The number of minors being charged with felonies for possession of THC vaping devices has skyrocketed throughout El Paso in recent years, with schools serving as the epicenter for arrests.
As students are returning to school from summer vacation, El Paso Matters has created a Q&A guide to help parents, educators and readers understand the issue.
What is the difference between cannabis, marijuana, hemp and THC?
Marijuana and hemp are both terms used to refer to a family of plants known as Cannabis sativa, most commonly referred to simply as cannabis.
Marijuana is a slang term that usually refers to a version of the plant that contains tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — the main psychoactive component found in marijuana that produces a “high.”
Hemp refers to versions of the cannabis plant that contain less than 0.3% THC. Anything above 0.3% THC is considered marijuana under Texas Law. Hemp became legal in the U.S. after it was removed from the federal controlled substances schedules with the passage of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, popularly known as the 2018 Farm Bill.
Special Series: Minors Vaping THC on the Rise
How is THC vaped?
Vaping is generally regarded as an alternative to smoking, using battery-operated devices that people use to inhale a vapor-like aerosol, which typically contains nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Vaping devices consist of a battery, a cartridge or chamber containing the THC, and a heating component. In some cases, these devices can be filled with the dried herb, but usually contain a THC concentrate. Unlike regular marijuana, which on average contains 15%, concentrates can contain THC levels that could range from 40% to over 80%.
Unlike regular marijuana, which on average contains 15%, concentrates can contain THC levels that could range from 40% to over 80%.
These concentrates can take several forms, ranging from a thick liquid to a hard glassy solid. They are extracted from a cannabis plant using a variety of methods, according to NIDA, including using pressure and heat to draw out the plant’s natural oils or using a chemical solvent like butane or alcohol.
Devices used to vape concentrated THC are similar to the nicotine e-cigarettes sold legally in corner stores all over the country, including El Paso. They come in many forms and can look like traditional tobacco cigarettes, cigars, pipes and everyday items like flash drives or pens.
THC concentrates for vaping usually come in pre-filled disposable devices or in cartridges that can be attached to an e-cigarette battery. The THC concentrate is occasionally mixed with other substances and flavors commonly used in nicotine e-cigarettes.
Some people have also begun modifying, or “hacking,” regular nicotine e-cigarettes to fill them with other substances like THC.
Other devices known as dab pens are also used to vape concentrates — colloquially known as dabs.
What are the health consequences of vaping THC?
Though there is a perception that vaping THC is safer than smoking marijuana because it contains fewer toxins and carcinogens associated with smoking, it still has some similar health consequences, according to the CDC.
In the short term, THC can cause memory issues, lack of coordination and slow reaction time in both teens and adults.
Although scientists are still learning about the effects of THC, research shows it can negatively affect children’s brain development. Studies show that using marijuana before age 25 may affect how the brain builds connections for functions like attention, memory and learning.
THC can cause memory issues, lack of coordination and slow reaction time; impact brain development; and lead to addiction and mental health issues.
Addiction and mental health issues are another concern associated with THC use.
According to the CDC roughly three out of 10 people who use marijuana have marijuana use disorder — classified by the inability to stop using marijuana even though it’s causing health and social problems in a person’s life. Some studies show that marijuana use disorder is more common in those who began using it at a young age.
Marijuana use has also been linked to depression and social anxiety. Emerging research has also shown that those who use marijuana at an early age are more likely to develop temporary psychosis and long-lasting mental disorders, including schizophrenia.
Still, some experts say it is still unclear if marijuana is the cause of these issues or if people who are developing mental health issues are just more likely to turn to cannabis to self-medicate.
THC can also raise a person’s heart rate and blood pressure immediately after use and has been linked to an increased risk of stroke and heart disease. More research is still needed to know if marijuana use leads to a higher risk of death, according to the CDC.
In other instances, the harm of vaping may not come directly from THC. Diacetyl, a buttery tasting chemical often used in e-liquids and vaping products, is known to cause bronchiolitis obliterans — more commonly known as “popcorn lung,” according to the American Lung Association. The lung disease causes coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath as tiny air sacs in the lungs begin to scar resulting in the thickening and narrowing of the airways.
While vaping devices sold in states where marijuana is legal are regulated and tested for pesticides and dangerous toxins, those sold on the black market are not. These toxins can make their way into a person’s lungs, leading to serious health complications and even death.
In August 2019, THC vape pens that came from informal sources including friends, family and dealers containing Vitamin E acetate were linked to an outbreak of e-cigarette or vaping-use associated lung injury, also known as EVALI. The outbreak led to over 2,800 hospitalizations and 68 deaths across the U.S.
What are the legal consequences?
While low-level marijuana possession is considered a misdemeanor in Texas, possession of a THC concentrate is a felony, leading to much steeper punishments.
