RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA (CBSLA.com) — Orange County officials say they're catching more students using a new device to get high during class.
"I would say at least one out of two kids in school have one," one high school student told CBS2/KCAL9 reporter Stacey Butler.
Electronic cigarettes, originally touted as a healthier way to replace regular cigarettes, are gaining popularity among high school and middle schools students, who often pair them with marijuana oil, or THC, to achieve a potent high, according to Deputy Clay Cranford, a South Orange County school resource officer. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is a chemical responsible for most of marijuana's psychological effects.
When replaced with THC oil, the high allegedly can be 10 times more powerful than smoking home-grown marijuana.
Cranford says students are doing this "under the noses of teachers and parents because there is no smell…It heats up, vaporizes the fluid and you inhale it from this end."
"If the teachers are not looking, you can get away with it. Kids can see but I don't know that many kids that would ever tell because it's so common," another student told Butler.
One mom confirms she's noticed the trend: "They're everywhere, every kid I see has it. They have a cell phone and an e-cig. I hate to say it, but I almost feel like I'm getting numb by it."
The e-cigarettes are slim, metal devices, approximately six inches long, that can easily fit up a shirt sleeve. Those using the device to replace tobacco often load the device with flavored nicotine oils but vendors also sell flavored glycerine oils, which are simple sugar alcohol.
"This one is juicy fruit, this one is strawberry mango," said Cranford, while pointing to various e-cigarette oils.
It's the THC oil that's causing the most concern among parents and school administrators. They worry e-cigarettes don't just replace regular cigarettes anymore but also serve as a candy-coated drug-delivery system.
"We are seeing a dramatic uptick in kids experimenting with these new devices," the deputy said. "It starts really young, I'm seeing it in junior highs."
The head of the OC Sheriff's Juvenile Services, Sgt. Nancy Wilkey, is concerned about the emerging trend.
"It's dangerous. It's very dangerous now," Wilkey said.
Cranford is worried that the e-cigarettes, when paired with concentrated THC, can act like a gateway drug: "They're getting a pretty potent high from it...And then moving on to other drugs."
One student Butler interviewed says he only smokes e-cigarettes with glycerine, a simple sugar alcohol, but has seen his peers smoke the devices with THC during class.
This student's mother says she recently discovered her son's e-cigarette in their home.
"I don't like it. I don't condone it. I'm completely opposed to it," she said.
Her son says he wasn't smoking nicotine or THC but this mother was so worried she took a drug education class taught by Wilkey at Tesoro High School in Rancho Santa Margarita.
She says she's angry e-cigarettes aren't regulated by the FDA, essentially allowing popular vapor shops to target kids.
"Business people are marketing it to kids because they're making bubble gum flavor, strawberry flavor, anything a kid would want. They can go into the store and it's like a candy shop," the mother said.
The glycerine oils are sold for as low as $5 a bottle.
The Center for Disease Control reports the majority of teens who use e-cigarettes have never tried regular tobacco, which is surprising considering the device is touted as a way to replace normal cigarettes.
E-cigarette use among teens has more than doubled in recent years, according to the CDC.
The craze is so new that Orange County's 28 school districts have yet to include the devices in their disciplinary code.
Cranford writes infractions and confiscates the devices when he sees them. He says some schools are catching on fast, but the devices are easy to get and even easier to hide.
The deputy said, "It's a new phenomenon and it seems like it's going to be a problem for a while longer."
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