DENVER—It’s a grief that’s unimaginable. Deep, raw, and ever present. Laura and John Stack are still reeling over the loss of their son to suicide less than a year ago.
Johnny was 19 and addicted to high-potency marijuana.
“I just can’t believe that he had to grow up in Colorado—the first one to legalize it—and my son has to be the victim,” Laura told The Epoch Times on Oct. 1.
Johnny started smoking marijuana in 2014 after the state legalized its commercial use. He was 14, and “everyone was doing it,” Laura said.
But the real problems started in 2016, when Johnny started taking “dabs” that could contain more than 80 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in the cannabis plant.
“They’re distilling the THC, and it doesn’t even have any plant material left; it’s just a chemical,” Laura said.
Dabbing is a fairly new and popular way to consume concentrated THC. The THC is stripped out of the cannabis plant most commonly using butane (making butane hash oil) or propane. A further process then strips away the butane, leaving a dabbable concentrate, which is vaporized—via a glass rig or vaping device—into smoke that’s inhaled. It can be odorless.
Other forms of butane hash oil include waxes, shatters, and budders—which are similar, but have different textures.
In 1995, the average potency (THC level) of marijuana was around 4 percent. Now, even regular marijuana buds sold at a dispensary can have 25 percent potency.
The state that went all-in on marijuana is facing the ugly side of a drug that’s now so potent, it’s triggering cannabis-induced psychosis, especially in teens.
After he started dabbing at around age 16, Johnny went from being a happy teenager with a 4.2 GPA to failing classes and becoming withdrawn.
He was a “very sweet, sensitive” young man. “He was brilliant,” said Laura. But, eventually, Johnny dropped out of all the activities he was involved in.
“We stopped hearing about the same friends. He became more defiant.”
His father put the change in behavior down to teenage rebellion. “I felt like we could work through it. And that eventually, he would be OK.”
Neither parent connected the changes in him to marijuana. They knew nothing about dabbing, high-potency marijuana, or cannabis-induced psychosis.
18 and College
By mutual agreement, Johnny moved away from home at 18.
“He didn’t want to follow our rules. We didn’t want him to do marijuana,” Laura said. “‘I love marijuana,’ he told us.'”
By August 2018, when Johnny went to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, he was dabbing every day.
“His addiction had just grown steadily worse, where now, he had to do it a lot. High-frequency, high-potency. And you know, here he is, 18, and he’s been doing it for a few years,” Laura said.
John said he found out later that his son’s randomly assigned roommate for college chose Colorado primarily for its easy access to marijuana.
Two weeks into college, Laura received a text from Johnny, saying he was nervous about not making friends.
“I said, it’s perfectly natural to be nervous about not making friends,” Laura said.
“And he texted me: ‘Is it perfectly natural to think about killing yourself every day?'”
Laura and John immediately went and got Johnny and disenrolled him from school.
“That was his first mental hospital stay. He was very suicidal,” Laura said. Johnny told his parents he had been dabbing non-stop for two weeks with his roommate.
The hospital held Johnny for the requisite 72 hours and then released him.
“And he’s on the phone with me, telling me, ‘When they let me go, I’m going to try to kill myself,'” Laura said. “Because the marijuana is still in his system. And I begged them not to let him go. I’m just crying. I’m desperate on the phone. I’m like, ‘He’s going to try to kill himself.’
“And sure enough, the minute we leave—to go get all his stuff from the dorm room—he tries to hang himself in his bedroom closet [at home]. And he calls me and says, ‘I just tried to kill myself.’
“And we’re an hour away. So I’m on the phone with the police, and thank God, they caught him. He had all the burn marks on his neck. They took him to the hospital. He was just completely psychotic, just suicidal, psychotic.”
Johnny stayed in the hospital for a few weeks until the marijuana was out of his body. Marijuana can be detected in a chronic user’s urine for more than 30 days after their last hit, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Laura said Johnny sobered up over the next three months, between September and December. He lived at home, worked at a kennel, and attended classes to help with his anxiety.
He told his parents he was ready to go back to college, but at a different campus this time.
“He seemed fine. And he seemed really ready,” Laura said. So they sent him to the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.
A few weeks later, Johnny started dabbing again. By April, he was delusional.
