The State of THC in Colorado Teens’ Marijuana Use, 2019

By Laura Stack

As a Colorado mother whose family has been devastated by teen marijuana use, I was quite interested when the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) released two important studies on August 3, 2020: THC in Colorado Marijuana, and its Healthy Kids Colorado Survey (HKCS) 2019 Supplemental. The first covers the potency of different types of marijuana products available in the state. The second focuses on young Coloradans’ marijuana use. The studies covered the various methods of marijuana use—smoking, dabbing, eating/drinking, vaporizing, and other, breaking them down by percentages. We’ll take a closer look at those statistics in detail.

On the upside, these reports offer the good news the most of our kids do NOT use marijuana in any form. But that goes hand in hand with the fact that more than one in five high school students do. According to the CDPHE survey, the 30-day use prevalence for marijuana was 20.6% among the state’s high school students. This significantly exceeds the prevalence for the entire population, an estimated 16.5. However, I recently heard from a 16-year-old teen, who admitted he and “everyone” lied on the survey, because they were required to login on their Chromebook and were afraid their answers could be tracked and attributed to them.

Bad News

The bad news is legion. THC potency in every form of marijuana has risen steadily since legalization, sometimes significantly from year to year. The average percentage of THC in almost 93% of the products sold in legal outlets exceeds 15% and is rarely less than 10%. The potency of legal flower marijuana (herb) as of 2017 was 19.6; it can legally reach as high as 35%. By the same year, the average THC potency of legal concentrates had risen to 68.6%. Edibles are less potent due to 2016 policy changes that limited THC to 10 mg per serving, and 100 mg per package.  

The legal age for recreational marijuana use is 21 in Colorado; so, with the exception of those using pot for “medical” purposes (although no level of THC is recommended for the developing adolescent mind), none of the adolescent users are doing marijuana legally. This means they are obtaining it quite easily (having homeless people sitting outside the pot shops buy it for them; buying it from the local high school drug dealer; getting it from their parents). There’s no regulation of the potency (percentage of THC) in the products they use, so the potency can vary widely, since it includes both legal and illegal sources of the drug. In some cases, it may be very high, especially for concentrates. For example, shatter and wax, which are commonly used for dabbing, can have a THC potency of up to 95%+, and some distillates are approaching 100%. Some pot industry folks have reported they are nearing the ability to inject THC with 100% pure THC. This is very scary, as in Amsterdam, nearly 50% of the visits to psych facilities are attributed to the use of high-potency cannabis.

Even worse, according to the main survey for the population as a whole, users who favor concentrates tend to partake more often than herb users, at about six times per week versus about four times weekly. High-frequency, plus high potency, plus youth = horrible news on the developing adolescent brain. This constitutes a significant health threat, since high-potency marijuana use increases the likelihood of the drug’s known negative effects. Brain development continues until at least age 21 (hence the legal age for use), but experts say it’s actually 28-30 years old, meaning marijuana use stunts mental growth in teens. In fact, according to solid scientific research, teen users of any form of marijuana are more likely to develop mental defects, varying from permanently lowered IQ to long-term depression, paranoia, psychotic breaks, and suicidal thoughts. The authors of the primary report noted specifically that the correlation between THC concentration and mental health effects is strong among adolescents, young adults, and adults.

Worse News

The data from the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey 2019 Supplemental is especially disheartening. The fact that 20.6% of all high school students (on the conservative end to not account for false answers) have used marijuana in the last 30 days is dismaying enough. Even for the underage, marijuana has clearly been easier to obtain since legalization, and apparently has become more acceptable because it is legal for adults.

Look at the graph Johnny is pointing out in the cartoon. In 2019, smoking remained the most common method of use for the high school populace, at 15.3%, followed by dabbing (10.2%), eating or drinking (7%), vaping (6.8%,) and other (1.6%). Some students use more than one method.

But listen to this: nearly three-quarters of high-school users (74%) reported having smoked marijuana in some form in the last 30 days, with 55.9% smoking it as their main method of use. The frequency of users who dabbed at least once was a scary 49.4%, with 20.4% citing dabbing as their primary method of use. The percentage of dabbers has gone up by 500% since 2015; vaping showed a similar increase. In other words, young Coloradan have shown a troubling trend to escalate to methods of use that deliver higher and higher concentrations of THC. This should ring alarm bells, since we know without a doubt that high-THC marijuana products can cause or worsen mental defects in developing teen brains. As the CDPHE put it in their August 3 report:

“High THC concentration marijuana use by adolescents and young adults is associated with continued use and development of future mental health symptoms and disorders. …it is clear that use of products with high concentrations of THC are associated with higher rates of psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, psychosis, and generalized anxiety disorder.”

The way youth are usually using marijuana is significantly changing. In the past 30 days, among the current users of marijuana in high school, here’s what’s changed in HOW they use it from 2015-2019. Look how dabbing and vaping added together (the high-potency forms) are 31%, so it’s catching up to smoking, which is in a decline:

  • Smoked: 55.9% in 2019; 77.8% in 2017; 86.6% in 2015
  • Ate: 9.9% in 2019; 9.8% in 2017; 2.1% in 2015
  • Dabbed: 20.4% in 2019; 7.6% in 2017; 4.3% in 2015
  • Vaped: 10.6% in 2019; 4.0% in 2017; 5.1% in 2015

In the past 30 days, high school students usually used smoking as their main method for consuming (10.6%), followed by dabbing (3.9%), followed by vaping (2.0%). If you add dabbing and vaping together (the high-THC methods), you’re at 5.9%, which is catching up to smoking. See how the smoking trend is falling, and the dabbing and vaping trends are increasing? This is trouble!

Furthermore, flower marijuana is indisputably a gateway drug for young users chasing a better high. I saw this in my son Johnny, who started as a recreational herb user before graduating to dabbing—whereupon he became paranoid, schizophrenic, and suicidal, and eventually killed himself.

Additionally, 32.4% of youth drove a vehicle after using marijuana in the past month, which is a statistically significant increase from 9.0% in 2017.

In conclusion, in the words of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment:

“For Colorado high school students, there have been recent changes in methods of marijuana consumption. Comparing method of use between HKCS survey years 2017 and 2019, the prevalence of dabbing and vaporizing as methods of marijuana use are increasing. In 2019, 10.2% of Colorado high school students dabbed at least once compared to 6.9% in 2017. Furthermore, dabbing became the second most (3.9%) usually used method next to smoking (10.6%) among high school students. These are concerning trends since marijuana products associated with these methods of consumption often contain high concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive compound within marijuana. Public health and key partners should prioritize youth marijuana prevention efforts to mitigate these increasing trends.”

“Public Health Statement: High THC concentration marijuana use by adolescents and young adults is associated with continued use and development of future mental health symptoms and disorders.”

For more in-depth information, you can down load both reports here.

The demonstrably higher prevalence of teen marijuana usage may be due to the continued perception among the general populace that marijuana is a mild drug; Johnny’s Ambassadors is committed to narrowing the gap between the perception and actual harm of marijuana on the teen brain! Please help us continue to raise money to fund our online curriculum for teens!

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