(CN) – Even as deaths from marijuana vaping made national headlines, a new study of teen drug use found that the habit skyrocketed among high schoolers this year.
Vaping of marijuana among teens nearly doubled in 2019, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s “Monitoring the Future” study, which has provided an annual snapshot of teen drug use since 1975.
The study surveyed 42,000 students in 8th, 10th and 12th grade in public and private schools across the country. It found that 14% of 12th graders reported vaping pot in the last month, up from 7.5% in 2018.
Tenth graders reported slightly less monthly use, rising from 7% to 12.6% this year, and 8th graders saw an increase from 2.6% to 3.9%.
Meanwhile, 9% of 8th graders, 21.8% of 10th graders and 23.7% of 12th graders reported having vaped marijuana at least once in their lives, and about 20% of 12th graders said they did so in the last year.
“A typical class might have 30 kids in it, so we’re talking five or six kids in every class may have vaped marijuana,” lead researcher Richard Miech of the University of Michigan said on a conference call with reporters.
The leap in monthly use is the second-largest jump the survey has seen in its 45-year history, just behind a similar increase last year in vaping of nicotine.
Teen use of other drugs, however, continued on a path of decline. Opioid use among teenagers peaked in 2007, Miech said, and cigarette smoking has collapsed in the last two decades, falling by 90% since 2000.
Use of the prescription amphetamine Adderall has declined among seniors and 10th graders while rising slightly among 8th graders, and prescription opioids like Oxycontin and Vicodin followed the same trend.
The study’s national focus made it impossible to draw conclusions about the effects of state-by-state marijuana legalization on teen use, Miech said. Medical marijuana, however, has been legalized in enough of the country that he could say with some confidence that legal medical use in a state had no effect on teens’ use of the drug, vaped or otherwise.
Miech noted that teen marijuana vapers tend to be marijuana smokers first. This brought him to two hypotheses, he said: either marijuana smokers are switching to vaping for convenience or the perception that it poses fewer health risks, or they’re using vapes to supplement their traditional use of marijuana. Users of vaped nicotine, he said, tend to start with vaping and may move to smoking tobacco later on.
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, laid out her concerns about vaping during the conference call with reporters.
Vaping does not emit the potent smells that cigarette and marijuana smoking do, allowing teens to consume drugs easily at school or at home without being caught by teachers or parents.
High concentrations of nicotine or THC, the primary psychoactive component in marijuana, make it easy to suck down high doses without realizing their potency. These high concentrations of nicotine, Volkow warned, can reach the point of toxicity. She also pointed to recent studies linking high-potency marijuana use to an increased risk of psychosis.
“There is an urgency to provide intervention, to be able to protect teenagers against vaping, as well as measures and policies to reduce their consumption overall,” Volkow said.
Some states have already done just that. The attorneys general of New York, California and Minnesota all brought suits in the last two months against e-cigarette manufacturer Juul, accusing it of deliberately and deceptively marketing their products toward teenagers.
Four states, including the study’s home state of Michigan, have already banned flavoring in vape liquids.
The study also noted that teenagers often don’t know what exactly it is that they’re vaping. While vaping THC foregoes some of the health problems presented by traditional smoking, a spate of vaping-related illnesses this year led the Trump administration to explore a ban on flavored vape products before backing down.
The Washington Post reported in November that over 2,000 vaping-related illnesses in the U.S. have led to 47 deaths, most of them stemming from vaping THC from “informal sources” like friends, family or illicit dealers.