Lafonna Pacheco hardly recognized her daughter, Roxanne Delte, by the time she turned 17.
“It wasn’t just a teenager thing,” Pacheco said. “It was beyond that. She was paranoid, she was oppositional. Something mentally was going on and it was scary because I couldn’t put my finger on it.”
After five stints in rehab, Delte is able to say clearly what was going on: She was consuming too much high-potency cannabis — flower, yes, but also concentrated wax and other products, too — and that was ruining her life. She recalls regularly puking, and how uncomfortably high she would get from the wax in particular.
“I lost glimpses of time,” said Delte, who has not used cannabis for a year. “It completely changed my mental state and my routine.”
“Her friends thought she was smoking something else,” added Pacheco, who lives in Colorado Springs. “She wasn’t on crack, not on meth. The way these marijuana products affected her in her mind and her actions was complete psychosis.”
Such extreme cases are showing up more among Colorado youth, parents and school health professionals say. And people like Pacheco are increasingly pleading with lawmakers to cut off teens’ easy access to cannabis products, as well as asking for more regulation of products like edibles, wax and shatter that contain THC levels that can be dangerous for developing brains.
Their champion in the Colorado Legislature is Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a pediatrician who has for months been negotiating legislation to limit THC potency. She’s unlikely to succeed in installing any THC caps this year, but said she’s “pretty certain” she’ll introduce a bill with other provisions to more strictly regulate cannabis sales for medical and recreational buyers, with a focus on limiting youth access.
Growing evidence shows high-potency THC products are more likely to bring on or worsen mental health issues in young people. The state’s own reporting says so, and a broader study of 204,000 people ages 10-24 released in January in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s pediatrics publication found elevated risk of self-harm among young people who misused cannabis.
“We found SUBSTANTIAL evidence that THC intoxication can cause acute psychotic symptoms, which are worse with higher doses,” the 2020 report from Colorado’s health department said.
But the overall body of research on this topic is limited, and the state’s report also recommended further studies on THC’s effects on kids.
Concentrate use on the rise
The Denver Post spoke with a half-dozen mothers around the state whose stories had striking common denominators: severe and initially unexplainable symptoms; a child’s gradual loss of self; a parent’s shame and confusion over what was happening; and, eventually, a realization of how many other families were going through the same situations.
Robin Noble of Boulder recalls a time when her son, then 15, was sent home from school for getting high. She went to pick him up, and one of her son’s coaches told her not to go hard on the boy, saying “it’s just pot.” Soon, her son was having multi-day episodes, marked by what Noble called “projectile vomiting and then when there’s nothing left … screaming, retching, crying.”
“I felt like such a sucker, when I finally really woke up to this problem,” added Noble, who now serves on her city’s cannabis advisory board and is a legislative aide to Democratic state Rep. Judy Amabile of Boulder. Nobel said she did not support legalization in 2012 but that her interest now is in preventing youth access, not “going backwards” by broadly limiting the industry.
There are rules in place already to keep cannabis from kids: All marijuana products in Colorado have strict packaging requirements, including labels that mention health risks. Business owners must also scan identification cards for customers to ensure they are of age, and dispensaries are subject to random regulatory audits.
Latest data from the state’s biannual and comprehensive Healthy Kids Colorado Survey show overall cannabis use among Colorado’s kids has been mostly flat for years. Among children who reported having consumed cannabis in the past 30 days, 52% said they had dabbed — vaporized a high-THC cannabis concentrate — up from 20% just four years ago. Statewide trends for all cannabis users also show increasing popularity of concentrates.
“Use and misuse has not only become increased at an alarming rate — we’re seeing it in younger and younger populations,” said Haley Houtchens, legislative co-chair for the Colorado Association of School Nurses.
There’s nothing new about kids using cannabis, or about the personality changes that happen to some teens who do. But cannabis concentrates are much stronger than smokable flower, and vape pens are easy for students to hide and consume discreetly, which Houtchens believes is partially to blame for the trends.
