Originally published in The Epoch Times on October 12, 2020
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 can 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 take 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 is 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 is 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dabbing at around age 16, Johnny went from being a happy teenager with a 4.2 GPA to failing classes and becoming withdrawn.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 okay.”
Neither parent connected it to marijuana. They knew nothing about dabbing, high potency marijuana, or cannabis-induced psychosis.
18 and College
By mutual agreement, Johnny moved out of 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 of 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 nonstop 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 more than 30 days after last use, 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 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 three 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 HIPPA 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. They won’t tell us anything.”
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 6 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 four-fold 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 dog. 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,’” Laura said.
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,” he said. “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 is 13 percent, whereas in Denver County, which has a lot of marijuana shops, has 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 into non-traditional, non-clinical settings like 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 launched 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
Follow Charlotte on Twitter: @charlottecuthbo
Reprinted with permission from The Epoch Times website.
15 Replies to “High Potency Marijuana, Psychosis, and Suicide: Johnny Stack’s Story”
My son Jake’s life ended Aug 2018. He was almost 18 and very much like Johnny. So sad that damaging subtle substances are available and pushed, promoted, marketed and many ruined beautiful lives are unjustly consumed.
Ohhhh, Dennis, I’m so sorry you lost your son, Jake, to this same poison. I grieve with you. It will be one year since we lost Johnny on 11/20/19, and you’ve passed the two year mark. I still cry every day. Some days I still can’t believe this sad story.
Please join our Parents of Children with Cannabis-Induced Psychosis (POCCIP) private group on Facebook, where we all understand each other. https://www.facebook.com/groups/POCCIP We also have a Memorial Wall of our sons (they are all boys for some reason) lost to suicide from marijuana related causes, if you’d like Jake to join the other boys (no pressure!). https://johnnysambassadors.org/memorial/ We post on their birth/death days on the http://www.facebook.com/johnnysambassadors page to remember them:
I’ve signed you up for our newsletter, so we can stay in touch. Thank you for reaching out. With love, Laura
Question for you how was your son purchasing the drug if he was not of the legal age ? Isn’t it 21 to purchase legalized pot ? I’m not making light of your sons death it is a tremendous loss for you and your family. I lost my brother to suicide at 19. I feel your pain trust me I have lived with a hole in my heart for 30 plus years.
John, that’s for recreational. At 18, they can lie to a “pot shop doc” and say they have a migraine or some malady. They pay a few hundred bucks and get a “med card” they can legally buy anything. The seniors in high school get them and then sell it/provide it to the younger kids. It’s everywhere here in CO and easy to get. 🙁 So sorry to hear you lost your brother. I know how hard it has been for my other two children to lose their brother. xo
I’m so very sorry for your loss.
My son is 26 and went to college in Colorado 5 years ago, while in college he unknowingly tried “synthetic” marijuana one time. This induced a lasting psychosis that he has battled ever since. He’s not addicted to any drugs nor has he tried any drugs since that horrible night that landed him in the hospital hallucinating and convulsing for 2 solid days. The lasting psychosis has brought on depression and severe anxiety. He was a straight “ A “ student, physics grad from Colorado College and is from a close family that is very supportive. Marijuana ruined his life. It is the biggest sadness of my life. He fights every day to just be ok. His dreams are shattered, he’s very suicidal. We’ve tried everything. I even took him to Mayo with no luck. Looking forward help everyday.
Have you tried
Electrolysis? There has been studies that said that may work – hope you and your family overcome this someday soon.
A friend called me last night and told me that there was an article in the Epoch Times about marijuana, psychosis and suicide that sounded eerily similar to my son Brant’s story. When he began reading it to me, I immediately realized it was your family’s story about Johnny.
I know firsthand how very painful it is to discuss the tragedy of suicide, but the public seems to need to hear this story from many sources, over and over if they are ever to believe that this is not just a very rare occurrence. Thank you for all that you are doing!
Ann, your book about your experience with Brant will do so much to continue our work to open eyes about the potential mental harms to children who use marijuana products these days. The stories I hear are all so remarkably similar, so hopefully people soon realize this isn’t a one-time thing!
I called Idaho Governor Brad Little office and told the secretary about Johnny Stack’s Story I had read in The Epoch Times. She was very interested and said she would get a copy. I told her I support the Governor’s opposing legalizing marijuana here in Idaho and thought this info might help.
I have a 59 year old male step-son that has been on marijuana in Oregon since he was 12 years old – which I did not realize until very recently this year. The Story talks to our USA teenagers and parents. To the best of my knowledge, my son who lives with a cousin grows it in their garden in Oregon. He was not happy about my trying to convince him to quit because he uses it as an allergy and pain sedative and has for years. I thought about sending him this story, but I fear he will totally cut off our telephone communication and no longer call me family over here in Idaho. A good Catholic friend I have told me to simply leave him alone since the adult male has been using it this long and I am too far away to make good contact. I am 68 years old and have never even puffed on a cigarette once and keep a healthy life. If I email communication to my son he never tells me when he receives it or even being interested in reading it, so that is why I have been reluctant to email Johnny Stack’s Story since I found it here online. Shouldn’t I just let him live his life as he has been doing for years?
Thank you, Danna, for reaching out and for sharing Johnny’s story with Brad Little’s office. The story is also reprinted with permission on our blog at https://johnnysambassadors.org/johnny-stacks-story. Wow, 12 years old is very young to start using marijuana, and if he is now 59, he may have escaped the mental harms (the THC concentrates weren’t so potent back then). There is no research actually proving that marijuana is effective for pain, but he will be very defensive about anyone taking away his “medicine.” You could gently encourage him to seek proper medical care, but it is very unlikely after all this time he would stop. I guess it could be worth one time emailing him with the story, just to say how different today’s marijuana is than when he was a kid, so he doesn’t have a mis-perception about it not being harmful to today’s youngsters.
My ex-wife sent me this a few minutes ago. December 28, 2020. We also recently lost our son at 24 years of age in November 21, 2020 a day before his birthday. Our worlds have been tuned up side down. Everyday is a nightmare and the denial, guilt and depression had all but consumed me. This is a parents worst nightmare and has reshaped my life in the worst way.
Geoff, wow, just one day after my son, Johnny, died. I’m so so sorry you lost your son, too. I’m guessing related to marijuana psychosis. If you want to share your story with others anonymously to spread the word of the harms, it’s at https://johnnysambassadors.org/share. I know what you mean about the guilt and the nightmare. Please join our Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/JohnnysAmbassadors and memorial wall if you wish (https://johnnysambassadors.org/memorial). Note they are all boys so far. 🙁
Hi Laura! I’m Amanda, 26, from Portland, OR. My heart aches for you and your family. I hope you find comfort in knowing that the Lord promises us a future free of tears and pain! It will all make sense someday!
I am determined to write a book about Marijuana Addiction. I am currently heavily addicted to THC concentrates myself. I don’t have Facebook or Instagram but I’d like to get in touch with you. I’m hoping to ask you a few questions and eventually share your son’s story in my book? Thank you for spreading awareness, you are absolutely making a difference! It is so inspiring to feel like i’m not alone in this, ESPECIALLY because it feels like the whole world is in denial that Marijuana can be addictive.
Love to you.