Today we had the privilege of chatting with Karen Stack founder of Johnny’s Ambassadors, a nonprofit based in Colorado that aims to raise awareness around the issues marijuana’s impact on the developing brain. Karen’s son Johnny Stack was born on February 7, 2000 and died by suicide on November 20, 2019 at the age of 19. Johnny’s story speaks to the intersection of substance use disorders and mental health issues. Johnny’s mother Karen created Johnny’s Ambassadors because of the need to honor Johnny’s memory and prevent other parents from going through the same tragedy as her family.
Johnny Stack was born and raised in Colorado. He was an intelligent and healthy young man. At around the age of 14 Johnny started using marijuana. He had a happy life, a 4.0 GPA with a scholarship to college, and a family who loved him very much. Johnny’s marijuana use was on and off throughout high school but once he reached college his use began to increase. One of the most common ways Johnny would use his marijuana was through dabbing. Dabbing consists of using high-THC concentrates, such as wax, oil, shatter, or budder.
According to SAMHSA “Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal substance in the U.S. and its use is growing”. SAMHSA’s data indicates that the youth perception of how harmful marijuana use can be is declining. Which means that today many young people today do not consider marijuana use a risky behavior. Marijuana use disorder is on the rise according to SAMHSA. SAM, an organization that advocates and researches issues regarding marijuana prevention, indicates that marijuana is the number one reason that youth are admitted to treatment.
One of the major factors as to why marijuana use is risky for youth is that it impacts the developing brain. According to SAMHSA, studies link marijuana use to depression, anxiety, suicide planning, and psychotic episodes. While it is not clear if marijuana use actually causes these conditions there is research that shows a connection. Additionally, marijuana use can impact brain health, athletic ability, driving, fetal health, and overall quality of life. To learn more about the evidence around the risks of marijuna use for youth visit www.samhsa.gov/marijuana.
It is important to note that today’s marijuana is stronger than ever before. THC potency has risen from the 1970s, which contained roughly 1–3% THC to marijuana plant material with an average potency of 18-23% today. This potency refers to the plant itself. There are also what is known as THC concentrates which have an average of 55.7%.Today, many retailers promote and profit from products containing up to 95–99% THC. To learn more about the rise in THC levels in marijuana check out this article from the National Institutes of Health. High Potency Marijuana is especially harmful to the developing brain.
Johnny began experiencing mental health issues while in college. His mom Karen believes that his heavy use of high potency marijuana negatively impacted his mental health conditions. Karen feels the marijuana industry has made a point to offer the public a perception of safety about it’s product. However, that is not always the case especially for developing brains. There are many false narratives around medical and all natural use.
After Johnny’s death Karen was compelled to write a now viral Facebook post that led to the creation of Johnny’s Ambassadors. Karen wants people to know that “parents (and other caregivers) are very influential and they have a direct role in protecting youth”. To learn more about talking with youth about the dangers of marijuana check out this resource from SAMHSA https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/marijuana-brochure-newpics-r15f_508c.pdf