Marijuana use has exploded across the US since a wave of legalizations kicked off a decade ago, but some parents believe the super-strength strains of today are driving children to suicide.
Figures show found the number of Americans who have marijuana in their system when they try to kill themselves is growing at an alarming 17 percent per year – and the trend is being fueled by a rise in young people.
Sonia Jimenez, from Houston, Texas, lost her son Josh, 22, to suicide in December 2021, which she believes was caused by chronic cannabis use.
Josh started smoking and vaping the drug in 9th grade and soon formed a habit that resulted in three bouts of hospital stays for psychosis. He began seeing ‘demonic beings’ and was convinced his friends were trying to kill him.
On average, the marijuana of today contains three times as much THC – the psychoactive compound in weed that gets users and high and causes feelings of paranoia – as the strains enjoyed 25 years ago.
And it’s easier to get than ever. You can’t walk a single block in major cities like New York, LA and Denver anymore without passing a smoke shop selling a dizzying array of highly concentrated edibles and vapes containing THC.
Joshua Jimenez died by suicide in December 2021 at the age of 22. Josh had been using marijuana since age 14 and was hospitalized three times for psychosis linked to weed
The link between recreational marijuana use and alcohol consumption was most significant among younger adults 18 to 24, though the association between the two is likely not a product of college partying.
A leaked document made public in January features research from the National Institutes of Health on the potency of cannabis samples seized by state and federal law enforcement from 1995 and 2021.
Weed vapes claim to contain as much as 99 percent THC, while traditional smokable flower, which was about four percent THC in 1995, often tops 25 percent in stores today.
And many of the products are directly aimed at children and young people, with colorfully packaged and fruity-flavored vape pens and edibles designed to look like popular candies, such as ‘Stoney Patch Kids’.
Dr Lorraine Collins, a psychologist who specialized in substance use at University at Buffalo told DailyMail.com the wave of legalization across the US gives the false illusion that marijuana is a harmless substance without a risk of addiction.
But many families know that to be false. Ms Jimenez told DailyMail.com that her family had some history of mental illness and ADHD, but Josh did not exhibit signs of either until around the 9th grade when he started smoking marijuana.
After he began using weed, Josh’s grades started slipping. He also became extremely paranoid, saying that his friends had been trying to kill him, adding that he was seeing ‘some really scary stuff like dark, almost like demonic beings,’ according to his sister.
At one point, he fell asleep behind the wheel, going about 100 miles per hour, and was in a severe car crash. Another time, he fell asleep with a lit joint that burned down the friend’s house he was staying in.
Josh’s sister Alex said he had conned money out of family members before running away in the night to California. When he ran out of money Josh’s family paid for a bus to carry him back to Texas. But he never made it home. Josh got off the bus in Pecos, Texas, and jumped in front of a train.
His family blame the extremely potent strains of cannabis he was smoking. THC, particularly in high doses, has been associated with the development of different psychiatric disorders from depression to schizophrenia and psychosis.
A 2019 report published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry suggested that smoking high-potency marijuana every day could increase the chances of developing psychosis by nearly five times compared to never-users.
Kevin Bright died in 2018 after taking his own life at age 29. Kevin began smoking at the age of 15 and suffered several relapses over the years
David Childs was thrust into a public school mid-semester after being expelled from his small private school for buying drugs from an older student. The sudden change made his mental health worse, his father now acknowledges
Suicide rates remained around seven per 100,000 people between ages 10 and 24 from 2000 to 2007, and have climbed by 57 percent since, according to CDC data
People with certain genetic inclinations toward different psychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia, can also see their negative symptoms become more pronounced and disruptive.
Meanwhile, on the west coast, Bart Bright from Northern California said his son Kevin, had been self-medicating with marijuana to deal with his depression and anxiety.
Kevin, who began smoking weed at 15, suffered a psychotic break at 18 – his first of several, according to his father – before killing himself at the age of 29.
Mr Bright told DailyMail.com that during the first episode, he saw his son sitting in their backyard, which alone was unusual. Then, he said Kevin began banging himself against the sliding glass door at the back of the house.
Kevin entered different rehabs over the years and would get clean before eventually relapsing and starting back at one. After several relapses, Kevin took his own life in 2018 when he was 29.
During the same year as Kevin’s death, Texas native David Childs took his own life at the age of 19 after five years of continuous cannabis use.
When he was in 9th grade, David was expelled from his private school when he was caught buying a joint from an older student on the football team.
This led him to a large public school in the middle of the semester, a difficult situation for any teenager.
High school was a challenge for David, a devout Christian, who already had a diagnosis of ADHD. His drug use and low self-esteem was a deadly combination.
David’s father, Dr James Childs, told DailyMail.com: ‘He started spending more time with a bad influence friend who also turned him on to some demonic heavy metal music.’
His parents enrolled David in weekly counseling sessions but they did not seem to help. His parents remarked upon the fact that their son had ‘lost his smile’ as well as all motivation to do well in school or anywhere else.
David got worse after high school graduation, holing up in his room and spending his hard-earned money from a plumbing job to buy more weed.
On Thanksgiving 2018, David slept for most of the day before getting up and stabbing himself in the right palm. He was admitted to a mental health facility where he was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder with psychosis.
