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'They didn't even ask for my ID': Underage youth in Billings obtaining synthetic marijuana products

Jean Lucas laying out different products sold at Billings vape shops
Posted at 7:15 PM, Mar 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-15 11:06:20-04

BILLINGS — Recreational marijuana has been legal in Montana for adults for more than a year. But across Montana, teens are getting their hands on marijuana products.

Jean Lucas, the chief financial officer for Montana Advanced Caregivers (MAC), told MTN News on Tuesday that she has heard stories that at least two vape shops in Billings are selling synthetic marijuana products to underage youth. In addition, she knows an 18-year-old who sought to buy the products and was not asked to provide age identification.

"They have all of the flavors that the kids seem to like that we don’t want them to have anyways. These ones have different types of THC. What most people are familiar with is the Delta 9 THC, which is the 'high' part of what they consider in marijuana. Delta 8 will also get you high," Lucas said. "It’s just never been regulated before. And now they realize that they can make it, and there’s no laws per se out that say they can’t do it. They’re marketing these now to the kids. And if this isn’t marketing to kids, I don’t know what is.”

According to the 2021 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 85 ninth-to-12th graders in Yellowstone County admitted to using synthetic-marijuana products. And over the last 30 days before taking the assessment, 17.9% stated they had used marijuana.

Lucas claims an 18-year-old she knows went into vape shops across Billings and found that two did not ask for her ID before selling her products intended for adults. Those products, which are not sold in every shop, are only legal for those 18 years or older.

“The gal that went in and bought these products in particular, they didn’t even ask for her ID. She was 18, but she said, ‘They didn’t even ask for my ID. Just took me over and said, ‘Yeah, here they are,’” Lucas said.

Lucas said she also tested the shops.

“When I walked in, all I said was, ‘Well you know, I don’t want to pay all this (recreational) tax. I heard there’s something you guys can sell that’s different.’ And they’ll pull you right over to the counter," Lucas said. "They had a list of the medical conditions that you can use these for, which we’re not allowed to do either. We can’t make any kind of medical claims. It’s against federal law for us to do that, and Montana law, because it’s still being studied.”

Products purchased by an 18-year-old at a vape shop in Billings
Products purchased by an 18-year-old at a vape shop in Billings

According to Lucas, marijuana regulations in Montana are very strict. But she feels the synthetic-marijuana industry is held to a lower standard.

“We have limits, and these are huge. If you had a kid eat a whole bag of that, I bet it would lay them out on the floor," Lucas said. “I feel like the cannabis industry often becomes the blame, like what happened at West. One of the owners here had somebody accuse him that it was his shop that did it, which it wasn’t. And again, we just become targets for things and I don’t know why. We really have worked hard to be legal."

In November, two students at Billings West High School were hospitalized and a third was sent home after what Billings police said was an overdose of dabs, which are a highly concentrated form of THC.

MTN News is not identifying the shops alleged to be selling synthetic-marijuana products to underage youth. MTN did reach out to the two stores identified by Lucas, but one did not respond, and the second responded late Tuesday.

But according to Karen Sylvester, the Yellowstone County prevention specialist for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), marijuana use by youth in Yellowstone County has decreased since recreational sales began.

“I am happy to say, it’s been very exciting, that Yellowstone County has decreased in almost every category (for youth cannabis consumption). For the most part, when you look at legalization happening and where numbers are, over two years we’ve done very well,” Sylvester said on a video call Tuesday. “Part of that’s probably that we don’t sell recreational marijuana inside the city limits. I think that has been a big thing for Yellowstone County and something we should all be really proud of."

Sylvester recently received new data from a DPHHS prevention-needs assessment that shows improvements in Yellowstone County.

“I would want to celebrate that our data is going down. That parents are becoming more aware of the dangers of this. That we are empowering parents to have those conversations with their children about where they stand," Sylvester said. "Because we know they are the biggest influencers of their children’s behavior."

That data shows the major problem area in Yellowstone County among youths is the vaping of marijuana, according to Sylvester.

“Vaping of marijuana is an issue," Sylvester said. "What the data shows is parents seem to think that vaping marijuana is more acceptable than using it in other forms. Which we all know that using it in any form still has its risks and problems."

Sylvester said minors are still getting their hands on synthetic marijuana products, and the risks associated with the product are worrisome.

