Does marijuana use increase teen suicide risk?

In memory of Johnny Stack who died by suicide, November 20, 2019, at age 19

by Laura Stack

Johnny Stack, February 7, 2000 -November 20, 2019

Trigger warning: Strong emotional content and suicide method mentioned.

My cell phone rang at 1:03 AM on Thursday, November 20, 2019, and I woke with a start. I always kept my ringtone volume on full blast so I hear my son Johnny’s late-night calls. I reached over picked up the phone expecting to see my son’s name on the screen.

Instead, it said Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.

“Hello?”

The voice on the other end answered, “Hello, ma’am, this is Officer so and so with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. I’m at your front door. Will you please come down?”

I replied, slightly irritated, “Do you have Johnny with you?”

“No, ma’am. I’m sorry—I do not.”

A cold chill went through my veins

I rolled over and woke up my husband, John, and said, “The police are at the door. It’s Johnny.”

He jumped out of bed, we threw on our robes, hurried downstairs, and opened the door. A police officer in uniform stood there alongside a woman in a black shirt and pants. We asked them in and led them into the living room where intuitively, we knew to sit down.

The woman in black said, “Mr. and Mrs. Stack, I’m with the coroner’s office. I’m so sorry to tell you that your son is deceased.”

I blinked, stared at her for a few seconds, not quite comprehending what I’d heard. I felt John’s grip on my hand tighten. I asked, “Deceased? What do you mean, deceased?”

“He’s dead, ma’am,” she said. “He jumped off a parking garage.” I screamed and fell into John’s arms, sobbing.

I was now living every parent’s worst nightmare.

My son, Johnny Stack was born on February 7, 2000, and died by suicide on November 20, 2019, at the age of 19. He was an incredibly intelligent, funny, charming, handsome young man, which you can see in his tribute video.

We are a normal suburban family and did normal family things

My son had a good life. A 4.0 GPA had earned him a college scholarship, and he had a family who loved him and still loves him very much.

Unfortunately, we live in Colorado, which was the first state to legalize marijuana in 2014 when Johnny was 14 years old.

At about age 16, when he could drive, he graduated to “dabbing” high-THC marijuana, which is a very potent wax or “shatter” form of nearly-pure THC. That triggered bizarre episodes of psychosis, a first suicide attempt, and delusional thinking. He complained that the FBI was after him, the world “knew about him,” the mob had it in for him, we were “in on it,” and so on.

We would withdraw him from college and admit him to mental hospitals. They would stabilize him with medications, and he’d recover until he started using again.

He was put on anti-psychotics to control the delusions. Because he was extremely intelligent, he didn’t like how “stupid” the meds made him feel. So, he stopped taking them without telling us, a common problem with the disorder.

Three days before he died, he came over for dinner. He lived in our condo a couple of miles down the road and often popped in for a home-cooked meal.

“I need to tell you that you were right,” he said.

“Right about what?” I asked.

“Right about marijuana. You told me that weed would hurt my brain. It’s ruined my mind and my life. You were right all along. I’m sorry, and I love you.”

His suicide happened three days after that conversation.

What is dabbing?

Johnny “dabbed” for years, starting 16, or maybe 15. Do you know what “dabbed” means? Not everyone does.

Do you understand the difference between smoking cannabis flower and dabbing high-THC concentrates, such as wax, oil, shatter, or budder (not a typo)?

Cannabis concentrate types

Most of my friends look at me blankly when I tell them this. They respond with, “I’ve never even heard about it,” or “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” If you don’t know what cannabis concentrates are, and you have children, grandchildren, sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews between the ages of 14 and 24, keep reading.

I am NOT talking about those of you who are supporters of legal recreational marijuana. For adults over 21 years old—it’s your life—do what you want. I know some people who take it successfully for specific medical purposes, so we aren’t against that either.

I’m specifically referring to illegal, recreational usage by adolescents under 21 whose brains are still forming.

You may be thinking, “C’mon, Laura, it’s no big deal – it’s just pot.” “Pot’s legal, so it must be safe.” Or “I used to do pot when I was a teen, too, and it didn’t hurt me.”

Well, have you recently studied today’s pot? Have you personally seen its effects on your children like I have?

Why are cannabis concentrates so different?

First, the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a crystalline compound that is the main active ingredient of cannabis that gives the “high,” is extracted out of the cannabis so that it’s nearly pure.

THC is the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis.

Cannabis concentrates are vaporized by using a butane torch to heat the crystals which are similar to beeswax. Or the oil is added to a “dab rig”, or vaping device with a heating element called a dab pen.

Dab Rig

Forget the “grass” or “papers” that were rolled in the seventies and eighties. The pot our generation grew up with is enormously different than today’s high-concentrate extracts. For comparison sake, the seventies marijuana had about 10% or less THC content and today’s high-concentrate extracts often have 80% THC content or higher.

The brain is still developing through a person’s twenties

Psychotic disorders typically develop in the late teenage years. During brain formation, heavy cannabis use has been shown to have a negative effect on the formation of neural pathways which often leads to heavier drug use. While the vast majority of marijuana smokers never experience permanent mental illness, researchers have found that the earlier and heavier someone starts dabbing, the more likely it is that they will develop a disorder at some point, often years later.

The harmful combination of a brain that has not matured yet, high-potency THC products, and a high frequency of use can result in Cannabis-Induced Psychosis (CIP). That is a genuine diagnosis and is also written as High-THC Abuse – Severe. Repeated CIP incidents can trigger schizophrenia or other mental illness. Even if cannabis misuse ceases, the psychosis remains.

