September marked the 10th anniversary of my son Justin’s death at age 17 from an accidental drug overdose. The medical examiner’s report months later said it was heroin that killed him. But I have to say for Justin it all began with marijuana, and I’m angrier at marijuana than I am at heroin. Here’s why.
Justin was a good student, an extremely talented musician and songwriter on the verge of completing the recording of his first original music album. On Sunday, Sept. 7, 2008, Justin spent the afternoon with people we didn’t know and came home later than expected as he readied for his first full week as a senior at Yorktown High School. He never woke up that Monday morning. Somewhere along the way that Sunday he had snorted heroin.
As a parent who was devastated about losing his son to drugs, I was determined to acquire the understanding about how this could have happened and to tell Justin’s story in schools and community events so other teens could be warned. We know heroin kills. It’s the direct cause of an epidemic ravaging our nation right now. But to ignore the role marijuana plays in overdose deaths is like ignoring the role tobacco plays in lung cancer.
Hidden in the statistics surrounding opioid deaths is the fact that many victims like Justin who were never pain patients started their drug experimentation with recreational marijuana. In 2005, the year Justin and some of his friends began to experiment with it, there was little concern about its dangers. When we confronted Justin after learning he was smoking marijuana at age 14 we had many battles with him and brought him to counseling sessions.
Justin’s counselor was not significantly concerned and we kind of let it go. During the next two years the marijuana seemed to go away. But something else was happening outside of our awareness. Justin was experiencing anxieties he wouldn’t talk about and was self medicating with pills. The pills turned out to be the opioids we now know have created so much carnage in our country. Justin apparently became dependent and when he could not obtain opioid painkillers he started to experiment with street heroin — never injecting but snorting the powder.
This marijuana link to harder drugs among vulnerable teens is now being backed by studies. Research cited by the marijuana policy group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, co-founded by Patrick Kennedy, shows teens who experiment with marijuana are twice as likely to abuse opioids, three times more likely to try heroin. Research cited by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows 22 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds use marijuana despite the proven fact that marijuana negatively affects the developing brain. A new survey released by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention shows that 2 million middle and high school students say they have used e-cigarettes to vape marijuana products.
In my experience traveling to schools in different towns and different states to speak with students the situation is always the same. There are handfuls of young people like Justin who have been impacted in a similar way by marijuana. If you consider the number of cities and towns in the United States (The U.S. Census counts 19,354) and do the math, we have a huge population of teens who are falling prey to dangerous drugs because of their decision to experiment with marijuana and its derivatives like edibles and hash oil. What happened to Justin and so many others needs to be seriously considered as states ponder changes in marijuana policy.
Yes, marijuana isn’t the drug we find when a victim overdoses. But it often is the one responsible for bringing that person to that darker place.