Vape Pen Intervention Program seeks to help first-time offenders

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District Judge Adela Kowalski-Garza talks with a group of juvenile offenders about the goal of the Vape Intervention Program (VIP) Thursday, June 1, 2023, in the 484th state District Court at the Darrell B. Hester Juvenile Center in San Benito. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

SAN BENITO — The young men with their futures hanging in balance listened closely to the judge explaining the contract that could save their lives.

Their mothers listened stoically to the judge giving their sons a chance to save their futures from a third-degree felony at only 16 years of age.

“You will have random drug testing. You have a curfew at 6 p.m. You have an eight-hour drug offenders program with 14 lessons,” said 484th District Judge Adela Kowalski-Garza to the two youths and their mothers one recent morning.

The kids and their mothers were in Kowalski-Garza’s court to begin the rigorous requirements of the newly created Vape Pen Intervention Program. They’d recently been caught vaping cannabis oil on a school campus, which is a third-degree felony. The juveniles had been accepted into the program because they had no previous charges and had a good record with their schools.

“It’s a nine-month program,” Kowalski-Garza said. “I have groups of students come to court. And we monitor them, and we give them classes. We purchased these online videos which are very good. They go through this training in classes that we provide. At the end of the program the case gets dismissed.”

The program has been created in response to the increased use of vaping to smoke cannabis.

Kowalski-Garza, Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz, Juvenile Probation and the Brownsville Independent School District noticed that an increasing number of kids were being charged and convicted of third-degree felonies, which would create problems with college admissions and employment opportunities.

They were also concerned about the health risk of vaping marijuana and the dangers of addiction.

Saenz said that a single marijuana joint has about 10% THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Cannabis oil smoked in a vape pen has 90% THC.

“It’s equivalent to saying I drank a beer; I drank one shot of tequila,” Saenz said. “It is very powerful, very potent, and therein lies the risk and the danger health wise.”

Saenz said the vape pens themselves are legal. The moment a user puts a cartridge with the concentrated THC level into the pen, the user is committing a felony.

According to Saenz, one of the many problems with this whole situation is easy access to the carts. Vape shops and smoke shops abound everywhere with all manner of flavored and colorful carts to smoke. The carts may have nicotine or low – and legal – levels of THC.

But sometimes, cartridges with high levels of THC are readily available at stores under the right circumstances, Saenz said.

District Judge Adela Kowalski-Garza, holds a copy of the court ordered deferred prosecution contract, as she explains the terms that juvenile offenders must agree to as part of the Vape Intervention Program (VIP) Thursday, June 1, 2023, in the 484th state District Court at the Darrell B. Hester Juvenile Center in San Benito. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

“You go in there, and it’s an unspoken language,” Saenz said. “They know what you are there for, and they’ll offer you a cartridge from the back room. It’s happening, and it’s happening everyday.”

There’s also the “buy and walk” where a seller can meet a buyer in some secret location. They meet, make the exchange, and go in different directions.

“The bigger market is social media on Facebook and all these other platforms where you literally see the sellers pushing them,” Saenz said. “We’ve had at least two murder cases in Cameron County in the past year where the whole motive of the murder was people scrolling FB and finding somebody selling THC cartridges. They call them up and say, ‘We want to buy some cartridges.’ And the buyer shows up and the seller shows up. And the buyer pulls out a gun and shoots the seller and takes off with the cartridges.”

And these are kids in their late teens dying this way, Saenz said.

Everyone has become concerned that a disproportionate number of juveniles, many with good grades and clean records, are getting convicted of third-degree felony possession of a controlled substance. Sure, they could get probation for a first-time offense, but a felony can seriously — and permanently — stain a person’s future. Not a very good way to start out in life.

“This is to help them not have a juvenile record, because a juvenile record, even if it’s supposed to be confidential, it’s a menace,” Kowalski-Garza said. “It’s not against the law to ask these individuals for their juvenile records if they want employment at a certain place.”

Example: The military can tell a potential recruit to produce a juvenile record to join the service.

More examples: Problems applying to medical school, obtaining financial aid for any university, and even acceptance in some college dormitories.

“Those are just a few examples where I can tell you a juvenile record is a problem,” Kowalski-Garza said. “The problem is they ask them, ‘Hey, if you want to live in this dorm you have to show us your juvenile record to show us that you’re a good person.’”

