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Smoke and Mirrors: Does Vaping Make It Easy to Hide Drug Use?

By Melissa Riddle Chalos

First sold in the US in 2006-2007, the modern e-cigarette — also known as e-hookah, hookah pen, vapes, vape pen and mods — is a handheld electronic device that mimics the experience of smoking tobacco.1,2 It heats a liquid substance to create a vapor (with nicotine, flavoring and/or other chemicals) that the user inhales. In theory, the point of using an e-cigarette or “vaping” is to help tobacco smokers quit or reduce their tobacco/nicotine consumption.

But as this advanced tech-tool has gained widespread usage — and as its unregulated e-liquid and oil concentrates become more widely available — the reality is becoming clearer: Vaping makes the experience of smoking more attractive and discreet.

A 2015 Reuter’s poll found that 75 percent of people who use e-cigs or other vaporizing devices continue to smoke traditional tobacco products.3

VapingSleek, shiny and often brightly colored, these gadgets may appear as harmless as Sharpie markers and USB memory sticks. And because e-cigs are cheaper than cigarettes and perceived to be safe, the fact is, more young non-smokers are becoming smokers. In a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than a quarter of a million youths who had never smoked before began using e-cigarettes.4 Another CDC report found that usage among middle- and high-schoolers tripled between 2013 and 2014. Usage among high-schoolers was 13.4 percent in 2015.5

While most cities and states have banned the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, no federal minimum age or youth restrictions currently exist, according to the DEA in a recent CNN article.6

Dr. Suchitra Krishnan-Sarin, a psychiatry professor and lead author of a recent Yale University study on teen vaping, told The New York Times she wasn’t surprised about the prevalence of vaping. “Teens are certainly drawn to both the novelty of the product and the availability of different flavors,” she said.7

Nicotine Is Only the Beginning

It also comes as no surprise that this clever “smoking cessation tool” is now being designed with other more powerful drugs in mind. Vape pens are getting smaller, more portable and harder to identify, making them prime accomplices for the use of illicit drugs.

“There are no absolutes when you talk about a vape pen or e-cigarette,” Jermaine Galloway reports at Campus Safety magazine. “There are vapes that work for nicotine, flavored oils without nicotine, marijuana and even synthetics. Many people are inhaling marijuana via a vape pen right in front of you, and you may have no idea. Therein lies the rub.”8

Whether legal or illegal by state, marijuana usage has become more accessible in part due to vaping pens, which mask or eliminate the tell-tale smell. The “new marijuana” (wax and concentrates) carries an average THC level of 60–80 percent, compared to 15 percent THC levels in leaf marijuana. The usage of marijuana concentrates is referred to as “dabbing.” These substances have the appearance of wax, butter, oil or amber-colored glass shards (called “shatter”) and can produce some potentially life-threatening symptoms, including hallucinations, passing out, extreme highs from less consumption and higher levels of impairment.9

“The problem is that, right now, it’s hard to tell how much [THC] you are actually getting when you take a puff of one of these things,” Mark Kleiman, who studies marijuana laws and policies at the University of California, Los Angeles, told NPR. “The risk of getting wrecked is a lot higher.”10

Beyond marijuana, the rise in popularity of synthetic drugs and vaping among youth add up to a perfect storm. According to a report by CNN, “Water-soluble synthetics are easily converted into liquid concentrate that can go into the device cartridges and be vaped just like nicotine and other legal substances. It makes it nearly impossible to tell what is inside someone’s vape. It could be nicotine, marijuana concentrate, or fruit-flavored, nicotine-free ‘e-liquid,’ popular among kids. Or worst of all, it could be a deadly concoction of chemicals, often a product of China, known as synthetic drugs.”6

The most popular vaped synthetics are the so-called “legal weeds,” Supervisory Special Agent John Scherbenske of the US Drug Enforcement Administration tells CNN, “like K2 and Spice, synthetic drugs that mimic other drugs” and pose dangerous side effects.6

Currently, there’s not enough research to understand how the vaping coil impacts the toxicity or potency of the chemical or drug it is converting to aerosol.

“The role that the coil plays in the e-cig setup is an important one that has not been investigated thoroughly,” Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) student researcher Jimmy Stewart says in a recent VCU News article. “Many e-cig users claim that vaping is safer than smoking regular cigarettes because there is no burning involved and that the toxic substances found in traditional cigarettes are absent in the e-cig vapor. The goal of this research is to do a comprehensive analysis of the standard e-cig coils to determine if the claim of e-cigarettes being ‘safer’ is valid or not.”11

All that to say, no one really knows the impact of inhaling these chemicals, whether those added to e-liquids or those produced during the heating/vaporizing process.

Even more frightening, the vaping public can’t be sure they’re actually inhaling what they think they are. The lack of regulation and labeling oversight results in non-nicotine flavors actually containing nicotine or worse — meth, kratom and other illegal chemicals showing up in e-liquids.

