An ‘on-the-go high’: dab pens make getting high easier than ever
December 14, 2018
Students’ names have been changed to protect privacy.
Sam, a sophomore, didn’t used to smoke marijuana regularly, he said. Before this summer, he had smoked no more than five times; but ever since his friends introduced him to dab pens, he has been high nearly every weekend and some weeknights. If he and his friends didn’t own dab pens, Sam said they wouldn’t smoke as often, but the easily-concealable device makes getting high easier than ever.
Dab pens are visually and technologically similar to e-cigarettes like Juuls, but they vaporize hash oil instead of nicotine. Hash oil is a highly concentrated form of cannabis that can contain up to 90 percent THC—marijuana’s primary psychoactive chemical—so users get high quickly with very few hits. Traditional cannabis is only about 15 percent THC, according to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation.
In a Black & White survey of 75 sophomores, juniors and seniors, 56 said they know someone who owns a dab pen, and 16 own a dab pen themselves.
Senior Amanda called dabbing an “on-the-go high.”
“If you’re on your way to work or an appointment or school, to pull over and have a joint and smoke the whole thing is a timely activity,” she said. “But a dab pen, you can just literally do it while you’re driving to wherever you’re going, and it’s so easy. There’s no smell, so you can’t really get caught. You can hit it in your room. You can hit it in the school bathroom. You can hit it in the car and no one knows.”
Using a dab pen, which users often refer to as “ripping” or “hitting the pen,” involves inserting small, pre-filled, flavored hash oil cartridges, or “carts,” into a cylindrical vaporizer called a battery. Users press a button to heat up the oil, which often resembles honey or butter, and inhale the vapor through a tapered mouthpiece.
Some batteries are made to resemble car keys; others look like e-cigarettes, and they’re almost all small enough to inconspicuously hide in a pocket.
‘It’s horrible and it’s terrifying, but it’s so much fun’: students dab at school
Some students are high during the school day, hitting the pen multiple times before school, during lunch in their cars or between classes in the bathroom.
When senior Jake had to give a presentation while high, he had an anxiety attack. Now, he only gets high before class if he knows he won’t have to participate.
“You have to constantly be thinking about what you’re saying and make sure you never do it before a class where you know you’re going to have to try,” he said. “Everyone in the class knew I was so high, but I had to finish the presentation. It was horrible.”
Amanda said she isn’t usually high at school, but her close friends usually are once or twice a week. A few weeks ago, she went out to lunch, excited to try her new carts. But when lunch was over, she felt nervous about being high at school.
“I was convinced everyone walking out of their classes was staring at me. Even though I had nothing on me, it’s that feeling of uncertainty,” she said. “Even though my teachers probably don’t know, it makes me uncomfortable that people I respect who are writing my recs see me under an influence. It’s that feeling of paranoia: like you’re going to somehow get busted.”
But junior Clark said even though he feels “foggy” when he’s high at school, he still finds it “relaxing.”
Sellers use Snapchat to sell, publicize products
Anyone over 18 can purchase a battery, and dab carts have become just as easy to buy as they are to use. Even though owning and selling any form of recreational marijuana, including carts, is illegal in Maryland, most student dealers have started advertising their products on their Snapchat stories, which anyone they’re friends with on Snapchat can view. Harry, a senior dealer, said he was initially nervous to post about carts on Snapchat because it’s so public, but he realized it was the easiest way to get customers and make a profit, he said.
Student dealers often buy carts in bulk from college-age dealers in the area or directly from sources in other states like California or Colorado. If all goes as planned, dealers can flip a single $20 one-gram cart for up to $70, Clark said. Clark said he has made up to $1,000 in one week when working with another dealer. Harry usually makes $300 a week on his own, he said.
Many dealers agree that selling carts is easier than selling weed because the carts don’t smell and are easier to conceal. But there’s still a risk of getting caught.
“The threat is always there. You can get caught anytime with a traffic stop, and I could get my car searched. I’ll probably stop selling once I turn 18 because it could be really bad to get caught,” Harry said. “You try to be inconspicuous and not get pulled over. You always have to follow the speed limit and traffic laws so you’re not drawing any attention to yourself.”
Dab pens dominate daily lives
Jake bought his first battery and cart in March. His friends even bought him carts for his birthday. Since then, nearly all of his friends have bought their own batteries from vape shops or online and have started buying carts regularly. For the friend group, dabbing is a casual, daily occurrence: they hit the pen before they eat, in the car and almost every time they hang out, he said. Sam said it has also taken over his friend group’s social life.
