Jake’s life started out just right. He lived in a nice house on a nice block of the sophisticated New Jersey town of Montclair. His dad worked for the NFL, his mom a couple days a week in finance. As long as Jake and his older brother did well, their parents weren’t overly concerned about a little partying here or there.
“I started smoking pot when I was 13,” his mom admitted, thinking back to her own casual attitude toward marijuana growing up in Vermont in the 1970s. “Kind of liked it,” she said, “It was something that was fun to do.” But it was nothing that took over her life, she explained. And a generation later, she said it was the same for her oldest son, Ben, growing up in Montclair.
“At least in our town, smoking pot is a right of passage,” Ben said. “Not everyone does it everyday or even every weekend, but people do it.”
The Town of Montclair was the first in New Jersey to welcome a medical marijuana dispensary last year. The State’s medical marijuana regulations are among the strictest in the country: there’s high security and the place looks like a doctor’s office, not a head shop. Joseph Stevens, one of Greenleaf Compassion Center’s founders, says he thinks their sober operation will make marijuana seem less casual to kids.
“They can associate marijuana with an illness instead of recreational use,” he said, “It’s no longer behind the scenes and cool to use marijuana.”
But from where Montclair High School’s head student counselor sits, the presence of medical marijuana in this town is just another in a slew of signals that marijuana is good not bad.
“You know with all of the glorification of legalization, with the decriminalization, especially in Montclair now with the medical marijuana Greenleaf opening up,” Andrew Evangelista said, “I think kids think that marijuana is like a miracle drug.”
Over the past five years, surveys have shown that marijuana use by teens is on the rise. Fewer and fewer teens see using it as risky, despite studies that point to potential links between adolescent marijuana use and lower IQs or increased risk of mental illness. In addition, the National Institute on Drug Abuse says as many as one out of six adolescent marijuana users will become dependent (more than the one in ten adult users expected to meet the same criteria for marijuana dependence).
As legislators debate an ever-increasing number of proposals to legalize marijuana, Jake's parents say they feel more concerned about that trend - and the casual attitudes in general - than they would have imagined five years ago.
Back then, Jake's mom remembers, she and her husband didn’t condone their kids using marijuana, but they resisted making too big a deal of it.
“We sort of accepted that as life in the suburbs,” she said. That strategy worked fine for the older son, Ben. But not for Jake.
In Middle School, by all accounts, Jake was both incredibly successful and incredibly stressed out. He was popular, got A’s, and was a soccer star. But he says his mind was always racing.
“My mom and dad always said to me, even at a very young age, ‘You can't beat yourself up, Jake. It’s not healthy,’” he said. When, as a high school freshman, he got bumped off the varsity soccer team, he says life felt futile to him. “If I couldn’t be the best then what was the point?” he remembered feeling.
“I have this internal ass-kicking machine where I can’t let myself just be okay,” he said.
So the first time he got high, he said, “I felt this, like, unbelievable relief just from the world. I was on another planet and it was the most amazing thing to me. I didn't have to deal with reality.”
By the end of his Freshman year of high school, he was smoking every weekend. Sophomore year, every day. His parents were worried. But friends told them to let Jake be. After all, he was still excelling at school and in sports.
There’s plenty of evidence people can do that while stoned – especially if they're smoking weed all the time. Columbia University researcher Carl Hart studies how people behave on drugs and his data suggests that for people who smoke marijuana seven times a week, there is little change in the abilities they display.
“When they’re intoxicated, you don’t see many changes in their cognitive functioning,” he said. They’re slower, but equally capable.
“If you use it a lot you become tolerant to the disruptive effects,” he said.
Jake says he played sports, did his homework and took tests while high. During his sophomore year, his parents knew he was smoking. They argued with him. And he fought back.
“If you can think of the worst thing you can call your mother and just insert that,” he said, “I was so awful.”
Jake's mom says when they took him to therapists and doctors, they were encouraged to chill out. Both she and Jake remember a pediatrician asking her, “What do you want from this kid?” He was getting good grades, he got 1400s on his SATs, he was on varsity teams.
“His pitch was that we were trying to make him into his brother,” she said, “It was about us, that was the problem.” And she says that played with her head. “Maybe it was us,” she remembers thinking.
“I was very convincing,” Jake recalled, “I could put on this adult face and act like I was a grown up and talk to people and make it seem like things were all right.”
John Mariani studies and treats addicts. He’s directs Columbia University’s Substance Treatment and Research Service. And he says people can absolutely become addicted to weed. But sometimes it's harder to recognize.
“For people with alcohol, cocaine, opioid dependence, lots of bad stuff is happening to them that they don't want to have happen,” he said. They may be getting arrested or they may have an overdose, for example. Mariani says marijuana dependence is different. “Often patients will have a philosophy that, ‘This is something I choose to do. It's something I enjoy. It's something I benefit from.’ And to some degree, that might be true," he said.
In some ways, Jake’s family was suffering more than he was. His brother Ben remembers a house with no energy, no love, no feelings of happiness, and a younger brother whose relentless pursuit of marijuana was painful to watch.
“The lengths my brother went to that I personally witnessed were pretty out there. It wasn’t normal behavior,” he said.
