Legal marijuana's effect on children and teenagers is still too new to fully gauge, but a growing number of parents are speaking out regarding their concerns over the potency of commercial pot.
The data is beginning to back up some of their concerns: According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the use of high-potency marijuana products rose significantly among teenagers from 2017 to 2019, and has more than doubled since 2015.
The general public was mostly clueless about dabbing — using intense heat to vaporize marijuana concentrate that can range anywhere from 60 percent to upwards of 95 percent THC — when Colorado voters legalized recreational pot in late 2012, but it has since become a popular form of consumption as commercial marijuana evolves. This can create a generation gap of knowledge between kids and their parents, who were accustomed to smoking weed that contained more seeds than THC, according to Laura Stack, founder of youth marijuana awareness group Johnny's Ambassadors.
"We smoked grass in our time, so in my head it was always rolling a joint and smoking it. We said, 'Don't do it,' to our kids, but in my head, I'm thinking that I did marijuana as a kid and it didn't hurt me," Stack remembers. "I didn't know much about dabbing. But it's what a lot of the kids do...and in a lot of the high schools more than people realize."
Marijuana use among teens has remained mostly flat since the state legalized weed, but dabbing and vaping concentrates are increasing in popularity. In 2015, 28 percent of Colorado high-schoolers who admitted to consuming marijuana within the past month said that they had also dabbed it, according to the CDPHE. In 2017, that number crossed 34 percent. Last year, 52 percent of teenagers who admitted to pot use had also been dabbing.
Johnny, Stack's son, committed suicide in 2019, and she firmly believes that his marijuana use played a role. According to Stack, Johnny began using marijuana in 2014 as a high school freshman and then moved on to dabbing. His concentrate consumption got worse when he began attending Colorado State University, she says, so she and her husband took him out of school. After several visits to the mental hospital and different doctors, Johnny enrolled at the University of Northern Colorado.
"Unfortunately, he gravitated right back toward that marijuana group, and he had a major psychotic breakdown. He thought the government was after him, taping his phone, and that UNC was a secret government intelligence base," Stack remembers. Soon after, Johnny committed suicide, and his parents found a dabbing kit in his Greeley residence — though Stack adds that Johnny's toxicology report came back "clean," and that he'd claimed to have been sober in the weeks leading up to his death.
If Stack believes other mental disorders or variables may have played a role in Johnny's suicide, she doesn't mention them. "He never had anything like that. Then it was just crazy talk after he'd been dabbing for two weeks nonstop," she says. "I think he felt like he needed it."
Several studies have found a link between teen marijuana use and changes in brain development. A recent study in Ireland showed infrequent marijuana use among teens led to higher volume on MRI images in brain regions related to emotional processing, while research published in the National Library of Medicine in 2014 claims that youth marijuana users "often show disadvantages in neurocognitive performance, macrostructural and microstructural brain development, and alterations in brain functioning."
To raise awareness about youth dabbing, Stack has organized a march in Highlands Ranch on Sunday, September 20, as well as eight more events in Lakewood, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Arizona, Massachusetts, Texas and Vermont. The Highlands Ranch rally was originally organized for Valor Christian High School, which Johnny attended — but it eventually grew to include some satellite protests, all of which will be practicing social distancing guidelines, Stack says.
Stack doesn't consider her group to be anti-legalization, adding that "if you're 21 and it's legal, then it's your brain and your life," but she wants conversations about dabbing, not just traditional marijuana use, starting in middle school and high school.
"As parents, we have to be more aware. Certainly this is a time when parents can provide more support, more talks, more help and care, and really actively try to discourage substance use. It's difficult, of course, if parents themselves use marijuana, because they're stressed during these times. So that is tricky when everyone is stuck at home," she says.
After decades of marijuana misinformation from the federal government and other figures representing authority, kids can be skeptical of the anti-marijuana campaigns they see in school or on social media. To get the message across more effectively, Representative Jonathan Singer (who is also a social health worker), suggests showing teenagers how it could affect their interests and life aspirations.
"We have to bring more youth to the table, and this is what our state has been doing. Bring the youth from everywhere around the state and talk to them. Ask them why they’re using and what they like about it. Broaden the conversation to ask about their relationships and friendships, their futures and how they’re doing in school," Singer said in an August interview.
"Most kids don’t respond to being feared into things. Don’t just present them with cold, hard facts, but talk about them in the context of how it affects their lives."
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