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Students warned of dangers of cannabis

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A mother whose son committed suicide after years of heavy cannabis use is warning island teenagers about the dangers of the drug.

Laura Stack is giving a series of presentations to students at Somersfield Academy, CedarBridge Academy and The Berkeley Institute this week. Ms Stack will also be giving a talk tomorrow evening that is open to members of the public.

Ms Stack’s son, Johnny, took his own life in 2019 at the age of 19. He had been taking highly concentrated “dabs” of cannabis for the previous five years.

Since her son’s death, Ms Stack, from Colorado, has been on a mission to warn others about the dangers of what many regard as a harmless, fun drug. She has set up a non-profit — Johnny’s Ambassadors Youth Marijuana Prevention — written a book about her experiences and lectures across the US warning of the dangers of cannabis.

In a Royal Gazette interview last week, she insisted that new strains of the drug contained higher quantities of tetra-hydro-cannabinol — THC — making it more addictive and far more dangerous, particularly in young people who’s mental faculties have not fully developed.

“We teach parents about today’s THC and why it’s so much different to the weed we smoked back in the day,” Ms Stack said.

The island’s schools are eager for their students to hear Ms Stack’s message.

Melisa Judd, the head of student support and wellness at Somersfield, said: “We wanted to share Laura's message with the Somersfield family and wider community.

“In Bermuda, we've been noticing more THC and CBD products around and it's important that everyone is clued in on the potential risks tied to using these products. There seems to be a lot of confusion out there.

“Laura, based on her own experiences and up-to-date scientific research, tells it like it is. She points out that marijuana has changed over time, now being supercharged with extremely high levels of THC. Laura's making it clear that smoking, vaping, and dabbing THC can be especially tough on adolescent brains and might lead to mental health problems.

Tragic lesson: Laura Stack with a photograph of her son, Johnny (Photograph supplied)

“We feel that knowing about this is key for the overall wellbeing of kids and teens. Laura's message is thoughtful and full of useful information that can help students and families make informed decisions when it comes to using THC.

“We strongly encourage families to attend one of Laura Stack's presentations.”

Ms Stack was invited to Bermuda by Steve Glassman, whose son, Nick, took his own life in January 2022 at the age of 20. Like Johnny, Nick had become addicted to vaping cannabis in the months before he died and had developed cannabis-induced psychosis.

Mr Glassman worked in Bermuda for investment firm Nephila Capital between 2010 and 2018, commuting between the island and New Jersey. His family were regular visitors here.

His son started university in the autumn of 2019, but shortly afterwards began complaining of anxiety issues. He took a leave of absence from college and returned home to “focus on his mental health”.

High-potency cannabis becoming more readily available

According to the US National Institute of Drug Abuse, the amount of THC in marijuana has been increasing steadily over the past few decades. For a person who's new to marijuana use, this may mean exposure to higher THC levels with a greater chance of a harmful reaction. Higher THC levels may explain the rise in emergency room visits involving marijuana use.

The popularity of edibles also increases the chance of harmful reactions. Edibles take longer to digest and produce a high. Therefore, people may consume more to feel the effects faster, leading to dangerous results.

Higher THC levels may also mean a greater risk for addiction if people are regularly exposing themselves to high doses.

Bermuda is not immune to the problem. A source involved in drug testing in Bermuda told The Royal Gazette that the potency of cannabis has increased in recent years.

A cannabis leaf on its own has a potency of 5 per cent. Growth with hydroponics increases the potency to 15 per cent to 20 per cent. Edibles such as butters, cookies and brownies containing THC, can have a potency of 65 per cent to 80 per cent.

Mr Glassman said: “We were perplexed that this kid who seemed super-balanced had all of a sudden developed anxiety to the extent that, although he was a functioning adult, when he came home for Thanksgiving he was a shadow of his former self.

“What was the event that caused this? We were wondering what could it have been? We were scratching our heads over this dramatic change of behaviour.”

The following summer, Mr Glassman and his wife discovered that Nick was using cannabis.

Mr Glassman said: “We had a very frank conversation with him and he said that he smoked recreationally but that it was not a big deal.

“But looking back, I was completely uneducated at the time as to today’s high THC content and the potential dangers to still-developing brains.”

Concerned about their son’s deteriorating mental health, the couple researched the subject and learnt of Laura Stack’s experiences.

But although his wife had contacted Ms Stack and talked regularly, Mr Glassman was confident that Nick would make a full recovery.

He said: “Nick was a functioning adult. He was working. He was getting ready to go back to school. He was out with his friends as 20-year-olds do.”

But he did accept that cannabis was playing a role in Nick’s continued anxiety.

Mr Glassman said: “After Nick took a second leave of absence from university in the fall of 2021, I didn’t know if marijuana was ten per cent of the problem or 90 per cent of the problem, but I knew it wasn’t zero.”

Eventually, in January last year, Nick confided that the drug was at the root of his anxiety. Within days his parents learnt of a hospital in Connecticut that treated patients with Nick’s condition but the day after an introductory interview with the hospital, Nick took his own life.

Since that tragedy almost two years ago, the Glassmans have worked with Ms Stack, arranging for her to give talks to schools in New Jersey and Nashville.

“Ideally, after the kids and parents have both attended one of Laura’s presentations, they have a conversation having heard the same thing and hopefully something resonates,“ Mr Glassman said.

Last year a work colleague of Mr Glassman’s suggested that Bermuda also needed to hear Ms Stack’s message.

Mr Glassman said his family had been moved by the outpouring of support they have received since Nick’s death.

He said: “The love has been just unbelievable from every facet of our lives, back home in our small little town and here in Bermuda — everyone’s been just incredibly supportive and heartfelt.

“Many of my colleagues here knew Nick and they were very struck by this tragedy.

“This is a global issue and Bermuda has the same issues, as well as some of its own unique challenges.”

Mr Glassman said that the strength of today’s marijuana — perhaps up to ten times more potent than 30 years ago — created a “perfect storm” of possible consequences when taken by people whose brains were still developing — typically anyone who has not reached their mid-20s.

He said: “I’m not suggesting that every kid that tries marijuana is going to develop cannabis-induce psychosis or have suicidal thoughts, but the trouble is you don’t know how your DNA is made up so you’re really just rolling the dice.”

• The public are invited to a community conversation with Laura Stack on November 30 in the Ruth Seaton James Auditorium at CedarBridge Academy. Registration is at 5.30pm and the presentation starts at 6pm. The event is free. For more information, see johnnysambassadors.org

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Published November 29, 2023 at 7:54 am (Updated November 29, 2023 at 7:54 am)

Students warned of dangers of cannabis

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