This is what happened to my beautiful boy

My son’s toxicology report following his death showed ZERO drugs in his system.

His final note to us said the mob was after him, the university was an FBI base, and the whole world knew everything about him.

He wasn’t depressed, neglected, drugged, or unloved.

He was psychotic, paranoid, delusional, and he jumped in an effort to end his pain. He refused the anti-psychotic drugs he desperately needed because he thought he wasn’t sick– a common problem for people who live with schizophrenia. And common to families who struggle with loved ones who don’t want to take much needed anti-psychotic medication once they start to feel normalized and stable.

As parents, grandparents, friends, and counselors

We must first educate ourselves about the dangers of high-THC marijuana. Then we must warn our children when they are young (10-12 years old) and use hyper-vigilance in the early teen years. This is much easier to do before the age of 16 when they can drive, as you can’t lock them up or monitor them 24/7. They need to understand what this is, before “that friend” shows up at a party offering dabs.

I am compelled to help increase awareness about dabbing and prevent more senseless deaths. Keep talking and keep trying!

USA 1-800-273-8255
USA Crisis Text 741-741
US Crisis line for LGBTQ Youth 1-866-488-7386
US Crisis Text for LGBTQ Youth 678-678
Canada 1-833-456-4566
United Kingdom 116 123
Australia 13 11 14
International suicide hotlines

Published by

Laura Stack

Laura Stack is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is also a mother of a Johnny Stack, who died by suicide after becoming dependent on cannabis concentrates.

12 thoughts on “Does marijuana use increase teen suicide risk?”

  1. I am so sorry your son took his life. I watched your video and cried for your pain. My two children ( I’m in England) both smoke “weed” They are adults, over 30 and I have no control over them. All drugs should be banned in my opinion. I am an internet friend of Anne who’s son Charles also died by suicide. I know you have a wonderful, caring, special friend in Anne. I’m sending you both ❤❤my heart breaks for your family. Love Carol 🙏

    1. Thank you, Carol. I appreciate your note and kindness so much. It has been pretty awful. Anne has been a faithful friend and comforter since the beginning. Did your boys smoke weed from an early age or when they were adults? Just curious.

  2. Thank you Laura for sharing this story. I found my beautiful, smart, funny son Luke in his car in the driveway of a home we cleared out to rent on March 30, 2018. It was his third attempt to rid himself of his pain this way. I got-a call from the sober house manager to say Luke had missed curfew the night before, a full 12 hours after he had gone missing. We had watched high potency THC steal him from himself, and from us. It all began after an ACL tear removed him from sports, from friends and became his escape. To watch how marijuana twisted his thinking, his reality and his soul was an unthinkable journey. To have crime scene tape prevent you from from reaching your child is a pain no parent should have to bear. Thank you for sharing your story.

    1. SarahKate, I am so sorry your son died, too. That’s just awful you couldn’t see him. We saw Johnny the next morning when the funeral home director was briefly able to retrieve his body for us before the autopsy. It was horrible seeing him dead but wonderful to be able to hold him and stroke his hair one more time. We are determined to warn other parents and teens about the high-THC poison that’s ruining their minds. Please join at http://www.JohnnysAmbassadors.org.

  3. Thank you for writing this blog. I watched your TED Talk and it touches my heart. I’m very sorry to learn about your son’s death by suicide. I am very touched by your courage and passion. My son survived his suicide attempt, and I relate to Laura Stack and her family on many levels. I lived in Pueblo Colorado. My son was born Jan. 21, 2000 but was due on Johnny’s birthday. (I just realized that, my son was born early). My son’s suicide attempt was Fed 2015 after marijuana dabbing. The week prior to his suicide attempt, my son was irrational, paranoid. inconsolable, and repeating things that did not make sense. After 2 hospitalizations, he told me about dabbing, which he called crack weed, and said he knew it was making him feel crazy and he was trying to quit. It’s been a long hard road. We’ve had a lot of treatments over the years, he was on meth and did some heroin by the age of 16. I had to get him out of Colorado for good treatment, and then I and my younger son moved too. My son was sober for 3 years but has been relapsing recently. After smoking marijuana again, he was paranoid for 12 hours and thought he was going to die. He encourages me to keep speaking about this. He is devastated that these products are available and are called medicine. He sees many people being harmed, especially his peers. His father, my husband thought marijuana was medicine and was smoking flower that was about 24% THC, which harmed him. It didn’t help him. My husband has never been the same. He lives with serve depression and anxiety. I’m grateful on one hand that you and Laura’s voices are heard and your son’s lives help others, but on the other hand I am horrified that this public health disaster is not understood and the promotion of marijuana continues. I apologize for my poor grammar and spelling. I just want to thank you.

  4. Poignant story. I’m deeply sorry for your loss of Johnny. I lost a sister (suicide) to whom I was very close in 1977 and still miss her. Today, I speak out re: alternatives before becoming suicidal.
    How can I help?

  5. That being said, parents need to understand that drugs are 100% easier to obtain than alcohol! No ID or store needed.
    And while marijuana has its benefits, everyday use of ANYTHING is a problem, especially for young brains.
    I’m a recovering (14+ years clean) addict who didn’t try marijuana or alcohol until I was 17 years old. I definitely went through an “addictive” marijuana phase in my late 20s.
    Parents, especially of achieving, otherwise responsible kids, be parents, not friends. Don’t let them use at home. I CRAVED discipline when I was a teenager, but my mother figured I would discipline myself. But I wasn’t the adult. I NEEDED that care.
    Tak to them, find out what their deepest troubles are. There’s always SOMETHING to self-medicate away.
    Love and light to those who have lost children. My heart is with you.

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