“He called me at 3 o’clock in the morning and said his phone was bugged, his dorm was bugged. I mean, just crazy talk,” Laura said.
But Johnny was 19, which meant his parents were blocked from all of his medical information under the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) health privacy laws.
“I was so frustrated with the system. I mean, here’s my child who’s addicted and sick and psychotic and suicidal, and nobody will help me,” Laura said. “And part of the mental illness from this cannabis-induced psychosis is that they think their thinking is normal, and that you’re the weird one.
“So, he was like, ‘There’s nothing wrong with my brain. And yes, my phone is bugged. And yes, they are listening to me. And yes, the FBI does think I’m a terrorist.’
“He’s at UNC saying the mob’s after him, and we’re helpless.”
Johnny ended up at another mental hospital for several weeks. Doctors tried a few antipsychotic medications in attempts to stabilize him until his brain could have time to recover, which they told Laura could be six to 12 months, if at all.
“Marijuana is terrible for the developing brain,” said Dr. Christian Thurstone, a child and addiction psychiatrist, who has worked full time in adolescent substance treatment at Denver Health since 2004.
“We know that there are strong associations between adolescent marijuana use and psychosis.”
Thurstone said a person’s brain is still developing up to the age of 25.
More and more young people who are taking highly potent marijuana are coming into his treatment program with cannabis-induced psychosis.
“In many cases, it’s reversible in about two months,” Thurstone said. “And I’ve definitely seen it go the other direction too, where it leads to chronic schizophrenia.”
Thurstone said scientific evidence shows that adolescent marijuana use predicts a two- to fourfold increase in the risk of developing schizophrenia.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse says higher doses of THC are more likely to produce anxiety, agitation, paranoia, and psychosis. Concentrated cannabis, such as that found in dabs, also results in a higher risk of physical dependence and addiction.
Marijuana dependence occurs when the brain adapts to large amounts of the drug by reducing production of and sensitivity to its own endocannabinoid neurotransmitters, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Thurstone said some people argue that increased potency is good because people will use it less frequently. However, that’s not the reality he’s seeing.
“The amount of THC in the urine of adolescents presenting for substance treatment is actually going up,” he said.
‘This Took My Child’
Johnny went from the mental hospital to a program center in Denver called Urban Peak.
“It was really helpful to him,” Laura said. “They got him sober. And we found a place for him to rent and he found a job at Panera.”
By June, Johnny seemed to be doing well. He was working at PetSmart, and Laura and John bought him a dog, which the psychiatrist thought would be a good emotional support animal. Johnny also took a class at Colorado Technical University.
“We didn’t know at the time, he had stopped taking his anti-psychotics,” Laura said. And, she found out later, he started dabbing again.
“But then, all of a sudden, out of the blue, he tells us, ‘I’m not going to do weed anymore, I’m going to be a better person, I’m going to get my life back.'”
In November, Johnny went to his parents’ house for dinner and opened up about his addiction.
“He just said, ‘I want you to know you were right. You told me that marijuana would hurt my brain. And it’s ruined my mind and my life, and I want you to know that I’m really sorry,'” Laura said. “And he told me that he loved me.”
Three days later, on Nov. 20, 2019, Johnny jumped off a six-story building and ended his life.
“He didn’t tell me that time. And I regret it every day. I saw him every day, talked to him every day, but I didn’t that day. I could have stopped him and I … he had to have just been in so much pain,” Laura said. “I believe he’s not in pain anymore and he’s in Heaven, and I’m grateful for that. But I just have so many regrets. And so much I didn’t know. So much we could have done if we’d have known. I’m just so angry. This took my child.”
Johnny didn’t have marijuana in his system when he died, but his journals show he was still delusional.
“Even though he was no longer doing marijuana, the psychosis never went away,” Laura said. “Sometimes, even after the marijuana is withdrawn, it has flipped the switch and the mental illness doesn’t go away. And that’s what is happening to a lot of our children.”
Big Tobacco Repeat?
Thurstone said the marijuana industry is reminiscent of the creation of Big Tobacco.
“We have alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco that are all very widely commercialized and marketed—and marketed towards youth, I believe. That’s why we have these marijuana edibles that come in sweet flavors, bright colors, with bright color packaging,” he said.
