Nineteen-year-old Kaleb is 41 days and seven hours sober when he sits down for a long conversation about his marijuana addiction.
Two more months, his treatment providers tell him, and he’ll likely be able to deliver his first clean drug test in many years showing no presence of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis that produces a euphoric high and can affect the mind and body for weeks after use — especially if you’re like Kaleb, who was getting high every day along with about 6 percent of American high school seniors. This according to the federally funded Monitoring the Future, one of the United States’ most extensive and longest-running surveys of students’ drug use and attitudes toward substances.
See also: Concerns over adolescents’ use
By his own admission, Kaleb, who is days away from his 20th birthday, has spent practically all of his teen years stoned, or “blazed.” He is still coming out of a mental and physical haze — and also coming to terms with the problems that stacked up for him when he checked out of life to pursue recreation of the chemically induced kind.
He’s regaining clarity and focus — and a sense of ambition he says he hasn’t felt in years.
It is a different kind of ambition than the one that drove him to manipulate everyone around him to score his next hit. With an easy smile — but determined brown eyes that family and friends say are finally clear again — Kaleb says he wants a fresh start and to be fully present in his life and community. He doesn’t want credit for merely showing up — which is how he sums up his graduation from Sand Creek High in 2013 with a 1.8 GPA. Kaleb wants a college degree and a career. He wants to repair strained relationships.
And when he’s healthy and confident enough, Kaleb also wants to work to stop the United States’ burgeoning marijuana industry and to reverse what he calls “clueless and dangerous” cannabis laws. Kaleb’s story suggests a state at risk of triggering a public health crisis that will hit youths especially hard because they are caught in a lot of the same social dynamics Kaleb said he found in his high school’s cafeteria.
“It’s [marijuana industry] all so misleading, and there’s a lot of trickery going on because there are big money and politics in this and not enough people standing up to do the right thing because they’re afraid of losing something — like money, power, privilege or image,” Kaleb said. “I compare it to Big Tobacco and bogus 1950s ads pushing everyone to smoke cigarettes — you know, as an expression of personal freedom and with a mythical 9 out of 10 doctors saying it’s all right. Only this time, it’s not just a buzz from some nicotine we’re talking about. Weed is a psychoactive, mind-altering substance. It is addictive. And I don’t care what anyone says; it is being marketed to kids.”
Advocates for drug abuse prevention say many Americans — including and especially those making public policy and influencing public opinion from massive media platforms — either have been duped by or are caught up in the hype generated by an industry that derives its chief profits from addiction.
“People are voting without the knowledge,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told hundreds of people gathered in February 2014 in Washington, D.C., for an annual meeting of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. “We have to counter investments of individuals wanting to change the culture and (promote beliefs that) it (marijuana) is a safe drug.”
And while no, most people who use marijuana — and alcohol for that matter — aren’t addicts, Kaleb says, “You just have to be intoxicated, not an addict, to cause serious damage. And yeah, getting sober in Colorado is really hard because drugs and media telling you why they’re so great are everywhere all the time now.”
Indeed, while the state reports that about 485,000 Coloradans 18 and older are regular marijuana users (defined as using at least once a month), state auditors examining marijuana sold in state-licensed facilities found that about 106,000 Coloradans — or nearly2 percent of the state’s population — drove more than two-thirds of demand for the drug. Reports from the Colorado Department of Revenue refer to those people as the “heaviest users” because they consume cannabis daily or near daily — behavior consistent with substance addiction.
“We’re mortgaging our future for the almighty dollar,” said Kevin Sabet, a former senior White House drug policy adviser who teamed with former Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy and political pundit David Frum to start Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national, nonprofit group that advocates for marijuana policy reform but does not support the drug’s legalization. “Make no mistake,” Sabet said. “Legalization is about cranking up the number of heavy users, targeting the most vulnerable — as every industry selling an addictive drug does — and making money. That’s it. If it were about getting people out of prison or increasing science-based prevention, there are myriad ways to do those things without ushering in Big Tobacco 2.0.”
In December, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health delivered more troubling news reinforcing the cacophony of late-night jokes that Colorado has a drug problem and plenty of enablers. Pick a substance — alcohol, abused prescription painkillers, cocaine, heroin, marijuana or tobacco — and the state ranks above the national average.
But it is marijuana use that Colorado works hardest on these days. The need to explain spiking drug-use rates while implementing legalization of retail marijuana sales is increasingly pressing: The state’s 2013 past-month marijuana use rate was the nation’s second highest, coming in at 12.7 percent of Coloradans age 12 and older. That is up from 10.41 percent in 2012, when voters sanctioned recreational marijuana use, and from 7.8 percent in 2000, when they sanctioned marijuana for medical use. With the January 2014 rollout of retail marijuana, Colorado usage rates are likely to increase.
Use of alcohol and nonmedical painkillers also increased in Colorado between 2012 and 2013. While marijuana legalization’s impact on the consumption of other drugs is the subject of heated debate among economists and drug-policy advocates, the connection is much more straightforward for Kaleb.