“It is high potency. Kids do not know what they’re getting. They don’t understand what’s going to happen to them. They are caught off guard," Sylvester said. “They’re appealing to kids. And there’s incidences of kids ingesting them that don’t realize that they have THC in them. They are appealing to kids where they look like their favorite sodas. It comes in every form. So I think it’s intriguing to youth to try them because they resemble something that they’ve grown up with."

Warning label on products from a Billings vape store
Warning label on products from a Billings vape store

And if the colorful packaging wasn't enough to catch the eyes of minors, Sylvester said youth believe they can do anything adults do.

“What we hear in our focus groups with youth is, once it’s legal for adults, it’s game on for them. They think it’s fair for them, no matter what," Sylvester said.

As for how they are obtaining the products, Sylvester said the answer is simple.

“What we have heard anecdotally from the kids is that they’re getting it from their friends. They get it from home. Their parents may have it and it’s in a place that’s accessible to them," Sylvester said. "But they get it from other people. We do not hear that they’re going into dispensaries and are being sold it. That just does not seem to be the main place that these kids are getting it. They’re getting it from other adults.”

Sylvester believes education is the first step in stopping teens from using these products.

“If we could get that number down to zero, I’d be the happiest person ever. I think that how we’re going to continue to decrease that number is through education," Sylvester said. "Why you should wait, why you shouldn’t be using, what the dangers are. I think as the THC levels have gone up in all these products, we know that it’s not the marijuana of old. That it can cause psychosis, it can cause schizophrenia over long-time use. We see all of the problems that can happen, and so I think it’s that education."

But others, like Lucas, fear if something isn't done, it'll be too late.

Before joining the MAC crew, Lucas was a registered pharmacist. She says synthetic-marijuana products sold at vape stores can be harmful.

"We don’t have any idea what’s even in these products. And we all heard the story from West (High School). I don’t know if they actually identified even what products those children had when they overdosed," Lucas said. “Some of the chemists I've talked to say they don’t even know what some of these chemicals are. At what point is fentanyl or something going to show up in these? It’s not being tested. As far as I know, no one's regulating it at all. It’s just there.”

And Lucas said she thinks she knows what went wrong to get to this point.

"I really feel what happened is, when the Farm Bill came out, and people went, 'Wow, here’s a legal way that we can make some good money.' Make CBD products, because CBD was so huge for everybody. And then they dropped the bottom out of the market and there wasn’t money to be made," Lucas said. "So then they were thinking, 'Ok, well what else can we do with this CBD? Well, we can convert it into something else that gets people high that they can still sell.'”

The bill Lucas is referring to was the Farm Bill passed in 2018 that removed hemp from the definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act, opening the doors to converting CBD into Delta-8 THC.

“They are taking the CBD out of the plant and chemically changing it into this chemical to make it something different," Lucas said. “Montana law pretty much said, no, you can’t do this. But nobody’s aware of it."

And, according to Lucas, the only way to stop this problem is to regulate the products the same way marijuana is regulated.

“Obviously these look like candy. And they have all different flavors. They’ll even name them just like ours. They all have their Indica, the Sativa, you know it sounds like marijuana," Lucas said. “There’s a lot of issues. I don’t know why the vape shops need to have anything like this."

Synthetic marijuana edible from a Billings vape shop
Synthetic marijuana edible from a Billings vape shop

Both Lucas and Sylvester can agree on the concern for why kids are wanting these products in the first place.

“The use of any substance as a child is concerning in my estimation. To have a conversation around why kids feel a need to self-medicate is a concern and one that we need to meet head-on. What’s happening with our kids? What’s causing them to find that this is the way that they want to spend their free time or whatever? We know that some of it’s about peer pressure and some of it’s about fitting in and all of those things," Sylvester said. "But at some point, we want to think that we are doing work to move them past some of that. To address those issues, to help them make better life choices.”

To learn more about the 2018 farm bill, click here.

"It’s a lot of concern because I just feel like our minors have a lot more issues than what we had to deal with as children. We’re getting more and more drugs. I mean, kids are dying now. Kids are shooting each other for no reason," Lucas said. "Stuff that we just didn’t do when I was growing up. And I’m just concerned. What will happen if we keep pumping them full of escape mechanisms, other than dealing with it mentally or other ways?”