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Teens and vaping marijuana: Understanding the dangers of ‘dabbing’

For today’s youth, “dabbing” has two common meanings: one being a popular dance move and another being a term for vaping marijuana.

According to the 2018 Monitoring the Future Survey, dabbing, in terms of marijuana use, is on the rise for teenagers from eighth to 12th grade. Since 1975, the survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), asks teenage students in the United States to self-report drug use.

“This is a very dangerous trend,” said Dr. Ruben Baler, a health scientist at NIDA, who estimates three million youth are vaping, 30 to 40 percent of whom are vaping marijuana.

“[E-cigs] are very easy to hide. They’re odorless, and they’re marketed very aggressively for kids, whether they have flavorings or high concentrations of nicotine or marijuana,” he said.

The survey reports 4.3 percent and 4.9 percent of 10th and 12th grader students had vaped marijuana in the past month in 2017. Those numbers were 7 percent and 7.5 percent in 2018, respectively.

Vaping is associated with using e-cigarettes or vape pens to inhale liquids and flavorings often containing nicotine. Dabbing refers to vaping marijuana by heating concentrated cannabis oil, called butane hash oil, with nicknames such as “honeycomb,” “budder” and “earwax.” The concentrates are increasingly being administered by dab pens, much like e-cigarettes.

“The fact that it’s so easy to get and so easy to hide, and there’s such a low perception of harm, it should really add to the combination of factors adding to the additional liability of these things,” Baler said.

Dabs contain high concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)— the psychoactive compound in marijuana — around 60 to 90 percent. By comparison, traditional marijuana smoking can have THC concentrations around 3 to 5 percent.

“THC is definitely an addictive drug. These vaping devices, just like dabbing, they expose kids to very high concentrations of THC,” Baler said. “The brain of a teen is a brain that is being developed and should be completely clean and absent of any drug of abuse and psychoactive drug that can derail that trajectory of development.”

Baler’s research points to potential adverse health effects with short-term marijuana use in general such as impaired short-term memory and motor coordination along with paranoia and psychosis in high doses. In a paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine, he and other researchers identify health effects of long-term or heavy marijuana use such as addiction, cognitive impairment and altered brain development.

John Stogner, associate professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, studies emerging drugs, and began researching dabbing in 2015.

“It’s been around for quite a while, but that was around the time when the popularity really started exploding,” Stogner said. “The legalization movement out west and increased availability of medical marijuana sort of spurred on some of the fascination with dabbing.”

How people consume butane hash oil has also changed in the last few years, he said.

“Early on in the trend, if you’re talking three, four years ago, the oil rig set up was a little more common, using a nail and superheating that with a butane blow torch, dropping the dab on there and letting it vaporize and inhaling that was more common, but now you see more use of the vape pen and the electronic vaporizers to consume,” Stogner said.

Stogner’s biggest concern lies with the amateur production of the dabs, which typically involves using highly flammable butane to extract THC from the cannabis plant.

“Any teenager with access to the internet can figure out how to take their plant material and turn it into dabs,” he said. “There’s the potential for butane to gather around the floor or the spaces wherever you’re creating the dabs. That’s very flammable gas, of course, and so there’s been a number of fires resulting from that.”

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, this butane extraction process involves stuffing shredded or ground up plant material into a pipe with a filter on one end, then forcing butane through the open end. As the butane goes through the pipe, the THC is extracted, and the high flammability of burning butane creates a risk for explosions.

“The ‘blasting’ process, which is what we often refer to the amateur production technique, will recover THC from those low potency portions of the plant; and therefore, they can salvage what would otherwise be wasted or tossed aside,” Stogner said.

As of September 2018, vaping is now considered an epidemic, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, and Baler says teenagers need to have less easy access to tools for vaping overall.

“We need to detect kids who are vaping in bathrooms at school,” he said. “There has to be much tighter regulation.”

Alexandria Jacobson/Chicago Sun Times