BRENTWOOD, N.Y. (PIX11) — John Venza watched the opioid crisis devastate families on Long Island and beyond, including his own, but he also knew a little-reported fact about the young people coming to Outreach House in Brentwood, where he is vice president of Adolescent and Residential Services.

“Almost all our kids that enter Outreach House have a primary diagnosis of THC,” Venza said, referring to the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol.

Venza met with PIX11 News recently at the Brentwood facility where bulldozers are building a new residence with 25 beds.

“Parents need to start to understand and get educated about what THC is today, what marijuana is today, and what it’s not,” Venza said.

Venza talked with PIX11 News as New York City was introducing its first legal marijuana dispensaries for people 21 and over. Like other addiction experts, he’s worried that when availability goes up, and the perception of risk goes down, young people and their use of marijuana will go up.

“Young people who are depressed are twice as likely to use cannabis,” Venza observed.  “Cannabis increases depression.”

The link between marijuana use and potential mental health issues for adolescents and teens might have been lost in the media coverage of economic opportunities that legal dispensaries have offered. The city and state have provided licenses in communities that were unfairly targeted by law enforcement when cannabis was illegal.

“You have to mature a bit, before you start to utilize anything,” observed Dasheeda Dawson, founding director of Cannabis NYC. “I’m probably saying that about anything: credit cards, alcohol and cannabis.”

Yet there’s no denying that adolescents and teens are experimenting, and we met a 15-year-old we will call “Rick” in Outreach House’s residential treatment center.

“I was 12 years old when I first tried marijuana,” Rick told PIX11 News. “It was just the flower at first.”

But Rick said he progressed to stronger concentrates within a year. “It was a concentrate from the THC, like dabs,” Rick said. “You put dabs in a cartridge.”

Venza said this highly concentrated THC is what seems to be causing mental health issues for adolescents and teens.

“In the 1970s, the THC level was about 1% in marijuana,” Venza noted. “And now, we’re seeing levels on average of 15% to 30%, with some higher than 30%.”

Venza said there’s particular concern about butane hash oil, which is created using a butane lighter.

“You’re left with a gummy wax,” Venza said. “Unfortunately, butane is a neurotoxin.  Neurotoxins will kill brain cells, and they are not regenerative.”

Rick said he struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic and started using anti-anxiety pills, aside from marijuana — pills he found in his mother’s medicine cabinet.  

The teen’s mom said he went from the “sweetest, most sociable boy, with a heart of gold” to a son “that would throw furniture. He never put his hands on me, but he would get awfully close.”

The treatment community believes New York should pay close attention to studies in Colorado and California that looked at emergency room visits, after marijuana was legalized for recreational use in those states.

A study by the University of Colorado found that emergency room visits for teens quadrupled after cannabis was legalized in the state, with psychosis a common symptom.

Psychosis is a mental health disorder that can cause a person to have a break with reality.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that cannabis-use disorder is associated with psychotic breaks.

Rick, who acknowledges he used the anti-anxiety medication Klonopin with marijuana, believes he was having some kind of break with reality.

“I was hearing things and also had visual hallucinations,” the teen said. “I was seeing shadows and I was hearing people calling my name.”

The teen has been in residential treatment for nine months, and he’s supposed to graduate from the program later in February.

“I’ve definitely learned how to control myself more,” the teenager said. “I’ve definitely learned a lot of patience and to wait for things.”

Steve Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence — known as LICADD — said his organization lobbied New York State to make 25 the legal age to purchase marijuana.

“The prefrontal cortex of the brain is not fully developed until 25, 26, 27,” Chassman said.  “When drugs are introduced at the vulnerable age, they can hijack cognitive functioning.”

Dasheeda Dawson, the Cannabis NYC director, said before she took her current position in New York City, she oversaw the transition to legal marijuana sales in a city out west.

“Before this market, I was in charge of the city of Portland,” Dawson told PIX11 News. “We haven’t seen an increase of hospital visits there for psychotic episodes.”

Dawson also bristled at politicians who tried to tie several mass shootings by teens in 2022 to heavy marijuana use.

“We have no correlation between the use of cannabis and these mass shootings,” Dawson said, “so putting them together is more fear mongering around cannabis.”

Dawson said she believes old data about cannabis has led to the stigmatization of marijuana.

“We need to have fair studies,” Dawson said.  

She also said parents should be educated with facts, when they talk to their children about marijuana.

“We kind of have to peel back the layers with how to use cannabis properly,” Dawson said. “It’s kind of like sex education. You’ve got to talk to your kids about cannabis.”