It’s not the green, leafy substance in a rolled-up joint we’ve come to know as marijuana. Over the decades, recreational marijuana users have found ways to get high from concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol in a myriad of ways — joints, baked goods and rechargeable pens.
“All of these versions [of getting high from marijuana] are just extracting the THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and delivering it in a number of ways,” said Haley Zettler, a University of North Texas professor who has researched substance use. “I think they’ve become more popular as a result of marijuana getting legalized in a number of states. If you go to a state where it’s recreationally legal, you can buy [a pen] in stores. Otherwise, you have to go through the process yourself of extracting the THC.”
It may look and seem harmless because of its resemblance to a writing utensil, but unlike being caught with a small nugget of weed, a pen will get someone in more trouble. Possession of marijuana alone under Texas law can land someone with a misdemeanor charge if it’s a small amount, but it can reach felony levels once it’s more than five pounds.
Possession of any amounts of THC for recreational use is a felony and falls under Penalty Group 2 of the Texas Health and Safety Code section on Possession of Controlled Substances. The penalties range depending on the amount of THC someone possesses.
“They’re pretty widely used,” said Denton Police Chief Frank Dixon. “The unfortunate thing about them is we’re seeing them in the high schools. Those are felonies, whether you have one cartridge or two.”
Dixon said over the last year and a half, they’ve started to see more of these pens in the local high schools.
“I don’t really know why that is,” he said. “I don’t know if kids are just able to find distributors easily. I’m not very well versed in vape pens and how people go about getting them. … But there are different things at play here. They’re easier to use and conceal and like we talked about, people don’t realize it’s a felony because of the concentration of THC in them.”
Derrick Jackson, a spokesperson for Denton ISD, said in an email Thursday that vaping isn’t a new issue in its schools and that they’ve been working with neighboring districts since last year on remediation efforts to remove these products from its campuses.
“[A] video created for education purposes by our students at the [Advanced Technology Complex] is part of the ongoing training in place for students to learn about the repercussions of being caught with vaping paraphernalia,” he said.
The video from 2019 starts with two students, one in a Denton Broncos letterman jacket and one in a Guyer Volleyball t-shirt, walking through a hall.
“While vaping may seem cool and impressive to your friends, getting charged with a felony and going to jail is not,” the students say together.
Jackson said consequences for students vary based upon the THC content.
“Any discipline for those in violation of having vaping paraphernalia on our campuses is governed by the student code of conduct which, as you know, is guided by state statutes.”
According to the district’s Student Code of Conduct, students who engage in conduct punishable as a felony must be placed in the Disciplinary Alternative Education Program. This means they’ll be pulled from their normal class settings to learn in another setting as discipline for their actions.
While vaping among teens rose to prominence in the last few years, a federal report released in 2020 showed a decline in teens vaping in the United States. About 20% of high school students and 5% of middle school students reported current use of e-cigarettes in 2020, compared to 27.5% of high school students and 10.5% of middle school students in 2019.
Some experts attributed that decline to the outbreak of vaping related illnesses and deaths in 2019, noting it may have scared some kids to stop, The Washington Post reported. According to The Post, most of those who got sick said their vaping solutions contained THC.
“Generally these extracts are going to be more potent than just the flower of marijuana,” Zettler said. “It’s going to be more potent because there are other chemicals, whereas marijuana is just the THC predominantly.”
They can appear to look like ordinary pens at first glance, but Dixon said officers can still spot them because of the cartridges containing the THC.
Argyle Police Chief Emmitt Jackson said it’s not uncommon to find marijuana in someone’s possession while doing traffic stops, but it is less common to find the pens.
“We don’t find as many of those here, but there is definitely the discernment of marijuana in plant form and pens,” he said. “If it’s a felony, we prosecute [those cases] as a felony and file those charges, regardless of the cost of sending it to the lab [for testing].”
Despite the many bills filed for the 2021 Texas Legislative session to legalize, or at least further decriminalize, recreational marijuana, Zettler said she doesn’t think Texas lawmakers will vote in favor of it. Zettler said she believes Texas is waiting to see how other states are faring after legalization before jumping on board.
“I think that Texas is pretty far behind compared to other states,” Zettler said. “I think overall in the nation we’re seeing more and more states either make it legal medicinally or go the recreational route. If that trend continues, Texas will probably have to play or will play catch up to some extent, but I don’t see any changes on the horizon right now.”
ZAIRA PEREZ can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @zairalperez.