HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colorado — A Colorado mother is on a mission to educate the public about the detrimental impacts of THC on brain health in teenagers. Laura Stack's son Johnny took his own life after regularly using high-TCH cannabis products which he'd purchased legally with a med-card. He was 19.
A conversation Laura had with Johnny just prior to his death in November of 2019 still lingers painfully in her memory.
"We were standing in the kitchen getting ready to have dinner and he said, 'I just want you to know you were right.' He said you told me that marijuana would hurt my brain and it has ruined my mind and my life," she said.
Three days later, sheriff's deputies woke her and her husband in the middle of the night to say that Johnny was dead.
"He jumped off the roof of the RTD building on Lincoln Station thinking the mob was after him," Laura said.
Johnny was 14 when he began using marijuana. He some high school friends tried it at a party. Laura didn't think much of it at the time.
"When Johnny first told me he was using marijuana, my thinking was kind of like, well, I used marijuana when I was a kid, it's just weed, I guess that's not a big deal," she said.
Studies, however, are beginning to show that marijuana can predict the "development of anxiety disorders, depression, suicidal ideation, certain personality disorders, and interpersonal violence." This is particularly true for those who start smoking earlier, as a "younger age of initiation increases the risk of developing mental health disorders."
One study from New Zealand found that adolescents who smoked marijuana daily were at a 7 times higher risk to commit suicide.
Johnny would continue to use cannabis during high school. By the time he reached college, he was legally buying high-potency THC concentrates likes dabs and wax from dispensaries using a medical marijuana card.
THC concentrates range in their potency, and are documented with an average of 54%-69% THC level, according to data from the National Institute of Health. However, some concentrates can have levels higher than 80% THC.
According to drug seizure data from the DEA, the average levels of THC in marijuana plant material seized is around 15%. That makes concentrates 3-4 times more potent than typical marijuana.
Recent studies found that daily cannabis users who consumed moderate levels of THC were five times more likely to develop psychosis. Regular use of high potency THC is linked to an elevated risk for anxiety disorders and schizophrenia.
Laura has no idea who the doctor is that prescribed Johnny his med-card.
"For a few hundred dollars, the pot shop doc will happily issue you your med-card. We have no idea what Johnny said to get his med card. We just know he had one."
THC mimics a compound in the brain that our bodies make naturally called anandamide. Natural anandamide makes us feel happy or blissful.
THC does that too, but it overloads the body's receptors. As a result, it suppresses how much natural anandamide is made harming the parts of the brain that control mood, memory, and motivation.
Dr. Ken Finn of Springs Rehabilitation serves on the Colorado Medical Marijuana Scientific Advisory Council.
"The side effects to this exogenous cannabinoid (THC) may be throwing off the natural balance of the endocannabinoid system similar to people that are taking opioids it throws off the natural balance of our endorphin system," Finn said.
Finn said health care providers are noticing another troubling development associated with high potency THC.
"Our emergency departments are starting to see a significant rise in the past few years in what's known as cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome which is cyclic vomiting or chronic vomiting and there have been some cases of people dying from cannabinoid hyperemesis due to electrolyte imbalance," he said.
Laura said Johnny had sought multiple treatments for his addiction and mental illness. He'd been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was prescribed anti-psychotic medication.
"When he decided to stop using marijuana, unfortunately, he stopped using his anti-psychotic at the same time and the delusion came roaring back," she said.
In the months immediately following her son's death, Laura channeled her grief into the creation of a new non-profit called Johnny's Ambassadors. Its mission is to educate families about the harms of high-potency cannabis.
"Parents don't understand that it is not the same thing that we grew up with."
Laura also wrote a book chronicling the decline in Johnny's health and relaying the scientific information she's learned since his death about the mental health impacts of THC.
She and her husband also lobbied the state lawmakers to enact stricter controls over medical marijuana cards and high concentration THC.
With the passage of House Bill 1317, young people between the ages of 18 and 20 must receive approval from two different prescribing physicians doctors before receiving a med-card. Cannabis sales to patients in that age range require close monitoring.
Laura hopes these changes will make it harder for minors to get access to marijuana, and maybe prevent another family from experiencing this same suffering.
"If it can happen to us it can happen to anyone."