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The Cannabis Hype and its Damaging Impact on our Community

On April 3, 2020, my life has turned upside down. My beautiful 25-year-old, athletic son Alex Movahedi died from an accidental Fentanyl overdose. His drug-seeking journey began with cannabis. He used to tell me that he would “on occasion” use cannabis edibles or inhale it to sleep better. “Mom, don’t worry, it is safe and healthy”, these were his words. Of course, I was concerned and tried to make him consider healthier options because I saw him struggle whenever he came over to visit with me. I knew that he needed trauma-based therapy for healing and not substances that just treat symptoms. On Christmas of 2019, Alex told me about his drug addiction, which began at age 19, when his anxieties were so intense that stronger strains of cannabis weren’t enough but actually worsened his anxieties and he began to take Xanax, a prescription drug for anxieties. Initially, Xanax made him feel more relaxed, confident, and helped him sleep better. But eventually, the paradoxical effect of the substances worsened his anxiety and deepened the downward spiraling of higher use of cannabis and Xanax. Tolerance formation in action! By then my son was suffering from one of the worst multi-faceted syndromes that anyone can experience: addiction.

Alex’s cannabis use represents a common pattern for vulnerable young and undeveloped brains: regular and high potency use that leads to stronger drugs. He began to use higher potency THC concentrates through dabbing, meaning the inhaling of vaporized cannabis. Here is my son, a boy who used to say, “yuck, they smoke weed, Mom….”, or,” let’s go faster, there is cigarette smoke in the air…”, or, at age 14, …” I hate the taste of beer”.

It now has become my mission to share Alex’s story with the hope to raise awareness, inform and, ultimately, help build a safer community and prevent other young lives to end in addiction. And rewrite the cannabis frenzy.

I believe in combined Western medicine and ancient/holistic wisdom approach to health. I grew up in Germany with homeopathy, warm compresses, and cooled linen to manage fever. When sick, I make hot tea with squeezed lemons, garlic, and honey. Alex grew up with home-made food, dinners at home, and an appreciation for healthy ingredients, without excessive dogma, so there was room for the occasional In-and-Out burger. (boy did Alex like those….). What shocked me the most in my early California experience was the extensive use of pharmaceutical advertising, as well as the use of prescription drugs, something I would never adjust to after 30 years of living here.

I have no objections to the adult-use of cannabis. Rather I am hopeful that serious research independent from funding by the cannabis industry will bring amazing new insights and hope, such as the already successful treatment for rare forms of childhood seizures. I believe in the responsible, scientifically-evidenced, and wise use of such substances, especially because they are potentially addictive to the young brain. Proponents of cannabis often talk about the natural and ancient nature of weed. Except, today’s weed has changed. It is stronger, made in labs in larger quantities and it lacks standardized testing for potency and safety. And those ancient cultures used plant substances within the context of their inherited cultural scope with rituals for healing deeply entrenched in village life.

What most of the public does not know about today’s cannabis is its absurdly high levels of THC, the psychoactive ingredient that provides the “high”, and which brings the profit. Those substances can be dangerous for brains that are not fully developed until at least the age of 25. I am concerned to see this corporate-run tobacco-industry-like-strategy: the profit is in getting consumers hooked. Studies show that regular use of potent THC cannabis at a young age can lead to a 5-times higher likelihood to develop psychosis and a 7-times higher risk for suicide. My son was an example of how initial low doses of cannabis that provided the desired effect quickly became ineffective with a need to use higher potencies. With poly-substance addictions including cannabis, the substances mutually reinforce each other. An unimaginable nightmare!

Today’s dispensaries sell cookies, sodas, candies with THC concentrations as high as 50-90%. Not bad, compared to the good, old joint from the ’60s or ’70s with its 2-4%. Makes it look like a wallflower compared to today’s products with names like Cheetah Piss (18%), Girl Scout Cookies (19%), Gorilla Glue (20%), Bubba’s Deadhead Girl (80%!!!), Leef’s Cheese Quake oil (88%!!!!). Skeptic already? I highly recommend looking at some cannabis online stores to find out what commercialization brought along.

Marin County’s casual relationship with cannabis and its known attraction to healthy and organic products created open doors for anything that promises to be “natural”, “pure”, “medicinal” or “ancient”.

Well done Big Cannabis! Seeing advertisements in local papers, witnessing one’s parents and other adults using cannabis products, billboards making weed look like the next “Got Milk?” ad, online stores and talks about a planned dispensary in Sausalito, all combined over time creates a sense of normalcy around cannabis. Legalization itself supports the “it’s just weed” belief. I doubt that a healthy community would need such extreme (youth-targeted) advertising efforts with packaging that resemble familiar candy brands and sodas in all rainbow colors…?!

