For Kendra Rhoades, the problem was not convincing her or her husband that their teenage son Jacob struggled with substance abuse.
The problem was convincing Jacob, even after his marijuana use escalated into multiple school expulsions, an instance of cocaine and alcohol use, and his placement in an outpatient rehabilitation program, she said.
“I think when a child or adult will compromise anything or everything for a drug,” Kendra said, “they’re addicted.”
Jacob, now 17, is nine months sober. He was not ready to speak about his experiences with substance use but gave his mother and sister, Cienna, 14, permission to speak on his behalf.
“It’s a journey we wouldn’t have chosen to sign up for,” Kendra said. “It’s a tough journey.”
As her son’s dependency on marijuana grew, Kendra said, convincing him of its dangers was a long, difficult process while he relied on information from the internet and the drug’s legalization to rationalize his use of it.
Marijuana is never safe for an adolescent brain as it’s still developing, say local experts in the mental health and substance use fields, and like with any number of substances, it can become an addiction.
But, they say, it is often used as a way to cope with stress or anxiety, among other mental health conditions, and often in social settings among youths.
Mental health and substance abuse conditions frequently coincide, and one can sometimes spark or fuel the other, said Amy Wachholtz, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Colorado-Denver and a licensed clinical health psychologist.
About half of people with a mental illness — depression and anxiety being two of the most common — also will experience a substance abuse disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Substance abuse also is considered a form of mental illness, Wachholtz said.
Steve Martinez is a substance abuse prevention coordinator with Tri-County Health Department, which provides health care services in Douglas, Arapahoe and Adams counties. Alcohol and marijuana, he said, are two of the more easily-obtained substances for teens.
Lt. Lori Bronner with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office agreed.
“Unfortunately, our youths are using substances,” said Bronner, commander for the agency’s School Resource Officer program who also runs the Y.E.S.S. program, which conducts substance awareness in schools. “We have some cases as broad as LSD and marijuana and putting THC oil in their e-cigarettes and vapes.”
Alcohol, available in many households, is a highly-attainable substance for youth, she said. Officers see some students who binge drink socially and others “that are using alcohol to self-medicate.”
And, Bronner said, marijuana being legal in Colorado “also makes it easier for them to get.”
The sheriff’s office made 305 arrests in 2017 for drug and narcotic violations. Of those, 134 were juveniles.
Although the legal age to obtain marijuana and alcohol is 21, youth can gain access to substances like marijuana through school, older friends and “in a lot of cases, from home,” Martinez said.
Data from the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, a biennial voluntary survey conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that evaluates youth health and their health-related choices, shows the rate of usage of marijuana among the county’s students is generally lower than the state average.
Of 2,731 Douglas County youths surveyed, 27 percent — or about 1 in 4 — said they had used marijuana at least once in their lifetime, compared to 35.2 percent statewide.
Just over 13 percent of Douglas County youths — or about 1 in 8 — had used marijuana at least once in the past 30 days. Statewide, that number was 19.4 percent. But of those students, 30 percent — about 1 in 3 — said they vaporized marijuana, compared to 20.3 percent statewide. Vaporizing means inhaling vaporized substances through electronic smoking devices.
Any rate of substance use is cause for concern, Martinez and other health professionals emphasized — using drugs can lead to deeper depression or anxiety, particularly if an addiction is formed.
“Teens decide to experiment, and they end up liking alcohol, pot, cigarettes, vapes,” Martinez said, “and first use turns into many-times use and, eventually, into addiction.”
The Douglas County School District, which begins education about marijuana and other substances in middle school, does see substances used as a coping mechanism among students.
“We do know we see that in our kids,” said Zac Hess, the district’s director of health, wellness and prevention. “We do have higher rates of anxiety. There’s a lot of pressure put on kids to succeed.”
For Jacob, an avid basketball player, the turning point came in eighth grade, when he didn’t make the team at Cimarron Middle School, Kendra said.
“Unknown to us, the kids he had played basketball with his whole life kind of started shunning him,” she said. “So he turned to a different community of people who introduced him to drugs.”
He was 13 or 14 when he began smoking marijuana, she said.
Jacob’s dependency grew to the point he didn’t care what consequences he faced for using the drug. He withdrew from family, he snuck out of the home to smoke, he stole from them, Kendra said.
“I was afraid of him, kind of,” Cienna said of her relationship with Jacob once she learned through her parents he’d started using drugs. “I just felt uncomfortable.”
Jacob went from being engaged with his family to being depressed, Kendra said.
