In this month’s Rosenthal Report, we present an in-depth look at the widespread use of marijuana wax, a highly potent marijuana product that has become popular among adolescents, and propose an action plan to increase awareness of this potentially dangerous drug. In news briefs, drug overdose deaths decline in some states but spike in others; the White House convenes an opioid summit; and the U.S. has a new drug czar.
Marijuana Wax Poses New Risks
The marijuana concentrate known as wax is a powerful and potentially dangerous drug, and its use today appears to be more widespread, especially among adolescents, than had been previously known. At a time when teen use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs has been in steady decline, the rapid spread of wax poses new risks for this vulnerable age group and underscores the need for more large-scale studies of the drug.
Marijuana wax, also called dabs, shatter or honey, is derived from marijuana leaf by dousing the ground buds with a solvent such as flammable butane to extract the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive chemical component in cannabis. The yellowish, sticky substance that remains is wax. It is heated – sometimes with a blowtorch, or in an e-cigarette - and the vapor inhaled for a potent hit of between 60 percent and 90 percent concentrated THC, compared to between 10 percent and 20 percent from smoking plain marijuana leaf.
Interviews with wax users and clinicians suggest several disturbing trends. Wax can be purchased at medical marijuana dispensaries in states were it is legal. Young people underestimate the intense, often hallucinogenic high the drug delivers; instead, they view it more casually as an alternative to smoking leaf marijuana. Finally, there appears to be only limited awareness of the drug and its possible harmful effects among parents, addiction specialists and educators.
“Wax was uncommon a few years ago, but now kids are all over it as part of early experimental drug use,” says John Venza, vice president of adolescent services at Outreach, a nonprofit treatment provider for adolescents in New York City and Long Island. Chinling Chen, regional vice president of youth services at Phoenix House in California, says the drug wasn’t initially on their radar screen, but a recent survey of residents at the program’s Los Angeles facility indicated that wax is “widely available and many kids are well versed in its use.”
Increased wax use parallels medical marijuana legalization: the drug is part of the product line of THC-based concentrates, the fastest growing sector of the legal marijuana industry. In non-legal states, wax is manufactured with a do-it-yourself contraption - known as a dab rig - that can cause fires or personal injury (the city of Los Angeles considered banning “volatile cannabis manufacturing” but settled on restricting it to outside residential areas). Today, companies that sell medical marijuana produce wax in their own facilities and users can safely vape the product in e-cigarette devices, which are very popular with teenagers.
Seeking a ”really strong high”
Jade, a 16-year old high school student, currently in drug treatment, could be regarded as a typical teenage wax user. Jade [not her real name] told us that she heard about the drug from friends – “all of them are using it,” she says. Jade would buy wax herself in a dispensary, despite age restrictions, or get someone of age to buy it for her. She kept a portable vape pen handy, and because wax is odorless and smokeless, she could inhale the drug undetected in her bedroom or in a school bathroom with friends to get a “really strong high.” Another teenage user described it as a “numbing body high.” Both said they would switch between wax and marijuana leaf or sometimes mix the two.
Preliminary studies have identified potential risks associated with wax. A 2017 Portland State University report found that wax contained cancerous toxins such as benzene. A 2014 study in Addictive Behaviors concluded that a majority of users preferred wax to smoking traditional cannabis due to its potency, and that extremely high THC levels may lead to higher tolerance - suggesting a more rapid progression to chronic marijuana dependency. However, these studies have been limited in scope and therefore lack critical evidence and data.
What we can do
As the use of wax proliferates, we must begin large-scale longitudinal studies to answer questions about its potency and toxicology as well as the long-term impact on users – especially teenagers. At the same time, we should initiate an extensive public education and awareness campaign to ensure that users, parents and educators are alert to wax’s dangers and that clinicians ask questions about wax and other powerful THC products when they evaluate patients.
Overdose deaths decline in some states, spike in others
Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control suggests that drug overdose deaths declined in 14 states in the 12-month period ending July 2017, an encouraging sign that efforts to slow the opioid epidemic might be working. But in five states - Delaware, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania – overdose deaths rose by more than 30 percent, most likely due to the increased presence of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.
White House Opioid Summit
At a special White House opioid summit, cabinet secretaries, policymakers and members of the public affected by the opioid crisis discussed ways to combat the epidemic, from stricter law enforcement to more education, prevention and treatment. Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar focused on expanding medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and speeding up Medicaid waivers to allow more facilities to provide substance abuse treatment. For his part, President Trump floated the idea of imposing the death penalty for drug dealing, suggesting that countries with capital punishment for this crime
have a better record that the U.S. in combating drug abuse. He did not outline any specific proposals to combat the epidemic as Congress considers how to appropriate $6 billion for the crisis allocated in its recent bipartisan budget deal.
Meet the nation’s new “drug czar”
Making his first public appearance at the summit was the nation’s new acting drug czar James Carroll, the White House deputy chief of staff who was nominated by President Trump to fill a post that has been vacant since December 2017. The position, officially known as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, helps coordinate U.S. drug policy.