Hidden in Plain Sight

The ability to consume illegal drugs in plain sight presents unprecedented challenges for parents, law enforcement and medical personnel.

Parents often consider vaping the lesser of two evils over nicotine addiction, not understanding how pervasive vaping nicotine and other chemicals has become among teens. “Go on to YouTube or Vine, and you’ll find hundreds of kids and young adults that are vaping [illegal drugs],” Dr. Michelle Peace, a forensic science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, tells VCU News. “All you’ve got to do is search for the hashtags #THCvape, #marijuanavape, #mjVape, #methvape. So, it’s not just being talked about it in the media or done by celebrities; kids are doing this.”11

For law enforcement, vape pens blur the lines of probable cause, making it difficult to determine the illegality of its use. “These individuals can smoke it right in front of you. And many times these vapes have no scent, or because they are a chemical substance the scent can be changed. It could be a fruit smell. It could be no smell at all,” Broward County, Florida, Sheriff’s Lt. Ozzy Tianga told CNN. “An e-cigarette is not your traditional drug paraphernalia. So, it’s much more difficult for a law enforcement officer to establish probable cause to determine this is actually a device intended for the consumption of narcotics.”6 And yet vape pens are showing up more frequently in drug raids and busts across the US.

Emergency rooms all across the country are seeing an increase in synthetic drug overdoses, some of which is attributed to the growing popularity of vape pens, which amplify the side effects. Chemicals in these drugs — more potent when vaporized and inhaled — pose a dangerous, potentially fatal overdose threat.

Vaping: How Can You Tell?

If you’re concerned that your child or loved one may be vaping, get educated about vaping.

First, take time to familiarize yourself with e-cigarettes, vape pens and their parts. Looks can be deceiving, so get to know all the styles and types of vapes. E-cigarettes contain a cartridge, which holds a liquid solution (nicotine or something else), a heating device (vaporizer) and a power source (usually a battery).2

Lithium batteries, unfamiliar charging devices, empty e-liquid bottles, little screwdrivers for unscrewing tiny screws and random e-cig parts are tell-tale signs of vaping. Or simply Google “How to Hide a Vape Pen from your Parents” and investigate accordingly.

Also, watch for physiological symptoms or side effects, such as chronic bronchitis or a persistent cough, nosebleeds, dry mouth, wounds that are slow to heal and unusual, erratic behaviors.12,13 If you see any of these symptoms, it may be time to have an informed, compassionate conversation with your loved one about the dangers of vaping.

While it’s true that vaping substances without nicotine is less harmful than consuming tobacco products, there is so much we simply don’t know about the impact of vaping chemicals on one’s health. Just a cursory search of the popularity of vape “dripping” among teens is disconcerting enough to make responsible parents reconsider the acceptability of vaping.

As Yale researcher Dr. Krishnan-Sarin tells The New York Times, “My message to parents always is: It’s not a good idea for your kids to use these e-cigarettes until we know more about the safety and toxicity of these products.”7


1A Historical Timeline of Electronic Cigarettes.” Consumer Advocates for Smoke Free Alternatives Association, Accessed November 27, 2017.

2Electronic Cigarettes (E-cigarettes).” National Institute on Drug Abuse, June 2017.

3 Osborn, Katy.“One in 10 Americans Now Vape, But Most Also Use Regular Tobacco.” Time, June 10, 2015.

4More than a quarter-million youth who had never smoked a cigarette used e-cigarettes in 2013.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 25, 2014.

5E-cigarette use triples among middle and high school students in just one year.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 16, 2015.

6 Ganim, Sara, and Scott Zamost. “Vaping: The Latest Scourge in Drug Abuse.” CNN, September 5, 2015.

7 Fortin, Jacey. “Plain Old Vaping Gives Way to ‘Dripping’ Among Teenagers, Study Says.” The New York Times, February 7, 2017.

8 Galloway, Jermaine. “Drug Trend: It’s Just a Vape Pen, Right?” Campus Safety, February 15, 2016.

9 Galloway, Jermaine. “Drug Trend: Marijuana Wax, Oil and Concentrates.” Campus Safety, January 26, 2015.

10 Bryan, Miles. “Pot Smoke and Mirrors: Vaporizer Pens Hide Marijuana Use.” NPR, April 18, 2014.

11 McNeill, Brian. “Shedding Light on a Vaping Trend: Researchers Study the Use of E-Cigarettes for Illicit Drugs.” VCU News, June 8, 2016.

12 Konkel, Lindsay. “Concerns Explode Over New Health Risks of Vaping.” Science News for Students, April 25, 2017.

13 Parent, Jane. “5 Things to Know About E-cigarettes for Marijuana.” Your Teen for Parents, Accessed November 22, 2017.