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As e-cigarette popularity leaps, worries of illegal drug use follow

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Inhaling marijuana
A man calling himself Henry Hemp inhales marijuana using a vaporizer pen at the HempCon medical marijuana show in May 2013 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

E-cigarettes have fired up controversy in Minnesota this year as lawmakers wrestle with how to regulate the battery-powered devices that deliver nicotine without burning tobacco. 

Nicotine, though, isn't the only addiction the products can deliver. E-cigarettes are also perfect for vaporizing illegal drugs and that has federal and state officials increasingly concerned. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week said it would seek new regulatory powers over the devices. 

It's an issue that has the attention now of Minnesota law enforcement.

"Any type of water-soluble drugs -- and synthetic drugs would certainly fall into that category -- can be consumed through these e-cigarette devices that we're seeing more and more of," said Paul Wilson, a sergeant in the narcotics unit of the Rochester Police Department.

E-cigarettes heat up very quickly and vaporize flavored liquid that comes in small cartridges. But instead of dissolving nicotine into the liquid, users can dissolve drugs like methamphetamine, powdered cocaine, and synthetic drugs like bath salts, Wilson said. The vapor has little to no odor, making it hard for officials to detect, he added.

"This just makes it a little more easily to conceal and a little more easily to do in public," Wilson said. "You could easily drive down the street and smoke this and no one's going to look twice, whereas if you've got a meth pipe up to your face, people are going to take notice."

Statewide, law enforcement officials with the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association say there haven't been many arrests. In Rochester, police had their first in February. Officials in nearby Dodge County made a recent arrest, too. 

Industry officials say e-cigarettes should not be demonized because some people abuse the devices. What's needed is more consumer education, product regulation and enforcement, said Ray Story, founder and chief executive of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, an industry group. 

"People will abuse certain products and not use it for its intended use. That doesn't necessarily mean that the product has to change," Story said. "You don't change the car that you're driving to only go 50 miles an hour. You set up speed limits and make sure that it's enforced by those regulatory bodies that enforce it."

The FDA's proposal would extend the agency's tobacco authority to cover the regulation and restrictions on the sale of e-cigarettes. 

Regulating the $2.5 billion e-cigarette industry is one thing. But, scientists say the potential for misuse adds to concerns they already have about the device's long-term health effects.

Richard Hurt, director of Mayo Clinic's Nicotine Dependence Center, expects the use of e-cigarettes for drugs other than nicotine to continue to increase -- in part because of the device's discreet nature.

That's concerning, he said, because inhaling a drug is the most efficient way to get it to the brain. 

"Inhalation of any drug helps determine its addictive potential. The faster you get it into the blood stream, the more addicting it is," he said. "That's why crack cocaine is more addicting than snorting cocaine. Because when you smoke crack cocaine it goes into the outer reaches of the lung and produces a very high level that gets to the brain very quickly."

A few arrests don't yet constitute a trend, Wilson acknowledged. But officers, he said, are becoming increasingly aware that these devices can be used for more than just nicotine.

"The possibility for using controlled substances out of these, and the fact that it could be used in such a public manner is real, it's out there," he said. "We have to be aware of it."