As Legalization Spreads, Mother Warns About the Dangers of High-Potency Marijuana That Addicted Her Teenage Son

The Green Solution’s dispensary in downtown Denver on May 21, 2019. (Getty Images)

In 2012, Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. The regulatory process that followed primarily focused on the growing, sales and operational aspects of legalization.

Protecting kids with safeguards like limits on the potency of THC — marijuana’s mood-altering chemical which can damage developing brains — weren’t prioritized.

Now that marijuana legalization is spreading across the country, Colorado’s troubling experiences with high-potency marijuana, and current efforts to control potency, can offer a cautionary tale for other states legalizing recreational marijuana like New Mexico, New York and Virginia. With a complex regulatory process ahead, these states have the opportunity to get it right from the start.

Today’s THC products have little resemblance to the marijuana of decades ago. In the 1980s and ‘90s, the THC levels of marijuana plants ranged between 2-4 percent. Today, marijuana plants can have a potency ranging from 17-25 percent THC, according to Colorado addiction psychiatrist Dr. Libby Stuyt.

Concentrated products like wax, shatter and some edibles contain THC levels as high as 65-95 percent. Wax and shatter are versions of butane hash oil, where the plant is mixed with a chemical and the resin that is nearly pure THC concentrate is extracted through a volatile process. Both are consumed by heating the substance and inhaling the smoke. The more potent a drug, the stronger the possibility of addiction, Stuyt notes.

The data also clearly shows more youth than ever are using these ultra-potent products. The state’s official Healthy Kids Colorado Survey showed that “more youth are now vaping marijuana — 10.6% in 2019 compared to 5.1% in 2015 while dabbing [wax] rose from 4.3% in 2015 to 20.4% in 2019.”

I am the mother of an 18-year-old Latino son who is addicted to high-potency marijuana.

I’m also a lifelong child advocate who has worked for organizations like the Colorado Children’s Campaign and Stand for Children. I served as the director of the Office of Children’s Affairs for DenverMayor Michael B. Hancock.

My son attended Denver Public Schools middle and high school in the Cole and Highlands neighborhoods where more than 90 percent of his peers were students of color like him.

High-potency marijuana from dispensaries was, and is, regularly sold by young adults on middle and high school campuses across Colorado, easily making its way into the hands of our teens.

As the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, Colorado faced this problem first but as legalization spreads nationally so is the proliferation of these new, highly potent products.

My son’s journey to high-potency marijuana began in middle school with vaping, then smoking “bud marijuana,” then dabbing wax.

At his worst, my son pushed his younger brother into oncoming traffic on the corner of a busy intersection for having told on him for using marijuana. As a family, we lived in fear, isolation and shame.

Two weeks after my son’s 16th birthday, he ran away.

When we located him, we had him picked up by the police and returned home where we lived on lockdown until we could arrange for him to be transported in the middle of the night to another state for treatment.

He spent 90 days in a wilderness therapy program, 16 months in a therapeutic boarding program, another five months in a step-down program — until he signed himself out on his 18th birthday.

We spent over a quarter of a million dollars on his treatment; we could afford to thanks to family members and, honestly, the grace of God.

Most parents don’t know much about high-THC products, which readily make their way into the hands of students. Schools are ill equipped and under-resourced to intervene.

The outcome: a public health crisis among youth.

I’ll leave you with my final two thoughts:

1. Something has to be done — by states and/or Congress. They have a responsibility to protect public health and safety. No one involved in Colorado’s effort to cap high potency THC products is calling for a ban on marijuana. We are, however, asking policymakers to put basic safety measures in place for kids and the community.

There is legislation waiting to be introduced in Colorado that would close loopholes for young people ages 18-20 who have easy access to medical marijuana cards often without having real medical issues and with no guidance on which products to purchase or how often to consume them. It also would treat medical marijuana like other medicine with recommendations for usage and follow up with a physician. In addition, the bill would prevent “looping” where people can bounce from one dispensary to another buying nearly unlimited amounts of marijuana products, which often end up in schools.

2. This is not something just affecting “white” families, but it is more likely that white families have access to resources for treatment for their children.

I’ve heard people claim that adding controls on the industry will have a detrimental impact on communities of color. Marijuana legalization is being promoted nationally as a path towards more equity for people of color, with Black Americans being four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than whites despite their usage rates being similar and with almost all dispensaries being owned by white people.

But from my personal and professional experience, Colorado’s marijuana industry is having a detrimental impact on young people of color like my son due to the fact that most grow houses and dispensaries are located in the heart of their communities. High-THC products are easy to access and treatment is hard to find and afford. In my son’s two-plus years of treatment in three different states, there were only two other young men of color in any of the programs.

My son is back in Colorado where he lives independently and works full time in the meat-packing industry. He recently graduated from an alternative high school and plans on attending college in the fall. All the while, he continues to use marijuana concentrates.

We are grateful for his progress, yet to this day, we count ourselves as one of the “lucky” families, knowing it could all literally change at any moment. My son is not alone. He is not the exception. Both he and we will have to deal with this for the rest of our lives.

Lindsay Neil is a communications consultant who served as executive director of children’s affairs for Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock, executive director of Stand for Children Colorado and chief external affairs officer for STRIVE Preparatory Schools in Denver.

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