YOUNTVILLE — Parents and education officials gathered in Yountville last week for a town hall meeting on marijuana, vaping and teenagers, resulting in a bounty of information being shared and plenty of “oh my god” moments for moms and dads.
“It was incredibly eye-opening,” said Heather Fishleder of Napa, mother of three kids including a 14-year-old. “It makes me feel sad, it makes me feel angry, and it makes me feel terrified.”
For an hour and a half, forensic toxicology analyst Susan Ramsden told an audience of nearly a hundred at Yountville Elementary School about the growing habit of vaping marijuana among youth.
“We know there is a problem with marijuana and teenagers,” said Ramsden. “They’re exploring and trying new things.”
Ramsden was invited by the Napa County Office of Education, which partnered with the five school districts in Napa Valley to organize the talk that attracted school superintendents as well as school board trustees.
And what a talk it was for parents like Jennifer Palmer, who came with her 15-year-old son, Douglas Bozzini.
“We both looked at each other several times” during Ramsden’s presentation, Palmer said, adding, “There were a lot of ‘oh my god moments’” from the facts presented.
Bozzini provided some levity at the beginning of the evening when he volunteered to help Ramsden with a demonstration on how marijuana can impair vision.
Ramsden had Bozzini perform three tasks: walk toe-to-heel along a single line of blue tape and around small orange cones, play catch with a red ball the size of a large grapefruit, and build a pyramid out of plastic drinking cups.
The teenager skated through the first time without trouble. Then Ramsden had him put on a pair of special goggles that distorted his vision, simulating what it’s like after smoking one joint.
“I saw two [versions] of the lady,” referring to Ramsden, “and there was like three lines on the ground,” he said, which made it a struggle to walk in a straight line and catch the ball. He nearly completed the pyramid before it came crashing down.
“But it was really fun to try the glasses on and do those activities,” according to Bozzini.
The rest of the event wasn’t much fun for the parents, who heard about the myriad ways teens can camouflage the vaping of marijuana, the uncertainty of what is in marijuana these days, and the health and developmental consequences for young people using marijuana.
Ramsden said that in light of Proposition 64, the California initiative that legalized recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older, people may think cannabis products are safe to consume.
“All marijuana is not the same,” she said, warning some cannabis being sold can contain molds, pesticides, fungus, fertilizers and more. There are dangers from synthetic marijuana as well, according to Ramsden, who said it causes more trips to hospital emergency rooms than regular marijuana.
She went on to talk about the many forms of marijuana these days, everything from joints to edibles to oils and “dabs,” made from the stems and leaves of a marijuana plant.
Cannabis oils and dabs can be highly concentrated with THC — or Tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical compound that produces the “high” when using cannabis, according to the toxicologist. In some cases, the THC concentration can be 90 percent.
“It’s called the crack cocaine of marijuana,” Ramsden said of dabs.
She told her audience that THC can interfere with normal brain chemistry, even “hijack” it and create dependency in users.
“What we thought is innocent can be mind-altering,” said Ramsden, who warned youth can suffer long-term and even permanent effects from using marijuana. Effects can take the form of lower verbal comprehension, poor memory, less control of emotions, reduced problem solving and more.
“It was eye-opening about the long-term effects on the brain, especially if you’re under 25 before your brain is fully developed,” said Fishleder, referring to data provided by Ramsden.
As if that wasn’t enough to worry parents, Ramsden provided example after example of how teenagers use vaping pens disguised as innocuous objects to get high from cannabis: phony fountain pens, USB flash drives and other components that plug directly into a computer, lipstick and mascara cases.
“Would you recognize it in your child’s room?” she asked her audience.
Kids will even fashion a vaping device out of certain candies, like Starbursts and Jolly Ranchers, with help from YouTube videos, according to Ramsden.
During a brief Q&A session, a parent asked Ramsden how they go about telling their children that marijuana is bad when the state has legalized it. There are mixed messages, as Fishleder put it after the meeting.
Ramsden advised using facts that will help them make good choices. “Education is the key to power,” she said.
Palmer said she was glad to bring her son, instead of her hearing all the information and “coming home in a big panic.”
By having Bozzini with her, “It just allows for more honest conversation” between mother and child, Palmer said.