Share on Pinterest
A higher number of students at every grade level report they have vaped cannabis in the past year. Getty Images
  • Federal officials report that the rate of vaping cannabis among students of every grade has doubled in the past 10 years.
  • Health experts say they’re concerned because of the effects cannabis can have on the brain of a person younger than age 25.
  • They also point out that cannabis products today are more potent than they were decades ago.

While teenagers smoking cannabis is nothing new, a new report by a team of Australian researchers says teenage vaping of cannabis continues to rise every year.

This is of concern to health experts, considering the thousands of people who have been injured by black market vaping products.

That’s on top of concerns about what regular cannabis consumption can do to the still-developing young mind.

According to a study published today in JAMA Pediatrics, students of every grade level report vaping cannabis at a higher rate than before.

In the meta-analysis of 17 studies conducted since 2003, researchers reported that slightly more than 13 percent of students in all school grades in 2019-20 said they’d vaped cannabis in the past year, nearly double from two school years prior.

In addition, more than four times the number of students now report vaping cannabis in the past month compared with less than the 2 percent from 2013 to 2016.

“The findings of this study suggest that the prevalence of cannabis vaping has increased among adolescents in the U.S. and Canada and that more effective preventive and response measures are required,” wrote the research team, led by Carmen C. W. Lim of the National Centre for Youth Substance Use Research at the University of Queensland.

Dr. Jordan Tishler, CEO of inhaleMD, who wasn’t involved in the study, agrees that more prevention is needed, but the new research leaves him kind of shrugging because it didn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know.

“Teen vaping has doubled in the past 10 years or so. Thankfully, this means 6 percent or so to 13 percent or so. It’s a growing problem that still affects a small portion of teens,” Tishler told Healthline.

“Unfortunately, adult vaping has grown during this time as well, and the messaging teens get from those adults and from the cannabis industry is that vaping is safe,” he said.

In 2019, the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future survey reported that the rates of high school seniors vaping cannabis at least once in the past year had more than doubled over the previous 2 years.

Nearly 21 percent of surveyed 12th graders reported vaping at least once, while 10th graders were close behind at 19 percent.

About 7 percent of eighth graders also report vaping cannabis at least once within the past year.

While the report has regularly tracked cannabis and other recreational drug use, this was the first time it measured how many teens vape cannabis daily. It found about 3.5 percent of high school seniors do so, and 3 percent of sophomores do as well.

But the report did state that fewer high school seniors say they are using prescription drugs such as opioid pain relievers like Vicodin and the ADHD medication Adderall.

“We are heartened to see the continuing decline in the use of many drugs, particularly non-medical use of prescription opioids,” Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in a statement.

“However, teens are clearly attracted to vaping products, which are often concentrated amounts of drugs disguised as electronic gadgets,” she said. “Their growing popularity threatens to undo years of progress protecting the health of adolescents in the U.S.”

Besides vaping cannabis, more teens reported vaping nicotine, with nearly 12 percent saying they did so daily.

They listed their top reasons for nicotine vaping as flavor, experimentation, social reasons, and simply “to feel good.”

In addition, the number of high school seniors who said they vape because they have an addiction more than doubled to above 8 percent.

“It is important to note that not all teens know what is in the products they are vaping,” the report stated.

Dr. Osita Onugha is an assistant professor of thoracic surgical oncology and creator of the Surgical Innovation Lab at Saint John’s Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California.

He said that while vaping is a relatively new technology that was initially marketed to help with smoking cessation, it’s since taken on a different life.

“It is now being marketed to elementary and high school kids as a way of making smoking ‘cool,’” Onugha told Healthline.

Teen use of cannabis is concerning to health experts because studies have shown that it can negatively impact the developing brain.

While 18 years old may be considered the legal age of adulthood, research points that the human brain continues to develop until the age of 25.

Even though the U.S. government classifies cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance — the strictest classification available — a growing number of states allow residents to purchase and consume different formations of cannabis for either medical or recreational purposes.

That has led to many states adopting a “delay” drug education messaging, meaning they encourage children not to say no to cannabis but to wait until they’re older to give it a try.

With this increasing legality across the United States, the market for cannabis products has grown exponentially larger, and the products themselves have become more concentrated.

Unlike the cannabis smoked in the 1960s, cannabis today has been developed to be more potent and effective, with the levels of tetrahydrocannabinol — the psychoactive chemical that naturally occurs in cannabis, better known as THC — increasing exponentially.

A study published in January 2019 in the European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience — and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse — found that, over the past decade, the THC in cannabis in Europe and the United States nearly doubled from almost 9 percent to 17 percent.

More strikingly, the content in hash oil concentrates, or those used in vaping cartridges, increased from about 7 percent to more than 55 percent.

“These trends in the last decade suggest that cannabis is becoming an increasingly harmful product in the USA and Europe,” stated the researchers in that study.

Still, Tishler said the effects of cannabis on teen development are unclear.

“There are mountains of studies that show decreases in school performance, short-term poorer performance on cognitive tests, and changes to brain architecture,” he said.

“The longer-term effects of cannabis are less dire, with studies showing that teen users develop into adults whose lives follow the anticipated course compared to non-using peers,” Tishler said.

Besides long-term developmental issues, the recent rash of vaping-related injuries and deaths across the country have health experts raising red flags.

Last year, federal officials said the current count of people injured by vaping products surpassed 2,800. That also involved 68 people who died of suspected vaping-related causes.

Federal officials say black market cannabis products have played a central role, namely due to the use of vitamin E acetate in those products.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced in December 2019 the results of an operation dubbed “Operation Vapor Lock.”

In it, the two agencies took over 44 websites that advertised the sale of vaping cartridges containing THC.

“In the wake of recent injuries and deaths caused by vaping products, these seizures send a message to anyone seeking to capitalize on this dangerous trend,” Uttam Dhillon, then acting DEA administrator, said in a statement.

Tishler said teens should be discouraged from vaping cannabis for numerous reasons, including that oil-based “vape pens” are not safe technology.

“They combust the oil and can even lead in inhalation of the oil itself,” he said. “Nonetheless, I have adult patients who continue to use them despite my repeated warnings about their lack of safety, because they’re discreet and convenient. You can see that those attributes would only appeal more to teens.”