But this is far from it all! Dispensaries sell more than weed: pens, pipes, hookahs, rigs, bangers and portable vaporizers, and e-rigs. Are you confused already? I was too when I entered this world and began to read all about it after my son died. Dabbing, for example, has become one of the more popular forms of consumption for cannabis. It creates a more potent high with faster-acting effects than smoking pot. Notably, The American Lung Association as well as the WHO warn of serious health risks from vaping. When I cleaned out my son’s car after he died, I found empty soda bottles, cookie wrappers that contained THC as well as a glass rig. At that time, I did not even know any of those existed!

Teens know exactly how to get their substances, from online venues, social media, to shoulder tapping a friend. Studies confirm that easy access increases youth use. In my inquiries to learn about the world of cannabis and addiction, I talked to many of my son’s friends who confirm that it was super easy to buy almost any drug at Redwood high school, from cannabis to heavy prescriptions. And students who use or sell are the first to find out where substances are sold in the county, no matter what town. They seem to have a well-connected undercover service. My son had a fake cannabis ID card signed by a “doctor” from a dispensary in San Francisco who knew nothing about Alex’s medical condition.

Why do youth use? Because by their very nature they seek risk, and also because many of them deal with serious stress and anxiety. While Marin looks pretty, it has a giant dark side. I enjoy living here. But it's not for sissies! Competition, school and college expectations, money rules concept with pressures to keep up with the neighbors, insane real estate, high divorce rates, social media, bullying, never good enough, and the list goes on. Let’s look at the whole picture for a moment: our nation suffers a serious mental health crisis that has gotten worse since COVID-19. Marin has a history of high substance use, binge drinking, the highest suicide rates in the entire Bay area, serious addiction (with an insufficient number of beds in inpatient rehab centers), and increasing numbers of overdose deaths. Our youth vape, eat and smokes cannabis at unprecedented rates. Marin 11th graders score highest in vaping among California peers. And, stoned driving adds another significant risk factor for our community. A 10-year Washington study by AAA shows a clear jump of fatal car accidents per year with drivers testing positive for THC since cannabis became legalized.

It is not surprising that many of our kids have a very hard time. And my heart goes out to each and every one of them.

Pot stores to the rescue??

The cannabis industry has invaded our communities. Sausalito is planning a cannabis retail storefront and the city council has been heavily influenced and “educated” by lobbyists who make tax revenues and residents’ health sound like an attractive escape from COVID-19-strained budgets. Marin already has plenty of online stores that provide adults with cannabis deliveries, besides access to San Francisco’s over 30 dispensaries.

I want to scream and shout into the universe, “Stop the madness!” As if alcohol and opioids aren’t enough of an epidemic to deal with. We are not promoting nor healing our community in adding another highly addictive substance for easy avail.

Just because cannabis is going mainstream does not mean it is a good thing. We only have to look at alcohol or tobacco. Children look to their parents for guidance. I believe that our culture has taken a position of convenience when it comes to substance use of any kind. We want things “fixed” because our lives don’t seem to allow otherwise. In my work as a chronic pain physical therapist, we teach mindfulness practices, such as meditation, body and breath awareness, and exercises, all essential tools for managing stress, pain, and mood disorders. So much is about sitting in the driver’s seat again and depending less on drugs.

That is what my son Alex wanted. He began a detox program in January 2020 but due to Covid-19 the lack of medical supervision worked against him, as did the sources of stress around him that were beyond his control. The addiction affected all that was most dear to him: his relationships, his athleticism, his school and work capacity, traveling and so much more.

The world has lost a beautiful, sensitive soul, someone who gave everyone a second chance, a goofball as much as an intuitive and altruistic young man, who believed that Marin County needed more diversity. An exquisite basketball player, best in CYO try-outs during middle school, boogie boarder, avid hiker, hobby photographer, fisherman, dog lover, and speaker of three languages. His oldest friend refers to Alex as the kind of friend everyone needs to have in their life while his girlfriend describes Alex as her best teacher and another friend is preparing for the LSAT, “only because Alex encouraged me to go for it”.

There are many other amazing kids in Marin like Xander, Trevor, and others who got lost and found cannabis. Stigma keeps many parents from speaking out loud, but there are many untold stories. I keep meeting new moms in my grief support groups who have lost their child to addiction that began with cannabis.

We need to protect our vulnerable kids from access at their fingertips. I will do my part and share my voice.

Cannabis is NOT safe for young brains!

As more of the public is informed, the less likely they would want cannabis dispensaries in town.

I hope that Sausalito has a serious discussion before they vote on cannabis retail. After all, it is our public leaders’ responsibility to keep the community safe and healthy for all.

And boy, do we need that.

I miss my son every moment of each day. We wanted to travel to Europe after he was done with rehab, visit his grandma in Germany and explore other countries together. Alex, may your shining light guide us towards more truth and needed change.


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