By Sarah Elmquist Squires, Managing Editor

It’s not like the old days, when smokin’ in the boys’ room produced pungent clouds that wafted down the halls and was easy to detect. Riverton High School has $24,000 in equipment to detect vaping — the modern way kids and some adults ingest tobacco and other substances.

They use slim little devices called pens or e-cigarettes that are easy to conceal, don’t create smoke or a lot of odor, and these days it’s easy to crack open their cartridges and add just about anything to vaporize into a person’s lungs.

Couple that with Wyoming’s rather lax laws on the books when it comes to substances that can be dangerous to kids — like Delta 8, a supposedly low-dose and hardly regulated form of THC,

and kratom, a natural substance that can pose risks as well – and schools across Wyoming are seeing dramatic spikes in problems with substance abuse.

In January, kids from Cody told legislative leaders that Delta 8, a chemically modified cannabis drug that’s legal through a loophole created when hemp production was endorsed by the federal Farm Bill, is a problem. It’s supposed to contain less than .3% THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, but Riverton High School Principal John Griffith said no one is really testing these products to ensure they meet that threshold. Now it’s on store shelves with flashy packaging, available in cartridges that can be used in vape pens, and even gummy candies. “It’s really scary because it’s not regulated whatsoever,” he told school board members last week.

The Food and Drug Administration believes much of the danger with Delta 8 comes from the way it is manufactured – with potentially unsafe household chemicals. That agency reported more than 100 adverse effects from the drug between December 2020 and February 2022; national poison control centers fielded more than 2,000 cases between 2021 and 2022, including at least one death. 

The bill the Cody students were promoting that would have helped address Delta 8, like many this session, never made it into law, as legislators wanted something broader to codify. “When it comes back around next time,” Griffith urged the board, “please fight for that.”

Griffith provided the board with an update on the issue of drugs and tobacco at Riverton schools. Last year, vaping drug incidents were 12; this year, the number in his presentation was at 32. Since he’d made his PowerPoint, Griffith shared, the drug stats had climbed to 39, and the school year isn’t even over yet. Many years, those numbers haven’t reached double-digits, he shared. It’s a big spike.

Vaping tobacco is down from 82 last year to 29 now. “That’s in large part due to the vape detectors,” he explained. He described the issue as a “staff time suck” that can occupy school leaders all day in some instances.

It’s not just tobacco and THC that are issues for Fremont County students. Kratom is a naturally derived drug that’s marketed as a pain reliever, relaxant, and a substance that can help curb cravings for opioid addicts. But it’s also not regulated, and it can cause dangerous side effects when used in high doses. Griffith said kids in other Fremont County schools have even overdosed. “That has happened in our county more than four times,” he warned.

Fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that is now the number-one cause of overdose death in the country, is also present in Fremont County schools. “This is something that we’ve seen,” Griffith said. “This is something that’s going into some of the vape [cartridges].” Kids, for instance, might crack open a cartridge originally sold as part of an e-cigarette or vape pen and add drugs like the deadly fentanyl, or kratom, not realizing the risks they are taking. Sometimes, prescription opioids like oxycodone are abused, and sometimes, fake pills laced with fentanyl that look nearly identical hit the streets. Kids and adults can’t tell the difference, and don’t know whether they might be using and abusing the far more potent fentanyl.

All in all, it’s a dangerous situation.

Safe Havens International, a nonprofit aimed at helping schools improve in the realms of crisis preparedness and safety, issued a statement, also just as Griffith was preparing his report. “The rate of vaping and e-cigarette use on K-12 campuses has skyrocketed over the past few years, resulting in many student hospitalizations and overdoses on nicotine, THC oil, crystal methamphetamine, opioids, and other drugs. The use of e-cigarettes has also resulted in the dramatic increase in marijuana use by students,” Safe Haven wrote. It’s overwhelming secondary schools, and required staff to devote a massive amount of resources to combat the issue.

Late last year, Lander schools leaders lamented the issue of student drug use and later drafted a policy that would subject students in extra-curricular activities to random drug tests. Board Chair Jared Kail brought the proposal to the board after observing what he called a drug issue that’s progressed into something incredibly dangerous. “I think we’re on the cusp of losing a kid,” he said. “If we lose a kid and we didn’t do everything that we thought was possible, I’m going to feel pretty dang guilty.” The Lander board is expected to review the way similar drug-testing policies have worked in other districts before taking a final vote on the measure.