(ABC NEWS) — Teens are increasingly turning to electronic cigarettes not to get their tobacco fix, but instead to inhale pot.
A new study published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that teens have devised ways to turn e-cigarettes into devices for hashish oil, marijuana, wax and other cannabis products. Researchers surveyed 3,847 Connecticut high school students about their drug and e-cigarette use and found that students using e-cigarettes to vaporize cannabis was 27 times higher than the adult rate.
According to the study, 5.5 percent of the students surveyed had used an e-cigarette to vaporize cannabis. In total, nearly 30 percent of students said they had tried marijuana or hashish in some form. Of those students who already smoked marijuana, 18 percent had used an e-cigarette to “vape” the drug.
“The rates were a little bit surprising, especially in a state where it’s illegal to sell e-cigarettes to kids,” said lead author Meghan Morean, an assistant professor of psychology at Oberlin College in Ohio and adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. “They’re using them at pretty considerable rates.”
She said the study, conducted at Yale University, was preliminary and needed more work to see how many times teens used e-cigarettes to vaporize marijuana and what their reactions to the drug were. In the study, she pointed out that vaporized hash oil or wax can have THC concentrations four to 30 times as high as dried cannabis.
She also said that while some e-cigarette companies or users extol vaporizing as healthier than “smoking,” medical studies have not yet proven that.
“The relative safety of vaping marijuana versus smoking it is not well established,” Morean said. “One of the things that is different, it doesn’t smell as strong as when you smoke it.”
Teens who ingest THC from either smoking marijuana or consuming it in other forms can have altered sense, changes in body movement, difficulty with thinking and problem solving and impaired memory, according to the National Institute on Drug abuse.
For smokers, the drug can irritate the lung and long-term marijuana smokers can have daily coughing and higher risk of lung infection.
Morean said it may be easier for teens to use the e-cigarette to vaporize cannabis without having to deal with the telltale smell.
“It’s hard to tell what’s in it: is it a nicotine solution? Is it a no nicotine fruit-flavored solution,” she said.
She said she hoped the study would be a jumping off point for researchers interested in the topic.
“It’s to get the idea out there that this is something adolescents are doing and people should be aware that it’s another means of using cannabis,” she told ABC News.
Addiction specialist Dr. Christina Delos Reyes, the program director for Addiction Psychiatry at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, said she found the findings troubling.
“I will say it’s extremely concerning to me as an addition psychiatrist,” she said. “I have had my own patients tell me they’re doing this.”
Delos Reyes said she’s been particularly bothered by patients who believe that using e-cigarettes or vaporizing is a safer option than smoking.
“My biggest concern and have been for years [is electronic cigarettes] have been completely unregulated in the U.S.,” she said.
While U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials said they will regulate electronic cigarettes, they have yet to come out with guidelines and regulations for the products. Delos Reyes said she hoped more studies will be launched from this one in order to understand which teens are using these drugs and how they are affected in the long term.
“I’m curious what other drugs they’ve figured out they can use besides cannabis” in e-cigarettes, she said. “They will find out any way to use anything.”
ABC News’ Julie Barzilay contributed to this report.