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Smoking 2.0: Exploring vaping and marijuana use by Lowell students

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Smoking 2.0: Exploring vaping and marijuana use by Lowell students

Kate Green

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Illustration by Hannah Cosselmon and Naomi Hawksley

Freshman Stella Gould did not expect to encounter the issue of drug usage while attending Lowell. “At Lowell, it’s not the first thing that comes to mind, because of the whole 4.0, good student image the school portrays,” she said. However, as recently illuminated by prominent publications such as The San Francisco Chronicle and The New Yorker, teenage smoking and nicotine abuse seem to be on the rise. A survey conducted by The Lowell has revealed that despite the waning popularity of cigarettes, approximately 22 percent of students have smoked this semester through vaping and marijuana usage. This statistic begs the question, how are nationwide trends of drug abuse affecting our school?

UPON ARRIVING AT Lowell, Gould was met with the realization that vaping and the use of e-cigarettes are fairly common at school. From observing vaping in the bathrooms and juuling’s soaring popularity, she was surprised to see drug usage rising with such young students.

One such student is Mary, a sophomore who is using a fake name to protect her identity. Mary began juuling last year, when offered to take a hit by a friend. Since then, she has continued to Juul sporadically at social events. “In the sophomore grade, particularly, it’s extremely popular,” she explained.

The Juul is a small e-cigarette which heats a cartridge containing flavored oils and nicotine, designed with the intent of helping adult smokers ease away from traditional smoking. According to Mary, the Juul is preferred by Lowell students as an inconspicuous method of smoking at school due to the speed at which the Juul disperses vapor and it’s lack of an identifiable scent.

The downside of juuling is what Mary refers to as getting “nic sick,” which is a light headed, nauseous sensation from vaping in excess. However, despite this discomfort, students continue to juul. “I know tons of people who have them and are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I hate it. I get sick, I don’t get head rushes anymore, I don’t like it,’” she said. “And then they kind of just [use] them.”

Photo by Ciara Kosai

While Mary knows that Juuls contain nicotine, she is not overly concerned with the health effects of her juuling habit. “Cigarettes in my head is definite addiction, definite lung cancer development, and I just don’t want that,” she said. “A Juul, yeah, it’s nicotine, the same idea, but it’s such a smaller scale.”

According to the non-profit public health organization the Truth Initiative, this misconception regarding juuling’s nicotine danger is shared by 63 percent of users. However, a 2018 study published in the journal Tobacco Control has debunked the mistaken belief, reporting that each Juul cartridge contains as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes.

The Lowell’s survey found our student body can not come to a consensus over the health effects of vaping. The truth is, though e-cigarettes are less harmful than regular cigarettes, they can contain “nicotine, heavy metals like lead, volatile organic compounds, and cancer-causing agents,” according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The presence of nicotine is not only highly addictive, but can harm adolescent brain development, and the CDC also reports that youth e-cigarette usage is associated with the use of other tobacco products in the future. These damaging effects are often unknown by teenagers such as Mary, who become enticed by the social aspects of juuling as well as the appealing flavors and began to Juul without knowing what their vapes contain.

Infographics by Maximillian Tiao

MARIJUANA IS EVEN more prevalent than e-cigarettes at Lowell. Despite the misconception of studious Lowellites misusing Adderall for higher academic achievement, weed is by far the primary illegal substance consumed at our school, according to The Lowell’s survey. Weed accounts for approximately 44 percent of student drug usage, and The Lowell’s survey identified a strong correlation between smoking weed and coping with mental health. “Stress reduction” and “helping me conquer anxiety,” were common anonymous responses as to why students use marijuana.

Robert, a sophomore who has opted to use a pseudonym, attests to weed’s beneficial impact on his anxiety at school. Due to the drug’s popularity on campus and hearing about weed in song lyrics, he tested out marijuana while attending middle school. During the latter half of his freshman year at Lowell, Robert started to smoke more regularly.

This current school year has brought new academic difficulties for Robert, and, compounded with his pre-existing anxiety disorder, he has begun to seriously vape marijuana. Employing a vape pen in order to accurately manage his dosage, Robert now self medicates daily and considers it a major source of stress relief. He also sees it as a way of dealing with his social anxieties. “I have a hard time connecting with people here [at Lowell] because they’re so different, sometimes I don’t even understand them,” Robert said. “And so, with my anxiety attached to that, it can be overwhelming at times, and being able to smoke weed or vape weed helps me.”

Though Robert does not bring his marijuana to school, other students such as James have, and they’ve been forced to deal with the consequences. James, a student who is choosing to use a fake name, experimented with marijuana from 7th through 9th grade. When his drug usage was at its highest last summer, he was consuming an edible pot product every day.

This habit was broken last year when a friend of his was caught with weed on campus by school authorities. “It was just a domino effect,” James said. “My friend got caught, and then he freaked out. Then he told them about me [bringing marijuana on campus]. I was in English and they took me out of class.”

As a result, James was removed from his school sports team and placed under juvenile probation. He was assigned a probation officer to monitor his behavior and then signed a contract agreeing to be home before 6 p.m. and to follow his parent’s rules. James’s compliance with the terms of his probation resulted in his drug possession being expunged from his record. “I’d say I got lucky,” he said.

Since he has been on probation, James has been sticking to the straight and narrow. “I just wasn’t thinking right, I guess,” he said. “I didn’t know a lot of things I know now.” With more in-depth education from his probation officer regarding the effects and consequences of drugs, he has managed to curb his drug usage and “stay out of trouble.”

Infographics by Maximillian Tiao

WHILE THE CLINICAL Psychology Review says that marijuana can alleviate symptoms of social anxiety, the CDC reports a slew of possible harmful effects. “Marijuana use directly affects the brain — specifically the parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention, decision making, coordination, emotions and reaction time,” a CDC report reads. Additionally, the CDC states that one in six individuals who begin using marijuana before the age of 18 will become addicted.

