Sophomore Lily was in history class when the student sitting next to her started Juuling. “The teacher turned around and started talking to me right after he took a hit, so he had it in his lungs,” Lily said. “He wasn’t wearing any sort of shirt [to exhale vapor into]. After the teacher walks away he [looked] like he [was] about to pass out. You’re not supposed to keep that stuff in your lungs for that long, right?”
Was it for the short headrush or for the thrill of doing it in class? Or perhaps it was boredom – just a way to pass the time until the end of the week finally rolls around.
In recent years, there has been a spike in the number of students doing drugs at school. Discreet new technology like vape pens, which contain nicotine, and dab pens, which contain THC, make it possible for kids to get head rushes or highs in class while teachers just a few feet away are completely unaware.
“We have a serious issue at Tam. There’s been more drug suspensions [so far] this year than there were the whole of last year,” social studies teacher Nathan Bernstein said in November, just three and a half months into the school year. “I would say it’s an epidemic. The number of kids that are intoxicated on campus is a huge problem. We’ve seen an emergence of the vape pens and the Juuls not only in classes but in the halls and in the bathrooms constantly.”
Though Bernstein himself hasn’t seen kids vaping, he realizes that they probably do. “I’ve been informed, I know it happens. I’m naive to say it’s never happened in my class,” he said.
Bernstein is not alone; while a number of teachers, including first year teacher Arielle Lehmann, said they had received some level of instruction regarding what to look for — long sleeves can easily conceal vape pens, for example — a much smaller number said they had ever actually caught someone vaping or dabbing in class.
That’s not to say nobody ever gets caught.
In an email to students and parents on October 19, Principal Farr wrote that “since school started in August, we have had over 20 cases of student suspensions related to drug and alcohol use cases on campus.” Farr went on to list a number of “alarming statistics” from the California Healthy Kids survey, which was taken by the class of 2020 and the class of 2018 last year. “There are consequences, sometimes minimal and sometimes tragic,” he wrote.
Farr did not mention the statistics regarding vaping in his email.
The 2016-2017 Healthy Kids report surveyed 1808 students across the district. 10 percent of the then-freshmen reported vaping within the last 30 days, while 13 percent of juniors reported the same behaviors. In general, around 3 percent less Tam students had vaped within a month than is the statewide average. Furthermore, Tam fell significantly below the national average of 24 percent of all high schoolers in America vaping within the last 30 days. However, many think that number is suspiciously low.
As Bernstein pointed out, however, the study features data and students from two years ago. “I wouldn’t target the vaping data here because it’s such a new phenomenon so I think next time we get the data it’s going to be a lot more,” he said.
Assistant Principal David Rice agreed with Bernstein in that the Healthy Kids data is likely inaccurate. “What we find on the California Healthy Kids Survey are that the numbers are generally lower than reality because students tend to not fully report what they’re doing for fear that it’s not actually anonymous.”
Perhaps it’s that the data was never correct, or perhaps it’s the perception that more people vape than actually do, but Farr seems right in citing “the growing ‘normalization’ of use among students.”
Though statistics tend to vary between studies, a sharp increase in adolescent vape use is undisputed. “E-cigarettes are very popular with young people. Their use has grown dramatically in the last five years. Today…the use of e-cigarettes is higher among high school students than adults,” reads a 2016 Surgeon General Report.
Besides nicotine, vape pens release ultrafine particles that become lodged in the lungs, flavoring chemicals linked to lung disease, chemicals found in exhaust fumes, and heavy metals including nickel, tin, and lead. “Scientists are still working to understand more fully the health effects and harmful doses of e-cigarette contents when they are heated and turned into an aerosol, both for active users who inhale from a device and for those who are exposed to the aerosol secondhand,” the report said.
None of the interviewed users were aware of any specific health effects of vaping. Zoe Portera, a junior, said she knew that “it’s not good for your lungs,” but added that “it’s not as bad as smoking a cigarette.”
Although little conclusive research is available, a study conducted by the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center suggests that vaping is between 5%-40% as dangerous as smoking cigarettes. While this number is certainly convincing to a smoker looking to make the switch to vaping, addiction and the risk of lung disease still pose a clear health threat over not using nicotine products at all.
Anonymous students will be referred to by first name pseudonyms from here onward. Olivia, a Tam student and relatively new Juuler, reiterates the perception that vaping has some health effects but they are minor.
“I think it’s bad. I don’t know the health effects that much. But I also think that some people over-exaggerate the whole thing, and what I mean is people will either say ‘it’s not a big deal’ or ‘it will kill you if you do it at all,’” she said. “A part of me didn’t know all the consequences [when I started] and a part of me [vapes] because my peers do it and because I like it. I don’t know [why I don’t quit].” Olivia elaborated that for her, vaping was an alternative to smoking weed, as nicotine doesn’t show up on the drug tests mandated by many competitive sports teams.
Samantha and Jane, both freshmen, were reluctant to talk about vaping and requested anonymity for fear of social scrutiny.
“In my grade, everybody’s high in class,” Samantha said. She was unsure of exactly what drugs were being used, citing anything from alcohol to cocaine as sources of intoxication that her classmates turn to.