It is of course a matter of chance. Colleges, dorms and military recruiters may ask for these records or they may not. But it’s a headache that never goes away.

District Judge Adela Kowalski-Garza, listens to the mother of a juvenile offender as she shares her feelings and fears during a meeting for the Vape Intervention Program (VIP) Thursday, June 1, 2023, in the 484th state District Court at the Darrell B. Hester Juvenile Center in San Benito. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

And who needs that? Certainly not someone who is a star athlete or an honor roll student, which is something administrators in the Brownsville school district have seen too many times. So many times, in fact, that BISD created its own program, which would eventually lead to the program in Kowalski-Garza’s court.

Something that alarmed Nellie Cantu, deputy superintendent for business and operations at BISD, was that some kids caught vaping marijuana didn’t even realize it was marijuana.

“Some thought, ‘If they’re selling it at the store it should not have THC,’” she recalled. “Well, yeah it does have THC. They’re not openly informed that it has THC. Some of them have told me, ‘I thought it was just smoking the vapor. It’s strawberry flavored.’ Yes, but it does have a drug in there.”

And this lack of awareness lead necessarily to some very good kids getting into some serious trouble.

“I started getting worried when we started seeing really good kids, kids in the honors program, athletes, just kids that had not been in trouble in the past getting caught vaping marijuana,” Cantu said. “So we started having conversations with the DA’s office.”

Those conversations began with a simple question: “Could we do a first offender program, kids that truly are … this is the first time this has happened? Could we give them a second chance?”

There was some resistance to the idea because certain elements in the DA’s office felt the program just let the offenders “off the hook” without any real consequence for their behavior. But the demands of the program are hardly easy to follow and require a high level of discipline to succeed.

Ultimately, everyone came on board, and the result was a program for students aged 17 and older in the Brownsville school district. It was finalized in the spring semester and has already seen great success. It is now serving as the prototype for the program in Kowalski-Garza’s court.

“The parents are saying, ‘We didn’t realize how serious this was,’ and then secondly the students are saying, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” Cantu said. “Because we do have experts that come in and talk about what it does to the brain, what it does to the lungs, so the parents are grateful, and we’ve actually had kids that have completed the program and we have not had any recidivism.”

District Judge Adela Kowalski-Garza, holds a copy of the court ordered deferred prosecution contract juvenile offenders must agree to as part of the Vape Intervention Program (VIP) Thursday, June 1, 2023, in the 484th state District Court at the Darrell B. Hester Juvenile Center in San Benito. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

While many did know exactly what they were doing, it appears that many other students who are top achievers have taken the health alerts seriously.

And there is much to take seriously.

Vaping itself presents a serious health risk regardless of whether the individual is using marijuana or nicotine.

In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began to investigate a steep rise in hospitalization linked to the use of vaping products, says the website. Patients complained of a host of respiratory symptoms including shortness of breath, cough and chest pain. They all shared one thing in common: they had used vaping products within the previous three months.

Inhaling anything other than air is dangerous, said James Castillo, Cameron County Health Director.

“When you inhale a chemical, it’s one of the most powerful drug delivery systems you can get because it puts that chemical across the whole surface area of your lungs which is massive,” Castillo said. “THC is not harmless. It may increase mental health issues down the right. And then there’s EVALI, and that’s horrible.”

The website says EVALI stands for e-cigarette, or vaping, associated lung injury. And users can get this condition vaping nicotine, cannabis, or any other substance, Castillo said.

“We still don’t know why this is happening, but it causes this diffuse inflammation of the lungs,” Castillo said. “When you’re putting these vape chemicals into your lungs, it’s not just one chemical, it’s multiple chemicals. It’s not even a smoke, it’s actually a very small mist. It goes down into the lungs, and some people can get this inflammatory reaction that leads to permanent lung injury.”

The reasons for vaping are many. Kids these days have more stressors coming at them than ever before – a post 9/11 world, the pandemic, school massacres, and the clashing messages of social media bombarding them with too much contradictory information. They seek ways to self-medicate in any manner they can.

“We’ve had offenders as young as 10 years old,” said Chief Rose Gomez of the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department.

“I am very concerned because it is a social epidemic,” Gomez said.