless and doesn’t create the smoke that is typically associated with cigarettes or pot.

Wright County Sheriff Sean Deringer said that it’s been a topic of every Safe Schools meeting he has had this year and the concerns are not just that students are taking up an addictive habit, but that the potency of both the nicotine and marijuana is so potent that it can create significant health hazards.

“It’s out of control,” Deringer said. “It’s so difficult to enforce. It doesn’t have the traditional odors of marijuana or cigarette smoke. It dissipates very quickly and often has a fruity odor like an energy drink or bubblegum. It can be very difficult to detect, it’s very easy to conceal and use and the nicotine and THC levels in these things are so potent. The chemicals are so addictive in the first place, but to get them in such high concentrations makes them even more addictive and dependency begins.”

Part of the issue is that some parents dismiss vaping because they view it as a better alternative to smoking cigarettes, when, in fact, the nicotine delivery system in vaping is much stronger and more addictive than nicotine in tobacco products.

What has people like Deringer concerned is the alarming numbers that are now being associated with vaping, especially among teenagers. It was believed that about one in three students smoked cigarettes at some point in high school and one in four smoked marijuana. When it comes to vaping, the numbers projections are startling. 

“School officials believe that 50-70 percent of kids between eighth grade and 12th grade are vaping right now,” Deringer said. “That is a concerning number.”

One of the problems in dealing with vaping is that it dissipates in the air so fast, it is almost impossible to detect unless someone visually sees the student in the act of vaping. Students can use it in bathrooms, hallways and even in classrooms without being detected.

Commissioner Christine Husom said the issue has exploded over the last year and become the hot button topic among parents, teachers and administrators. In previous years, mental health issues related to depression and teen suicide and the arrival of designer drugs over the years, but Husom said the vaping issue has become a source of concern and discussion at every meeting they have regarding schools

“I attend the Safe Schools meetings in Buffalo and Annandale and it has become the No. 1 topic by far,” Husom said. “It’s becoming an epidemic. It’s one of those things that teachers and administrators who have been in schools for a long time have said they’ve never seen anything like this. It came in with such a force and, for some reason, it got picked up by so many of the children. It’s a strange phenomenon that is taking place.”

A detrimental to the health of kids of use nicotine to vape, the issue as it pertains to Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the active ingredient in marijuana that creates the high associated with smoking it.

Deringer said that the life-threatening toxicity of the vape cartridges of THC are three or four times more potent than standard marijuana and the impact is already being felt in schools throughout the county and that it’s legal in some states, but not Minnesota.

“The biggest issue is the marijuana cartridges,” Deringer said. “It’s being manufactured in places like Colorado, California and Washington where it’s legal and then illegally shipped, sold and used here where it’s not legal. The concentration on these things is more than 90 percent pure THC. We’ve had more ambulance calls to our schools in the 2018-19 school year than ever before. Often times, it’s either nicotine or THC toxicity that is forcing kids to go to the emergency room by ambulance because they’re completely out of it. It’s very problematic and concerning.”

The battle to try to stem the tide of vaping is currently focused on trying to coordinate with school officials to come up with a policy that is consistent for all schools as to punishment – “we all need to be singing off the same sheet of music,” Deringer said – to have uniformity between school districts in how to mete out punishment for vaping. In addition, giving home suspension isn’t advised because it would simply have students at home, often alone, and able to continue vaping while serving their suspensions.

One key factor that will likely come to a head at some point soon is that, while marijuana possession of 42 grams (approximately 1½ ounces) or less is typically a petty misdemeanor crime, the THC cartridges are being charged out as felonies because it falls under state statutes dealing with wax substances. Liquid THC falls under those laws and an arrest for could result – a felony conviction that will follow that individual for years after the fact.

Deringer said that one of the biggest felony drug busts his department has made in recent years came last fall in Maple Lake over Homecoming weekend. Officers seized more than 50 pounds of edibles (THC-laced Gummy Worms and Gummy Bears) and liquid marijuana cartridges. The fact that many of the THC drugs are disguised with fruit or candy flavors is a clear indication to Deringer that they’re targeting children with these items and, while that bust took a lot of drugs off the street, it’s merely the tip of the iceberg.

Deringer said the vaping issue is a problem that has sprung up over the last year or so and the effort to combat it at this point is based more on educating parents and students to the dangers of the potency of these products and the long-term health risks associated with potential addiction. Deringer has been told that some parents have shrugged vaping as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes, but the evidence coming forward would say just the opposite 

But, at this point, it’s a battle that isn’t being fought the same way other drug crimes are done because there is only so much the sheriff’s department can do to combat something that is so easily hidden and concealed.

“We can’t be everywhere,” Deringer said. “We have 145 cops throughout the entire county to serve 134,000 people. We need to get everyone involved to help get control of this – from parents to schools to law enforcement to the students themselves. We can’t be everywhere at all times. It takes a team effort in situations like this. We have struggled as a community leaders how to address this and get the message out. We’ve had a lot of discussions, but, to date, we haven’t made a dent in it.”

John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.

 

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