In March of 2022, our community had the privilege of hearing from Laura Stack in person about her family’s own story around this difficult subject. On October 4th at 7:00pm at the Robert J. Collins Arena at Brookdale Community College, Laura Stack will once again visit for a second WEforum Community Conversation, in partnership with the Tigger Stavola Foundation. Laura will share with our local community the dangers around addiction, mental health, and our children. What follows is a recap of her powerful presentation.
“There is no safe amount of marijuana in the developing teen brain,” said Laura Stack, founder of Johnny’s Ambassadors, at a recent WEforum Community Conversation held at Red Bank Regional High School last spring. Stack formed the nonprofit Johnny’s Ambassadors to educate parents and teens about the dangers of today’s high THC marijuana on adolescent brain development and mental illness. Her son Johnny Stack died tragically at the age of 19. He was 14 years old when Colorado, his home state, legalized marijuana.
Motivated by the desire to ensure that what happened to her son will not happen to others, Stack began the conversation by explaining the different types of substances regarded as marijuana and how they affect the brain.
Cannabis – In botany, the cannabis plant is defined as a “genus” with different species below it. The cannabis plant has hundreds of different chemicals called “cannabinoids.”
THC – is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the most common cannabinoid in the cannabis plant. It is psychoactive, meaning it gives a “high” feeling.
CBD – is cannabidiol (CBD), the second most common cannabinoid in the cannabis plant. It is not psychoactive on its own.
Marijuana – is a variety of cannabis that contains greater than .3% THC and is used to make pharmaceutical and recreational drugs. Delta-9- THC comes from marijuana and is psychoactive.
Hemp – is a variety of cannabis that contains less than .3% THC and is used to make paint, rope, and paper. Delta-8- found in hemp-derived CBD in trace amounts and is psychoactive.
“There are no studies that indicate today’s high-potency marijuana products are healthy for youth,” Stack said. She explained that “old-school” marijuana, used in the 1970’s and 80’s, contained between 2% and 5% THC to the audience. Today’s marijuana has been cultivated to be much stronger, between 15 and 30% and even more. Old-school marijuana used to contain equal amounts of CBD, which was a protective factor. Most of the marijuana sold and obtained today contains almost no CBD, just THC.
“Then chemists invented new marijuana products that didn’t exist in the past,” Stack continued as she showed slides of the different chemically made products kids are using today. Raw THC is extracted from marijuana using a machine and turned into concentrates. These products, such as wax, shatter, and crystal (“dabs”), can be 60-99% pure THC. Extracted THC can be further distilled into oils, which are 80-99% pure. These oils can be vaped or put into edibles. Stack added, “Marijuana might start as a plant, but these products are created in a lab, and there’s nothing natural about them!”
Researchers find that teens who use marijuana have impaired cognition and memory problems. Their studies prove that heavy marijuana use as an adolescent predicts an eight point drop in IQ. For example, an A student who drops eight points in IQ, will now be a C student; and a former C student will be in danger of failing. Even once marijuana use ceases, the IQ points are not regained. Additionally, researchers performed MRI scans on the brains of 799 teens, at age 14 then again at 19. The teens with more marijuana use had a thinner prefrontal cortex, which can impact their decision-making abilities as they continue to age. Though there are obvious negative short term effects related to marijuana use, the long term effects can include clinical depression and increased symptoms of any existing mental disorders that may already exist.
“I wish I could say that this is the first time I have read or heard the story of a bright, happy, gifted child and beloved son’s downwards spiral into depression, psychosis, despair, and suicide after becoming addicted to cannabis,” said Paula Riggs, MD, Professor, Director, Division of Addiction Science, Prevention & Treatment, Vice Chair, Faculty Affairs, Department of Psychiatry, University of Colorado School of Medicine. The National Institute of Health provides research that says the human brain continues to grow and develop until age 25 for females and up to age 30 for males. Therefore, anything that interferes with brain programming can lead to cognitive, emotional, and mental health problems.