Despite years of marijuana usage, Robert recognizes the gaps in his understanding of the drug and how it might affect him in the long term. “My knowledge on marijuana is limited, but I think it’s limited because we don’t have research about it,” Robert said. “And I don’t think [health class] made any difference at all.”

Robert took health during his freshman year, where he said the topic of drugs was briefly covered by mostly just saying, “Don’t do it.” He doesn’t find this a practical approach to substance abuse education. “For me, considering other people, I think it would be helpful if they talked about strategies [for] if you are in a dangerous situation and you’re high or drunk, because they didn’t really emphasize that,” he said. Additionally, Robert considers an annual fair, similar to the sexual education event held on Valentines Day, worthwhile.

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IF A STUDENT is considering using drugs or is struggling with addiction, the main resource at Lowell is the Wellness Center. According to Wellness Center director Marcus Christmas, the office offers multiple services to students. “We refer out…we also do offer brief interventions, which is a three-day treatment where a student can explore why they decided to drink [or use drugs],” Christmas said. “It’s all confidential.” The center also provides preventative services such as a resource table with educational pamphlets, one-on-one meetings with students and connections to Bay Area drug education nonprofits such as Horizons.

Though many programs are available, most Lowell students who use drugs do not utilize the Wellness Center. “The majority of the time we’re getting referrals from the dean,” Christmas said. “So if a student is caught smoking or drinking on campus, the administration is referring students over.”

“This is not a simple black and white issue.”

According to PE teacher Thomas Geren, additional school policy is necessary in order to deal with student smoking. “I think we should talk about it and reach some agreement amongst all the shareholders,” he said. Geren has taught at Lowell for the past six years, and although he has always observed a minority of students using drugs, he considers the issue to have peaked this year. “Marijuana has become more broadly accepted and legalized in some forms, so it’s more available, and the cost has drastically gone down,” Geren said.

Of late, Geren has observed the negative effects marijuana use has had on students. “I know some of [my students] identify as users, and they don’t seem to be very happy,” Geren said. “I can think of several students who I know are users and their grades have gone down, and I would assume probably nothing is better in their lives.”

Geren’s sentiments are similar to the message that health teacher Judith Brooks imparts on her students. “I’ve seen people who have been affected by drugs and how it’s affected their families, so it’s really something that they need to take in and realize the importance of,” Brooks said.

Infographics by Maximillian Tiao

IT’S CURRENTLY UNCLEAR what is the best method to curb drug use by Lowell students. “If we suspect a student is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, there used to be a tighter procedure about it, and it used to be reported to either security or administration,” Geren said. “But even more, we just don’t know what the protocol is.”

As a result of the legalization of marijuana use for adults this January, he considers the issue a moving target. “Because it’s somewhat legal, I don’t think this school, or the school district, [or] the state, know how to address it,” he said.

Lowell administration was unavailable for comment on the frequency of student drug-use cases on campus nor any plans it has on how to tackle the issue.

One proposal comes from junior Justin Wong, who was raised with a zero tolerance for drugs and attended Catholic school until arriving at Lowell. Wong is a proponent of random locker checks, as frequently as twice a month. He believes this will deter students from bringing drugs on campus. “I feel like the school knows drugs are a problem, but they’re not addressing the issue, they’re not taking a step forward,” Wong said. He feels more serious and effective action is required.

When discussing drug usage at Lowell, Wong’s viewpoint has left him in the minority. “I don’t think many people share the same view I do,” he said. Fellow classmates often assert to him that infrequent use is inconsequential and experimenting with drugs is a natural phase of teenage curiosity. But Wong has seen the effects of drugs first hand, as he has grown apart from several friends from freshman year who began taking drugs and drinking alcohol.

Counselor and educational specialist Donna Saffioti Johnson recommends a different method of tackling student drug use at Lowell. Johnson works for Horizons, a Mission-based non profit which provides free substance abuse programs to at-risk San Francisco youth. In her experience, a harm-reduction approach is the most reliable technique for handling such a complex issue. “‘Just say no’ and scare tactics don’t always work,” Johnson said. “You just have to give factual information and hope [the students] make the right choices.”

Photo by Ciara Kosai

Johnson is also a proponent of high schools bringing in speakers who have been through addiction and are capable of speaking from experience. Currently in the midst of recovery herself, she considers this firsthand knowledge key in creating open discussion about the effects drugs can have on one’s health and family. “If you have someone who’s judgemental, it will shut a lot of people down, sometimes the very people you are hoping to reach,” she said.

Johnson’s harm-reduction approach also applies to the catching and reprimanding of students who use drugs on campus. Though she sympathizes with schools’ need to spell out clear repercussions in the event of student drug use, she warns against being too harsh. “If you’re just punitive, you’re going to lose kids,” she said.

Johnson considers throwing kids out of school counterproductive, as their time is consequently spent on the street instead of learning. Alternatively, she encourages school Wellness Centers to partner with community agencies to facilitate brief interventions comprised of delving into each student’s individual causes of substance abuse. “There should be consequences, but also support and resources,” she said. “Because this is not a simple black and white issue.”

According to Johnson, trends in drug use permeate the nation in cycles. The advent of discreet vaping technology and the growing accessibility of marijuana have created this current wave of teen drug abuse which has commanded the public’s attention. Lowell students like Mary, Robert and James are not alone in grappling with this new smoking trend; the question is, are people willing to discuss the implications of such drug use? “If a stranger would walk into Lowell, [drug use is] more common than they would think because a lot of kids don’t talk about it…no one talks about it because of the stigma,” Robert said. He feels that in order to see any positive change, a more open, informed conversation needs to be started within the school.

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