“The weed, not alcohol or tobacco, came first, and the more I used, the more I drank, and the more pills I eventually popped,” he said. “That (progression) doesn’t happen to everyone who uses weed, but it happens to enough of us. It’s a gateway.”
The trends in marijuana use and addiction specifically among Colorado’s youths are also disturbing — if for no other reason than the state has kept poor data and now finds itself building a baseline by which marijuana’s impact on youth can be determined.
The 2013 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, administered to youths enrolled in public schools, is the state’s most robust evaluation of students’ marijuana use and attitudes about the drug, said Alyson Shupe, chief of the health statistics and evaluation branch of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Comparing the 2013 state-survey data to the much smaller samples collected from students in previous years for a federally funded study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is difficult. “The actual percentages aren’t affected so much as the confidence with which you can say you have a clear picture of what has happened and can detect meaningful change over that time,” Shupe said. The state now wishes to press on with a more robust survey, but it will be years before researchers can determine use trends — a lag in information that could keep a response years behind any problems.
While Kaleb blames himself for getting high the first time, he also recognizes that he was a 14-year-old who believed his friend’s parents when they said marijuana wasn’t addictive and was safer to use than alcohol. The couple had medical marijuana cards and diverted their stash to their son and his friends, Kaleb said.
His experience is consistentwith research conducted byDr. Christian Thurstone, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado, and his colleagues: 74 percent of Denver teens in substance treatment and 18 percent of Denver teens not in substance treatment reported getting the drug from people with a state-issued license. (Thurstone is the husband of reporter Christine Tatum, who worked on this project for The Gazette.)
When he turned 18, Kaleb wasted no time getting a “red card” — and dealing the drug. He found plenty of customers at schools. Of the 2.4 million Americans who try cannabis for the first time each year, about 57 percent are younger than 18, according to the NSDUH. Peak use among Americans is at age 20 — followed by ages 19 and 18. One of every six adolescents who try marijuana becomes addicted to the drug — a rate medical experts say was determined decades ago when marijuana was far less potent than it is today.
To land the state’s permission to use weed, Kaleb said he headed to a Colorado Springs business that sold medical marijuana evaluations for $65. He fabricated a story about hurting his knee while playing football at school — a sport he’d never played at school. The doctor Kaleb briefly met diagnosed him with tendinitis and recommended what essentially became an unlimited supply of marijuana, hash oil and THC-infused foods and drinks.
By then, Kaleb knew where to find coupons and special offers of pot freebies and paraphernalia in the free glossy magazines that were always stacked in local convenience stores.
Though the state permits medical marijuana users to designate only one “caregiver,” or supplier of the drug, Kaleb said he maintained “memberships” at 12-15 dispensaries at a time.
Fueled by constant buy-2-grams-get-1-free specials, Kaleb quickly amassed a cannabis stash. Each day he dealt to other kids, he said, he typically cleared $1,083 in profit — much of which fed his own drug habit, which had advanced from smoking marijuana to consuming hash oil. The oil, which can be vaporized or infused into foods and drinks, typically starts at 85 percent THC. That’s about 40 times the potency of the weed of Woodstock, which was around2 percent THC. Even 1 ounce of the oil can impair hundreds of people. Kaleb said he consumed hash oil five to eight times a day just to feel normal.
“It’s the crack of marijuana,” he said.
Use of hash oil is a relatively new and increasingly popular trend that can cause severe reactions, such as panic and psychosis, Thurstone said. Kaleb said he saw those reactions in friends.
Kaleb’s newfound drive to take a stand against cannabis in all its forms is fueled in part by anger he says he’s determined to channel to spare other people — especially youths — the problems he experienced. His use of hash oil really did him in, he said — but not so much that he didn’t notice the adults in his life who essentially shrugged their shoulders about his marijuana use.
There were the traffic stops, when waves of pungent pot smoke billowed from his car and into the faces of police officers who said nothing when Kaleb produced his red card. There were the teachers who winked and joked about how he’d obviously “had a really nice lunch” when he returned to their classrooms so stoned he’d just put his head on his desk. There were the parents of friends who liked toking with high schoolers.
And then there were Kaleb’s parents, who, after years of pleading and efforts to find him treatment, finally asked him to leave their home a couple of months before his high school graduation. Chief among their fears was that he would be a harmful influence on his younger brother.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life, but I know it’s what had to be done to save his life and to protect the rest of our family,” said Lisa Taylor, Kaleb’s mother. “What really gets me about this entire issue is that our country is rushing to legalize a drug under the guise of helping the very sick and the dying and the ruse that everyone agrees kids have no business using marijuana. But the truth is that we’re just clearing the way for more kids to become addicts.”
About a year after being forced to strike out on his own, Kaleb decided to fight for his sobriety.
“I was losing my family and losing my motivation,” he said. “I was seeing people a lot older than me using weed and working in the same low-level jobs as me and being perfectly content. I just saw where my future was heading, and it scared me. I texted my mom for help.”