E-Cigarattes Create New Problem for Law Enforcement

Aug 11, 2016

E-cigarettes have solved the problem of second hand smoke, allowing people to consume tobacco without imposing on others.  Now, police say those so-called vaporizers or vape pens have created a new problem for them-people smoking illegal drugs in public without being detected. 

Police have long relied on their noses to detect people smoking pot, but in 2007 the electronic cigarette, also known as a vaporizing pen, arrived in America, and since then an unknown number of miscreants have quietly smoked marijuana in parks and other public places, at school or work, without fear of detection.

“What’s actually produced in an electronic cigarette is a condensation aerosol or vapor.  It’s not smoke.”

Michelle Peace is an assistant professor in the Department of Forensic Science at Virginia Commonwealth University.  She explains that e-cigarettes contain a coil that heats a tiny tank of liquid which may contain nicotine or some other drug.  Until recently, she says, vaping wasn’t really on law enforcement’s radar, even though it was an inside joke with viewers of Saturday Night Live.

“Like a lot of people, I love to smoke, but my friends and family make me go outside to do it.  So that’s why I now use E-Meth.  It’s crystal meth, but electronic, so it produces vapor instead of smoke, and that means I can ride the ice pony anywhere I want.”

Now, however, Michelle Peace has a $339,000 federal grant to help law enforcement understand how e-cigarettes are used to ingest methamphetamines, synthetics, heroin and other opiates or the active ingredient in marijuana and hash.

Credit Vaping 360 / Creative Commons

“Hey, Vapers.  Abbie here and today we’re going to talk about inhaling.”

YouTube boasts dozens of videos teaching newcomers how to use e-cigarettes, but cops and lab techs are clueless - unsure how to tell if vaporizers were used to consume illegal drugs.

“Can you just take the e-liquid out of the tank and see if there’s any drug in there?  If there’s nothing left in the tank, then what do you look at it?”

They’re also coming up with techniques to protect consumers in states where recreational pot is legal.

“We received a sample of e-liquid that purportedly had THC in it.  Their claim was that it contained 69% THC, and after we lowered our eyebrows, we took a look at what the concentration was.”

In one study of 27 samples, about a third were found to be off by more than 20%.  To do their tests, Michelle Peace faced a whole new challenge - designing a machine that could mechanically puff on an e-cigarette, capture and analyze the vapor.