Penalties for possession of THC concentrates start at 180 days to two years in jail and/or fines of up to $10,000, if the amount is less than 1 gram. Possession of 1 to 4 grams is a third-degree felony with a federal prison sentence ranging from two to 10 years, with up to $10,000 in fines.
On the other hand, possessing less than 4 ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by 180 days to a year in jail with maximum fines ranging from $2,000 to $4,000. Additionally, some local governments, like the city of El Paso, have opted to do away with jail time for low-level marijuana possession.
In May 2020, the El Paso City Council approved a cite-and-release program, which allows police officers to give a ticket instead of making an arrest if someone is caught with marijuana. The program does not apply to THC concentrates like those commonly found in vaping devices.
Under Texas law, anyone 17 or older is charged as an adult, while those 16 or younger are referred to the Juvenile Probation Department.
Under Texas law, anyone 17 or older is charged as an adult for possession of THC. Those 16 or younger are processed as juveniles and referred to the El Paso County Juvenile Probation Department.
Anyone caught with THC within 300 feet of a school faces additional penalties for possession of a controlled substance in a drug-free zone, increasing the offense by one degree.
A criminal record with a felony can also affect a person’s ability to get a job, join the military, or qualify for financial aid.
What are CBD and Delta-8 THC?
After hemp was removed from the federal Controlled Substances Act, products with less than 0.3% THC became legal in the U.S. This allowed retailers to begin selling vaping products with other components found in cannabis including CBD and delta-8 THC.
CBD is a non-impairing compound found in hemp, often sold in grocery stores and gas stations. CBD is usually marketed to have therapeutic properties that can help relieve anxiety, chronic pain and insomnia, though studies on CBD’s health benefits are still limited. Epidiolex is the only drug containing CBD that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and is used to help treat rare seizure disorders in children.
Under Texas law, there is no age limit on who can purchase or possess CBD products, but many stores have policies that prevent sales to anyone under the age of 21.
Delta-8 THC is another psychoactive substance derived from cannabis that can be found in vaping devices sold in smoke shops all throughout Texas. Unlike CBD, delta-8 THC does produce a “high” similar to THC.
There is currently a legal battle playing out in Texas to determine whether delta-8 THC is permitted after the state Department of State Health Services classified the compound as a Schedule I controlled substance in 2021, effectively making it illegal.
That same year, a Travis County judge filed a temporary injunction making it possible for delta-8 THC to stay on store shelves as a lawsuit against the state plays out.
How does law enforcement know if a vaping device has THC?
In some cases, THC vaping products are labeled so it is easy to identify what is inside them. Even if they are labeled, law enforcement officials will usually conduct a field test to determine if a substance contains THC.
While the tests can quickly determine if a vape pen likely contains THC, they can’t tell if it is under the legal limit of 0.3% or if it is delta-8 THC.
Before a THC case can be prosecuted, the substance must be sent to a lab to determine if the amount of THC is outside the legal limit of 0.3%.
The Texas Department of Public Safety was unable to determine the concentration of THC in vape pens for years, until September 2022 when a new method of testing oils was announced. Still, the department is unable to test concreates like wax and can not determine if the THC came from marijuana, hemp, or was synthetically produced.
Officials say there is a backlog of cases the DPS still needs to process and it could take months to get results.
How do kids get a hold of THC vaping devices?
Law enforcement officials and legal experts say kids have been able to get THC vape pens in various ways. Some have told officials that an older sibling or even a parent was able to get it for them from a dispensary — which only sells to people 21 and over — in New Mexico or another state where marijuana is legal.
In other instances, they have gotten them from peers or drug dealers who are often contacted online.
A search on Instagram revealed multiple accounts claiming to be from the El Paso area selling THC cartridges — also known as carts — and other illicit substances. The accounts often direct potential buyers to contact them through encrypted messaging platforms that can’t be tracked, like Telegram or Snapchat.
These cartridges, often manufactured and sold on the black market, pose an additional risk to young people without regulations to test for potency or dangerous substances.
El Paso law enforcement officials currently don’t have a way of knowing if a THC cartridge came from a dispensary in a state where marijuana is legal or the black market.
What can parents do?
The most common advice to parents from law enforcement officials, legal experts and prevention advocates is to talk to their kids about vaping and marijuana use.
Parents may want to keep an eye out for symptoms of marijuana use, such as red bloodshot eyes, mood swings, increased anxiety and being more tired than usual.
Many drug prevention experts agree that scare tactics are ineffective at stopping young people from using marijuana, and encourage using factual evidence-based information that’s presented in a non-judgemental manner. Experts also say it is important to address reasons why a young person might turn to THC, such as stress, mental health issues, or simply a desire to fit in.
Parents may also want to keep an eye out for symptoms of marijuana use, such as red bloodshot eyes, mood swings, increased anxiety and being more tired than usual.
Law enforcement officials and legal experts say that it is important for young people to know about the legal consequences of vaping THC and how it can have long-term consequences when it comes to finding a job or attending college.