After his fourth day in an outpatient mental health program, David went home and smoked cannabis in the woods behind his house. When he re-entered the house, he picked up a handgun from the family safe and shot himself in the head.
The above shows cannabis use across American states. Some 19 have legalized it for recreational use, while nearly all now allow it to be used for medicinal purposes
Cannabis is relatively easy to purchase in New York City, as many stores sell the products without proper permission from the government
While marijuana is legal for recreational use in New York, unlicensed shops selling highly-potent THC vapes are cropping up everywhere. But law enforcement is straining to keep up
Weed’s long-term effects on mental health is still being studied, but a series of new studies over the past few years have suggested that frequent users are up to five times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts compared to non-users, according to data collected by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Just three percent of people studied who did not smoke cannabis had suicidal thoughts, but this rose to 14 percent for those with a ‘cannabis use disorder’ — a near five-fold increase.
Just because experts have found a correlation between suicides caused by psychosis and cannabis does not mean that cannabis causes suicide.
But as legalized weed has become more widespread in the past decade, suicide rates across the board have been increasing.
Federal data shows the overall suicide rate increased 30% between 2000 and 2020. The rate had increased from 10.4 per 100,000 persons in 2000 to a peak of 14.2 in 2018, followed by a slight five percent decline between 2018 and 2020 to 13.5.
The first states to legalize cannabis for recreational use were Colorado and Washington in 2012. Several states had already legalized it for medical use, though, including California in 1996, Oregon in 1998, and Maine in 1999.
Parents of the young victims believed that their children would have fit the mold for cannabis use disorder (CUD) a fairly recent diagnosis that many doctors may not recognize.
CUD is defined as the consistent use of cannabis despite the negative effects it has on one’s health and wellbeing.
An estimated 30 percent of marijuana users may have some degree of dependence or CUD. The problem is likely an underestimate because many people will not disclose the extent of their drug use due to stigma.
What are the health risks of marijuana?
About 48million Americans smoke cannabis at least once a year, official estimates suggest.
Marijuana is the third-most commonly used drug in the US behind alcohol and tobacco.
This figure is rising as states continue to legalize the drug.
21 US states have legalized the drug for recreational use for adults.
But evidence is also growing over its health risks, particularly for young adults.
Researchers suggest it has the following negative impacts:
- Brain damage: It can cause a permanent loss of IQ because it hinders brain development and could even have lasting cognition effects in young adults;
- Mental health: It has been linked to increased rates of suicide as well as psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety, although it is unclear if marijuana is the cause;
- Daily life: Surveys link it to more problems in careers and maintaining healthy relationships;
- Driving: Those who drive under the influence have slower reactions and less coordination, research shows.
The changing legal landscape of the drug, including lax limitations on high-potency products sold in stores, increases the odds that a person will become addicted.
Thirty-eight states states have legalized the use of cannabis for medical purposes while 21 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of cannabis in adults, a major shift in the legal landscape that has produced an explosion of marijuana retail shops.
A ‘wild west’ landscape of regulations, which vary greatly between states, has allowed the illegal market to prosper and for bad actors to infuse vapes with harmful chemicals such as fentanyl and spice that turbocharge the high as well as genetically alter crops so as to grow ultra strong strains.
Dr Collins said: ‘It’s not clear to me that what these teenagers are buying is just cannabis. I mean, somebody needs to test these products because as we know drug marketers are cutting cannabis with whatever they can get their hands on. It’s not unusual for fentanyl, for example, to be in the mix.
‘Unfortunately, teenagers, actually many cannabis consumers are naive about what they’re buying and have no way of verifying what they’re buying.’
The perceived positive effects of weed, such as the feelings of euphoria and relaxation, can reinforce the regular use of the drug, potentially disrupting other facets of a person’s life.
In 2016, researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the government-run National Institutes of Health, found that 2.5 percent of adults — nearly 6 million people — experienced marijuana use disorder in the past year.
In the cases of Josh, David, and Kevin, the downward spirals happened gradually and then suddenly.
Josh’s mother Sonia said: ‘[Cannabis] will, without a doubt, trigger psychosis and you will be stuck in this horror film, in and out of trying to figure out what to do, because it’s so different from alcohol; alcohol, you get drunk. And then you come back.’
The parents work with Every Brain Matters, an advocacy organization dedicated to educating people about the dangers that come with frequent cannabis use and how a changing legal landscape is exacerbating the problem.
Despite horror stories from parents who have had to say goodbye to their children too soon, marijuana has shown anecdotal evidence of helping people with mental disturbances, from mild anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder.
A 2018 report published in the Journal of Affective Disorders by researchers in Washington state found that cannabis users saw a 50 percent decline in their depression symptoms and a 58 percent decline in anxiety and stress levels after just a couple of puffs.
Repeated use of the drug does not necessarily mean those symptoms will disappear entirely in the long term. Some users who consume marijuana regularly will experience worsening symptoms.
Another, much smaller study into the drug’s stress-relieving powers involving 42 people was published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence in 2017. Researchers from Chicago found that people who took 7.5mg of THC significantly reduced people’s emotional stress compared to a placebo dose.
But people who consumed 12.5mg saw their stress levels worsen further, suggesting that while low amounts of the drug can provide some relief, those benefits disappear when a person takes more.
If you or a loved one needs help, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988.