Contrary to common belief, marijuana addiction does exist and is termed “Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD)” in the medical profession. One out of six teens who start using marijuana at a young age will become addicted, and one in three teens who use marijuana daily will become addicted. “When Johnny was 18 years old, he had come full circle,” Stack said. “He is now a marijuana dealer with a Med card. Johnny didn’t have a single medical issue.”
As products containing cannabis increase in popularity, chances are that many consumers either have used or are considering using such products. However, these products have not gone through the FDA’s rigorous safety and efficacy process, meaning consumers could be at risk of ingesting contaminated and dangerous substances. Additionally, consumers often take cannabis-containing products without appropriate medical supervision, which could lead to harmful side effects.
Some states have introduced legislation that would require health plans to cover non-FDA-approved cannabis products. This type of legislation poses health and safety risks to consumers. FDA-approved products must uniformly meet quality and purity standards. The FDA also requires substantial scientific evidence to prove a drug is safe and effectively treats a particular medical condition before being approved. In addition, the U.S. Surgeon General and American Heart Association (AHA) have both issued warnings on the use of marijuana, noting that it can damage the brain and lead to heart attack or even stroke.
At the end of the conversation, Stack was presented with a wonderful surprise by Scott Venancio, from Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School, who donated $14,000 to Johnny’s Ambassadors. Venancio ran the 4x4x48 Goggins Challenge in honor of his family friend, Nick. He died tragically after being addicted to marijuana. He had cannabis-induced psychosis from using marijuana with high-potency THC concentrates. He was a former honor student at Christian Brothers Academy and was attending Providence College. His parents, Steve and Carolyn, have decided to channel their grief into supporting Johnny’s Ambassadors’ mission. “While we are still trying to process how this could have possibly happened, we know for sure that it involved his marijuana use,” said Carolyn. “One of the last things he said to me was, mom, my brain feels empty.”
Overall, the biggest takeaway from Stack’s presentation is the danger THC products present to today’s youth. Dr. Karen Randall, an Emergency Room physician in Pueblo, Colorado, says she sees teens in the ER with acute psychotic episodes, poisonings, and uncontrollable vomiting due to using too much THC. “If Johnny hadn’t started using marijuana, I know he would still be alive today,” said Laura Stack.
At the end of the evening, Stack left parents with this advice:
Start talking about substance abuse early.
Set clear NO USE rules.
Do not use marijuana yourself.
Keep track of your children and their phones.
Come up with a code word to help your teen out of an uncomfortable social situation.
Help your child plan for challenges of peer pressure.
Drug test your children.
The WEforum Community Conversation is proud to partner with Monmouth Medical Center’s RWJBarnabas Health Institute of Prevention and Recovery, Mental Health Association of Monmouth County and Tigger Stavola Foundation whose mission is to fight addiction, spread awareness, and save lives through drug prevention and education. On October 4th, WEforum is also partnering with Brookdale Community College, who will be generously hosting the event at the Robert J. Collins Arena.
In-person attendees can buy a copy of Laura’s book. The conversation will begin promptly at 7:00 pm, so please arrive before then.
WHEN: Tuesday, October 4, 2022 WHERE: Robert J. Collins Arena at Brookdale Community College, Parking Lot 6, Lincroft, NJ 07738 TIME: Registration begins at 6:30 pm. Seminar begins promptly at 7:00 pm with Laura Stack and guest panel speakers Thomas A. Arnone, Monmouth County Board of Commissioners and Sheriff Shaun Golden. Q&A: 8:00-8:30 pm COST: FREE. REGISTER HERE: www.weforumgroup.org
CO-SPONSORED BY: WEforum, the Tigger Stavola Foundation, Monmouth Medical Center, an RWJBarnabas Affiliate (MMC), Institute of Prevention and Recovery RWJ, and Mental Health Association of Monmouth County.
IF YOU ARE SEEKING IMMEDIATE ASSISTANCE, please contact Tigger Stavola Foundation Addiction Navigator at firstname.lastname@example.org or 732-887-4851.
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