“We are worried,” said Houtchens, who works as a nurse in five Brighton schools. “And it’s not a punishment thing. There’s just this perception that because it’s legal it’s OK, it’s safe. For the growing, frontal lobe brain, it’s just not OK.”
Caraveo, the lone medical doctor in Colorado’s statehouse, has similar observations from her private practice in pediatrics. She said it’s what motivated her to propose a hard cap on THC content — and that she has the backing of both the Boulder-based group Blue Rising and the national group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which has historical ties to anti-legalization efforts.
Caraveo doesn’t oppose legal marijuana and neither does Blue Rising’s co-founder, Dawn Reinfeld. Their alliance with Smart Approaches to Marijuana, however, has angered people in the industry. To that, Reinfeld said it’s not a fight to have at the moment, adding, “I know that legalization is here to stay and I don’t have an issue with that.”
Legislating marijuana is tricky
The centerpiece of the initial version of Caraveo’s bill — a THC cap that she first tried to set at 15% for all products — was never politically viable, as it would have wiped out huge swaths of the state’s cannabis industry. Fifteen percent THC or higher is common not only in concentrates (which can be as high as above 90%) but also traditional flower.
Lawmakers support the cannabis industry in part because they are increasingly convinced of its vast medical benefits, in addition to things like job creation and revenue. The state this year passed $10 billion in sales since 2014.
This is true on both sides of the aisle, as demonstrated this year through several bills.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican, is sponsoring one bill, SB21-56, to expand and streamline the use of non-smokable cannabis medicine in schools. He recently said the effort “has helped people in a more significant way than anything else I’ve worked on in 10 years in the legislature.”
But there’s also broad concern among lawmakers about how easy it is for teens to get weed in all of its iterations — and concern about the stories they’re hearing from people like Noble and Pacheco.
Caraveo’s expected legislation will likely propose creating a new state database to enforce, for the first time, the state limits of daily dispensary purchases. Currently, medical and recreational customers can hop from one dispensary to another and buy one or two ounces of flower at a time, or dozens of grams of concentrate.
Lawmakers may also require some patients to consult with two different doctors instead of one before obtaining medical cards.
“I absolutely agree, and so do the physicians who work in this space, that we could use more guardrails around the 18-to-20-year-olds using medical cannabis as a way to get access to high-THC potency products,” said Rep. Edie Hooton, a Boulder Democrat who has helped pass multiple new laws expanding medical cannabis and adamantly opposes a THC cap.
House Speaker and Denver Democrat Alec Garnett is at the center of the negotiation, and also appears to have moved on from the idea of potency caps for now. He wants to kick the matter to state health experts to study independently and return in a coming year with policy recommendations.
There is also talk of the legislature referring a tax to the November statewide ballot that specifically targets concentrates, which could be combined with an existing ballot initiative seeking an additional 5% tax on all recreational marijuana products to fund after-school programming for low-income children.
“This is really hard stuff,” Garnett said. “We have an opportunity to do something really big. I hope that it doesn’t escape us.”
Concerned parents hope the same.
“It’s so uncool to talk about cannabis in a negative way and people are rightly excited about the new entrepreneurship opportunities, the revenue,” Noble said. “But getting lost in this is that some people, especially young people with developing brains, can be significantly harmed.”
Mason Tvert, who co-directed the campaign to legalize cannabis in Colorado in 2012 and is now a partner at a cannabis policy and public affairs firm in Denver, said that “the industry has been doing everything it can on the youth-use front.”
And while he and Hooton both said they’re glad to continue that conversation with parents — as long as potency caps aren’t involved and access for cannabis patients and adult customers is protected.
“This always gets framed as concerned parents versus either legalization advocates or cannabis businesses, and that’s not the case,” Tvert said. “Folks in the cannabis industry care every bit as much about the health and safety of their own children and others’ children as the folks who are pushing for new restrictions.”
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