“Vaping is 100 percent [the most common drug used at school]. I see it happen out in the hall, in the classroom, all day every day,” she said. Samantha and Jane both suggested that, as the only ones in their friend groups who didn’t own and use Juuls, they often felt alienated from their peers..
The Juul, a small black rectangular device which mimics the buzz of smoking a cigarette, dominates the vaping market with a 32% market share, according to 2017 Nielsen data. Its ease of use – most vapes require the user to unscrew the cap and add “juice” manually, while the Juul comes with pre-filled “pods” – aesthetic appeal, and size make it the vaporizer of choice for many students. Similar in an appearance to a USB stick, it’s easy to charge a Juul in class undetected. Some students even plug their Juuls into school provided Chromebooks to charge them during a lecture or while working on an online project. Unlike a dab pen, which contains THC, vapes deliver nicotine, which gives a head rush that’s more easily manageable in class. Rice cited an increased difficulty in disciplinary actions with such a broad range of physical hardware.
“The little black one [Juul], those things are pretty much lollipops around here,” Rice said. “I think the challenge for us is identifying what kind of vaping pen it is, because there [are] lots of different kinds. I’ve had students say to me, ‘I promise it’s not THC, just hit it and you’ll see.’”
Though possession or use of vaporizers and other drugs – such as cannabis – always leads to police referral, use of nicotine products leads to, at most, a one day suspension whereas cannabis products can lead to 1-3 days of suspension as well as 30 days of “social probation,” according to Tam’s Behavior Intervention Guide.
Wellness coordinator Hannah Wright is putting together a “Vaping 101” to update teachers of the latest models. “The students are way ahead in the technology and the understanding of what’s what, and I can see them looking at me thinking to themselves that I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about,” says Rice.
Olivia agreed. “Teachers are … oblivious to it,” she said. “They give us enough benefit of the doubt that we won’t do it and we take advantage of that. I think it’s bad.”
George, a student who said he deals drugs at and around school, agreed that Tam students do have a tendency to overstep the line. “It is way too [normal] for kids aged 13-14 to be going to class f—-d up…” he wrote over email. “If you know where to go you can find people doing drugs on campus almost at any time of the school day. It’s kind of a part of the culture for a lot of people and it’s weird. It’s worse among the freshmen but prominent among everyone.”
George describes his technique in keeping up with the demand for popular drugs. “The way it works is there’s series of trends. One month one type of drug might be the cool thing to do, the next it’s something else. The game of drug dealing in Marin is staying woke to those social trends and buying up those drugs as they’re becoming a thing… Nothing moves like Xanax [right now]. Xanax is huge at the moment. Coke has made a comeback as well. But probably the most lucrative of all of them is dab pen cartridges.”
Dab pens are similar in size and appearance to a regular vape pen or Juul, but vaporize THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in cannabis) instead of nicotine. The PAX Era, a common model, costs less than $20 online and, much like the Juul, resembles a USB stick. Popular amongst students is a “repurposed” dab pen, which can be made by attaching a THC cartridge to any cheap vape pen battery.
George doesn’t sell full dab pens, but he does sell the disposable cartridges, or “carts,” of THC concentrate. He says that demand centers around ease of use, perceived health benefits, efficiency, and latency: “It’s more low key [because of] smell, smoke, time taken to use, and stashability. When you’re a distributor, you could pay as little as $3 per cart or less because of the sheer volume you purchase in, and most carts don’t go for cheaper than 20 bucks. $25 is pretty standard. If you pay more than that you’re paying for very good quality wax or flavors.”
Though George is a fan of dab pens, he’s torn when it comes to vaping. “I think they have their place for people tryna quit smoking but for the most part they are an obvious attempt by big tobacco to get today’s youth hooked on nicotine, and it’s working,” he wrote. “No one has really yet assumed the title of ‘Juul dealer’ or whatever, but if someone did, they’d make bank, because I know lots of kids who legitimately fiend for nicotine because of Juuls and Phixs and whatever.”
In an interview with Wired Magazine, Dr. Stanton Glantz from the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UCSF argued that “it’s totally out of control … For the first time since 1972, we have recreational nicotine being advertised on television and radio. The youth use is exploding in parallel to the marketing.” Although Juul has blocked its Instagram to users below 18, those with access to the account are flooded with photographs depicting vaping as part of a modern and attractive lifestyle.
In another UCSF study which aimed to measure the long term effects of vaping, Glantz found that teens who have vaped at some point in their life are about four times more likely to smoke cigarettes than someone who has never vaped.
So why, despite the health risks and addictivity, do students continue to engage in this behavior?
“I honestly don’t know,” said Rice. “When I ask students why they do it, they generally answer, ‘I don’t know, I just wanted to get a rush.’ I think accessibility is an issue … If you talk to a ninth-grader and ask them, ‘How do you like Tam?’ About 95 percent of the time they reply saying they love it. And when you ask them why, they’ll say that the middle school was a prison. But, then they come here and it’s open campus and open tutorial, so sometimes I wonder if some of those freshmen are ready for that level of freedom, so I think that’s why we see more mistakes made there.
“I always think it’s kind of interesting that there’s two worlds that exist at the same time in high school; there’s the student reality and what you guys see, and then there’s the teacher reality and what we see, and sometimes they just don’t align.”