While on the Colorado governor’s marijuana task force in 2012, Thurstone unsuccessfully lobbied for edibles to be sold in plain packaging.
“The alcohol and tobacco companies make their money from heavy users. And heavy users don’t just wake up in their 40s and 50s and decide they’re going to be a heavy user. It’s a process that really has to start in adolescence,” Thurstone said. He said heavy users traditionally make up 80 percent of alcohol and tobacco industry profit.
“For every year in adolescence that you delay the onset of drinking or using substances, you reduce the odds of developing addiction by about 10 percent. We know that alcohol, marijuana and tobacco are all toxic to brain development. And I’m very interested in promoting healthy brain development.”
In Colorado, more adolescents are using marijuana more frequently and at higher doses.
The 2019 Healthy Kids Colorado survey found that the proportion of high school students who used marijuana 20 to 39 times in the past month increased from 1.7 percent in 2017 to 2.8 percent in 2019. The survey is a voluntary anonymous survey completed by students in participating schools across Colorado.
Thurstone said the vast majority of youth in his substance treatment program are obtaining marijuana through the medical route. Youth can obtain a medical marijuana card at age 18, whereas the legal age for recreational use is 21. Thurstone said that with 50 percent of 18-year-olds still in high school, “a high schooler can get their medical marijuana card and then become a dealer for the whole high school.”
Another trend he’s noticing is that there’s a difference in the counties that allow marijuana dispensaries to operate and those that don’t. Thurstone said in Douglas County, which doesn’t allow for dispensaries, the adolescent use rate in the past month was 13 percent, while in Denver County, which has many marijuana shops, had a past month use rate of 25 percent.
Two-thirds of Thurstone’s patients are referred through the juvenile justice system.
“We are doing everything we can right now to reverse that, instead of a kid dropping out of school, getting involved in juvenile justice, then referred to treatment, a lot of us are trying to do work to cut that off at the pass,” Thurstone said.
He believes the key is to get treatment programs into non-traditional, non-clinical settings such as schools.
“Historically, only 6 percent of adolescents who need substance treatment, get it. Six percent. That’s a pathetic number. We’d never tolerate that in any other medical condition,” he said.
Treating marijuana addiction usually requires both the treatment of the physical addiction and any co-occurring mental health issues, Thurstone said.
He said 80 percent of adolescents he sees have a co-occurring psychiatric issue such as depression or anxiety. Most have a history of trauma such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
Often, an adolescent addicted to marijuana will have low motivation for change, so Thurstone’s method is to provide motivational rewards to help young people rearrange their lives, so that their life is more exciting than substance use.
“We get better outcomes when we treat both at the same time. We can’t just treat the depression or anxiety, and expect the addiction to go away,” he said. “The most powerful [prevention and recovery] tool we have is a warm, loving relationship between a parent/caregiver and their child/adolescent.”
The link between marijuana and suicide is evident, Thurstone said. In Colorado, suicide was the leading cause of death among youth aged 10 to 18 between 2013 and 2017, according to the state’s health department.
The number of 15- to 19-year-olds in Colorado who committed suicide has increased from 48 in 2004 to 75 in 2017, according to statistics from the Colorado Department of Health. In 2004, 26 percent of the young people had alcohol in their bodies at the time, while 15 percent had marijuana. In 2017, 9 percent had alcohol and 32 percent had marijuana.
“Parents need to be aware that marijuana use among adolescents is serious,” Thurstone said.
Laura and John began Johnny’s Ambassadors in April.
Their mission is to educate parents and teens about the dangers of high-THC marijuana, adolescent brain development, and suicide.
“We just decided that the best way that we could keep his spirit alive was to help him tell people what he told us—that the marijuana ‘ruined my mind and my life,'” Laura said.
Johnny’s Ambassadors is currently trying to raise money to build a curriculum to educate teens and reach them outside the classroom.
For parents, Laura hosts an expert webinar series every week. And they have 60 members in their group for parents of teens with cannabis-induced psychosis. Every week, Laura gets calls from concerned parents wondering what to do with their child.
“I’m just determined to tell as many people as I can, so that they’re warned, so the parents know it’s just not this harmless thing,” she said. “I just can’t bear the thought of this happening to anybody else, it’s so horrible. And it’s totally preventable.”
National suicide prevention lifeline