“I think that the depression came from a combination of being rejected from his peer group and from marijuana,” she said. “I do think that contributed to it.”
Not all addictions or mental health conditions emerge in adolescence — that can happen at any age, reports the National Institute on Drug Abuse — but both often begin in that phase of life.
“If a teen is using marijuana already and the parent is having a hard time getting the teen to stop,” Martinez said, “that could already be showing signs of addiction and dependency.”
Ananda Wick, a clinical and substance abuse therapist with Porter Adventist Hospital, also emphasized that marijuana use can progress into an addiction.
“The problem with marijuana is that it is very insidious,” she said. “It’s kind of a gentle drug in the sense that there’s no intense withdrawals from it.”
Consequences of marijuana abuse worsen gradually, she said, and tend to include isolation and lack of motivation.
“It is a tough addiction to treat,” she said. “And even though it doesn’t have some of the physically addictive components that some of the other drugs have it is still incredibly psychologically addictive.”
Trying `anything and everything’
The Rhoades family learned of Jacob’s marijuana use in November 2014 and by April 2015, Jacob had been expelled from his middle school for possession of marijuana. He entered counseling and for a time thrived, Kendra said.
In January 2016, he started at Legend High School, but within a month was expelled for violating a deferment.
Deferment is similar to probation, where a student can begin school again if he or she exhibits good behavior.
“Through the summer we again tried anything and everything to try and get him to stop and then we changed schools, hoping that would change his behavior,” Kendra said.
He began school at Chaparral High School, but after two weeks was expelled for refusing to let school officials search his backpack.
District spokeswoman Paula Hans said the district cannot comment on specific cases. But the school board does have a policy allowing school officials to conduct searches of students’ personal property “when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the student is possessing illegal materials.”
Students can decline the search, but disciplinary action could still be taken if they do.
“The obvious focus is helping the student,” Hans said.
But no consequence could deter Jacob from smoking pot, Kendra said.
“His rationale was anywhere from `There’s nothing on the internet that indicates that it’s bad for you,’ to “It’s legal now in Colorado,’ ” she said. “I can tell you in his heart of hearts, he truly, truly believed that there was nothing wrong with doing marijuana.”
Youth’s perception of pot
That view among young people is not unusual, said Dennis Ballinger, director of addiction and forensic services for AllHealth Network, a nonprofit that provides behavioral health services in Douglas and Arapahoe counties.
“The number one way that we keep kids from doing drugs” is by addressing their perceptions of substances, said Ballinger, who believes marijuana’s legalization has contributed to how youth perceive the drug.
Data from the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey shows more than three-quarters of Douglas County youths think the typical student used marijuana during the past 30 days.
But about 56 percent thought using marijuana regularly posed a moderate or great risk of harm, and more than 63 percent believe it is wrong or very wrong for someone their age to use marijuana. That’s down from 65.6 percent in 2013.
Jennifer Tippett, a forensic psychologist with the University of Denver, said she thinks of marijuana like she does alcohol: Some individuals can use those substances without forming a problem; others can’t.
But, she said, “I think that this conversation becomes very different when you’re talking about the adolescent brain.”
Before 22 years old, the brain is still developing, Tippett said, and using substances too early can affect the portion of a person’s brain that handles decision-making, in one example.
More is being learned every day about the brain and how it reacts to substances, Wachholtz said, but genetics and life experiences alike can increase a person’s chances of forming addictions.
Wachholtz and Tippett said it’s important to remember the legal age of consumption for alcohol and marijuana is 21.
However, Tippett said, “If you’re using anything to escape from reality, that is a problem. It doesn’t matter if it’s legal or not.”
`One day at a time’
In 2016, when Jacob was 15, the Rhoades family persuaded him to enter an intensive outpatient program in Centennial. He relapsed twice, and more intensely each time, Kendra said, by using cocaine or alcohol in addition to marijuana.
But Jacob has been clean since December. He continues to participate in the outpatient program and is committed to treatment, Kendra said. He hopes to become a drug addiction counselor for other youth.
The family is rebuilding trust in Jacob, Kendra said, and they are proud of how far he’s come.
“His whole attitude has changed,” she said.
Cienna calls him her best friend. Jacob will pop into her bedroom to check in on her and looks out for her.
“He’s just really nice to me,” she said.
The teen has not yet returned to school but has promised Kendra he’ll earn his GED before he turns 18 in February.
“Beyond that,” Kendra said, “he really still takes one day at a time.”