SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Marijuana is not what it used to be. The legal retailers are making power-packed versions of THC oils, gummies and even sodas that doctors say they are now finding are highly addictive and causing actual brain damage in teenagers and young adults.
A young man's life is a far cry from what it used to be after an adolescence clouded by what his parents say was potent marijuana smoke and vape fumes.
"I usually just find a place to sleep on the street," the young man, who did not wish to be identified by name, told ABC 10News.
The man in his early 20s roamed the streets of San Diego. Nationally known medical experts describe similar modern-day marijuana products as "industrial strength."
"At one point, it was daytime, nighttime, nonstop. We'll never forget the day he came into my office at work and he was literally a zombie — he... he'd looked like a zombie," says Chris, the man's father.
Gone are the carefree days of life in San Diego: playing in the surf, a pilot's license at 16, and an A student accepted at a prestigious East Coast university.
The man was the first-born big brother to two siblings.
"Very sort of profound in his thoughts. Had good friends, played sports growing up, learned French at home, spoke two languages, so just a very bright kid," Chris says.
The man's mother says he was the type of child any parent would be proud to raise.
"Before there was an issue, he was just a perfect child. Happy. And [he] was very curious, but a little bit shy and introverted," Patricia says.
The change came quickly. He started vaping THC oils. Marijuana researchers say THC oils can be many times stronger than the street corner weed of past generations.
Dr. Natalie Laub, a child abuse pediatrician at Rady Children's Hospital, told Team 10 why these high-potent marijuana products are dangerous for teens.
"Teenagers' brains are not fully developed. The average human brain isn't fully developed or mature until your mid-to-late 20s, and that is why we see teenagers who use marijuana go on to have higher incidences of mental health disorders," Dr. Laub says. "There's a higher likelihood that you could develop schizophrenia, bipolar or other mood disorders."
The young man's parents say marijuana is to blame for their boy's psychosis.
"To see him turn into a zombie, more or less, unable to look you in the eye... Unable to speak clearly. No emotion. No light in his eyes — that's what really got our attention," Chris says.
Dr. Roneet Lev is an emergency room doctor at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego. She sees marijuana psychosis patients come to her ER daily. Parents of teens and young adults weren't aware that modern-day marijuana is so strong it should be considered a hard drug, according to her.
"It's the saddest thing," she says. "These are parents whose children became psychotic or died — cannabis-associated psychosis or suicide — and it's heart wrenching because they had no idea, and they wish someone told them."
Adriana Ching's son, Samuel, is in the depths of psychosis today.
"Hospitalized again over the holidays," Adriana says.
Lost are the days of playing soccer and the piano. He taught himself how to play the keys, which brought his mother joy.
"Samuel was a sweet child," Adriana says. "I never thought marijuana was that lethal or that dangerous."
Adriana says Samuel's high school marijuana habit exploded during his first week of college when she got a call from the hospital. Samuel was admitted for psychosis.
"When I first saw him, I could not recognize him. He did not make sense," she says. "Everything he said was very exaggerated, and just did not know who he was. He thought he was a Hollywood rock star that was being held hostage... It was probably one of the scariest times of my life."
University of California San Diego Pharmacy professor Nathan Painter has studied today's commercial marijuana products. He says marijuana from prior decades had minuscule levels of THC compared to modern weed and products.
"It's not just the plant that people smoke anymore," Painter explains. "Even the marijuana that you would smoke is 10 to 20 times stronger than what was back in the '70s, and some of the oils are 50 to 100 times as potent."
"Times stronger? That seems like something you would have to be very careful with," Team 10 Investigator Jim Avila says.
"It certainly leads to some pretty dramatic consequences," Painter replies.
"We're seeing parents who describe their children as totally different. Yes, different people. They've lost their children with marijuana," Dr. Laub says.
Although the young man Team 10 spoke to is in treatment, his parents are not optimistic. They agreed to the interview not just for their son's sake, but for the long line of parents who have no idea that today's legal cannabis is so powerful.
"Had we know this wasn't regular weed anymore I would have had a sign in the house: 'No weed here.' It would have been clear," Chris says. "He may never come back to normal from this. He may never come back to who he was and who he wants to be. No one wants to come back to the way he was more than our son... We have sort of already lost our son, and he is alive."
Promising lives have been diminished, taken by the new generation of marijuana that doctors say isn't just a weed anymore.
Doctors studying the effects of marijuana on the brain say the legal highs found at the local dispensaries need to be highly regulated, as opposed to the "anything goes” no-limits on what they call industrial strength weed being sold today. They're also advising teenagers to avoid it altogether.