Jake speaks candidly about it now: he says he would steal money from his mom’s purse. At first, he says she didn’t notice. When she figured it out and started hiding her purse, Jake started lifting his dad’s NFL memorabilia.
“My dad worked at the NFL for 30 years, and he had a lot of stuff that was worth some money,” Jake said. “I would give it to my friend to sell on eBay. And I probably sold $1,000, $2,000 worth of merchandise on eBay to buy drugs.
“I kept trying to chase that first high, that first feeling of euphoria that I got when I smoked,” Jake explained. “I think I started doing it so much that the effects stopped being so potent,” he said.
That’s how addiction works, Dr. Mariani said, explaining the science behind marijuana addiction. “If you expose your brain to any chemical regularly, over time neuro-adaptive changes take place,” he said.
The cannabinoids in Marijuana are similar to a chemical our brains normally produce on their own, called endocannabinoids. They’re thought to help regulate mood, sleep and appetite. If you smoke pot all the time, the plant becomes your supply of cannabinoids and your brain stops producing its own.
“You might have an individual who's using marijuana regularly who starts to feel a little bit irritable after they haven't smoked for a while,” Mariani said, “Then they smoke, and their experience of that can be that, ‘I'm feeling better from smoking,’ but really what they're doing is treating withdrawal. No one knows why some people become addicted and some don’t. It’s thought to be a mixture of nature and nurture."
In retrospect, Jake and his parents both say he’s what people call "wired" for addiction – and marijuana was the drug that hooked him because it was easy to get and easy to keep up. But while his parents were still trying to understand what had happened – Jake started looking for other highs, too.
“I smoked pot every day. That was a given,” Jake said, “But it was like I knew that wasn't enough.” He would go to his parents’ medicine cabinet and search for pills that could have a euphoric effect. “And maybe if I snort it, it'll be even more powerful," he said.
Jake says his parents didn’t know the extent of his drug use. But by his senior year, they did fully understand he was an addict.
“One night we confronted him and said, ‘We cannot live like this, you have to get help,’” she said. “Gene said you cannot stay in this house,” she said, and Jake left the house without a phone.
“For me personally it was like hell, it was like being in hell that night,” she said, working to hold back tears. “I couldn’t call him and say come back we’ll work this out,” she said.
Jake called her the next morning.
“We went home and I just started crying and crying,” Jake recalled. His mom cried with him. And he remembers saying, “Mom, I think I need help.” Jake’s parents began looking for treatment centers.
Jake was lucky in so many ways. He had two concerned parents who could afford to send him to several top-notch rehab programs away from home. While there, he applied to college, and was accepted at several top schools. On paper, the consequences he suffered didn’t add up to a lot. But if his parents hadn’t intervened when they did – they say they’re sure something catastrophic would have happened. That’s why they decided to speak publicly about it.
Last Spring, Jake’s parents told their story on a panel at Montclair High School aiming to warn about the risks of marijuana.
Some local news covered the event and, in comments, one reader called it fear-mongering. Another said, when young people say the risks of marijuana are minimal, they’re 100% correct. A hot debate about legalization followed. And that conversation, John Mariani says, tends to blur the issue for people struggling with addiction.
“Especially younger patients will come in and it's almost like a political debate about whether people should be allowed to smoke or not,” Mariani said. “That's not the issue. It's not whether the right answer for society is for it to be legal or not, but what is the answer for you as an individual? Let’s look at the facts in your life.”
Jake says he thinks marijuana should be legalized. His parents say it shouldn’t. But they all agree that using it at a young age was a disaster for Jake.
“I have this thing about me, and I think it's this predisposition to be addictive,” he said, sitting in a very spare room at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he's a sophomore now. “If I was never exposed to marijuana, I would have been able to hold off my addictive tendencies a lot longer,” he said, “I think marijuana expedited my addictive personality.”
Jake’s mom says she lived it first-hand. “I saw my son become someone I didn’t know,” she said.
Jake’s struggle is not over. His parents say they chose the University of Michigan because it was one of very few colleges that had an on-campus recovery program. But on a dark day near the end of his Freshman year, Jake says he felt overwhelmed with disappointment. With 10 months clean, he says he drove to Detroit with a friend, scored some heroin and took what he thought was enough to kill himself.
“The next thing I know, it was 14 hours later, puke everywhere, a big bruise on my face, not really knowing what happened,” he said, “And the first thing I think about is, why am I still here?”
Jake says he learns from his mistakes. He’s still at Michigan and he’s been clean for months. He’s trying to remain part of typical student life while not participating in one of the most typical parts. Jake says every once in awhile, he’s thought, “‘Oh, I can just smoke a joint or have a drink.’”
In that initial moment, he says, using can feel great. “And then it stops being fun because I can’t stop. I don’t know how to stop,” he said.
To argue about whether marijuana should be legalized, you have to debate global politics, criminal justice, health, medicine, addiction, and more. And one can probably use Jake’s story to come down on any side. Jake’s parents know the statistics: that addiction rates are lower for marijuana than for most other drugs – including alcohol and cigarettes.
But as marijuana becomes increasingly accepted, they want people to recognize that addiction is a real possibility. And look out for the signs.
To protect their privacy, WNYC agreed to identify Jake and his family members by their first names.