“A lot of people are not soaking in what they’re doing, myself included,” Sam said. “I think that it’s awful. They’re really ruining true social events. Now, you just go hang out with your friends and get high. There’s no real social interaction.”
Users agreed that routinely using dab pens desensitizes them to feeling high. When Jake started using a dab pen, one to three hits would make him feel “so high.” Now, he and his friends take up to 12 hits to experience the same sensation.
Many users hit the pen several times throughout the day to make tasks like doing homework or playing video games more enjoyable, senior John said. Some even use it to help them sleep.
“I only hit it once or twice—unless I’m going to sleep. Then, I hit it as many times as I can,” Clark said. “I don’t really keep track. My thinking is just, ‘Oh, I can’t go to sleep without it.’ I probably could, but I don’t know.”
Researchers find marijuana vaporizers deliver toxins
Vaporizing marijuana can cause the same health effects—coughing, wheezing, paranoia or memory loss—as smoking a joint or taking hits from a bong, said Igor Grant, a cannabis Research Director at the University of California, San Diego. But with dab pens, users inhale toxic degradation products because the heat applied to vaporize the oil is so intense.
Analytical chemistry researcher Jiries Meehan-Atrash works at Portland State University and researches cannabis vaporizing. Meehan-Atrash and two other PSU researchers conducted a 2017 study, finding that vaporizing hash oil may deliver “significant amounts” of toxic byproducts like formaldehyde, a carcinogen found in gasoline and car exhaust and another compound that has been found to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. It’s unclear if the toxins found in hash oil directly increase users’ risk of developing cancer, Meehan-Atrash said.
Meehan-Atrash said dabbing desensitizes users to the effects of e-cigarette smoking. Using both a dab pen and a nicotine vaporizer amplifies the respiratory damage both devices cause, he said.
Dabbing before bed can also be problematic, said Kevin Hill, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Hill said marijuana can limit the amount of time a person spends in the restorative phase. Less time spent in this phase can lead to decreased ability to store memories, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Teens are more likely to get addicted to marijuana than adults, said Linda Richter, the Director of Policy Research and Analysis at the Center on Addiction.
Marijuana can impede adolescent brain development, Richter said. Once the brain becomes more reliant on marijuana, it begins to adapt to the foreign substance, affecting how “you think and how you feel.”
While the long-term health effects of dabbing are unclear, frequent use could be dangerous, Grant said.
“Anytime you have an organ that is developing, and you introduce something there that you’re not sure what it’ll do, there’s certainly the potential of harm,” he said.
Admins struggle to detect vaporizer use
Principal Robert Dodd said he’s disappointed students are high at school, though he hadn’t heard of dab pens. Cracking down on dab pen and e-cigarette use in school is difficult, he said.
“Back in the day when kids smoked cigarettes in schools, it was a totally different reality. It was an interruption. You could smell it,” Dodd said. “This is a harder thing to detect. That’s why it’s been harder for us to figure out what the trends are.”
The number of vaporizers security guards have confiscated this year is in the “single digits,” Dodd said. Dodd is considering having a device that could detect vapor installed in the school bathrooms, he said, but he wants input from MCPS officials, parents and staff before making any decisions.
If teachers believe a student is high in class, they can alert an administrator, counselor or parent directly, but doing so falls within a “gray area” because it’s hard to know definitively if a student is under the influence, he said. Penalties for possession and use of marijuana in school can result in an in-school suspension and referral to mentoring programs, according to the MCPS Code of Conduct. A student found selling drugs on school property can face long-term suspension or even possible expulsion. Administrators would also refer students to the county’s Screening and Assessment Services for Children and Adolescents.
“I am clearly concerned for those kids,” Dodd said. “If we knew it, we would be taking an approach that would include consequences and prevention for them to get help.”
But some administrators and security guards aren’t aware that students are high at school—let alone that dab pens vaporize cannabis concentrates. Last month, Amanda said a security guard told her that he had confiscated a student’s vape—an e-cigarette similar to a Juul—earlier that day. But the ‘vape’ he showed her was actually a dab pen, she said. When she pointed out the difference, he said he believed the two were the “same thing.”
“It kind of amazed me that they had no awareness there was a difference between a dab pen and a vape because they’re in two completely different categories,” Amanda said. “I really don’t think they know when students are high, and that’s why the students like to do it. They think it’s funny—kind of like a game—because the teachers don’t know. It’s this little secret.”