Marijuana and youth: A harmful combination?

 

Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network president Zoe Patchell addresses members during Cannabis Lobby Day at Leg Hall on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

 

DOVER — As some advocates fight to legalize marijuana, others are warning of unintended consequences they say could carry a serious cost: the next generation.

The debate about marijuana legalization has intensified tremendously in recent years, as states around the nation have begun approving recreational use. Delaware is seeking to become the ninth state with legal pot, with legislators introducing a bill to that end in March, but the measure is facing stiff opposition from a coalition of organizations.

House Bill 110 would allow adults to buy weed from specialized, approved stores. Individuals could have up to 1 ounce of marijuana but would not be permitted to grow their own. Using marijuana in public would remain illegal.

A task force formed through legislation has been looking at the issues around legalization since September, and it is scheduled to meet once more before issuing recommendations to the General Assembly and governor.

While the group was created in hopes of hashing out differences of opinion between supporters and opponents, the main sponsor of the proposal acknowledged at the last meeting the final report will not satisfy everyone.

Those against legalization cite several reasons for their opposition, such as fears of more impaired driving, an empowered black market and — most crucially, some say — a negative impact on children and teenagers.

Though increasing numbers of Americans no longer view marijuana as taboo, the drug remains unlawful for teenagers and children even in states where adults can legally buy and use it.

According to an annual survey funded by the federal National Institute on Drug Abuse and conducted by the University of Michigan, the percentage of 12th graders who view marijuana as harmful has plummeted. The survey reports in 2006, 58 percent of respondents said using cannabis regularly risks negative effects, while in 2017, 29 percent said regular use poses a risk.

That, pot opponents say, is a bad sign.

“There is an urgent need for federal officials to reassert targeted control over an exploding industry that is undermining public health and safety in our communities,” Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said in a statement.

AAA, a motor-vehicle lobbying organization, has been leading the charge against legalization in Delaware. The group cites statistics it says show marijuana legalization leads to more car accidents and results in youth becoming desensitized to drugs.

“With commercialization, I think teens in Delaware will have a similar perception that there’s little danger and engage in a similar kind of pattern or behavior that when you look at their peers from Oregon and Washington state,” AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Jim Lardear said. “I think it’s likely that we’ll see a similar pattern here.”

As evidence, Mr. Lardear pointed to a study from Oregon reporting 48 percent of 11th graders who drive and consumed pot in the past 30 days drove within three hours after using the drug.

Opponents also note more drivers involved in car accidents are testing positive for marijuana in states where the drug is legal.

But those in favor of legalization push back.

“The real question isn’t what states have higher or lower rates of use,” said Kate Bell, legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project. “The question is whether the policy change of permitting adult use caused an increase in teen use.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and University of Michigan study, marijuana use increased slightly among eighth, 10th and 12 graders from 2016 to 2017. However, marijuana use among high school seniors has remained relatively consistent over the past decades. From 1996 to 2017, between 4.9 percent and 6.6 percent of seniors said they consumed pot within the past 30 days. In 2017, the number was 5.9 percent.

“We certainly agree that there are concerns about young people using cannabis just as there are concerns about young people using alcohol or tobacco, and the appropriate response to that is honest and informed public programs,” Ms. Bell said.

House Bill 110 would direct 20 percent of revenue from marijuana sales to the Department of Health and Social Services to develop programs to combat addiction and educate Delawareans about the risks of drugs, tobacco and alcohol.

Some money would also go to training law enforcement. According to Rep. Helene Keeley, a Wilmington Democrat who is the main sponsor of House Bill 110, only about 10 police officers in the state are trained to detect drivers who are drunk or high.

Marijuana has long been considered a “gateway drug,” meaning users are likely to go on to harder substances like heroin. But while many still subscribe to this view, the National Institute on Drug Abuse cautions that just because many people addicted to hard drugs started with pot doesn’t mean cannabis caused them to move to heroin and meth.

“It is important to note that other factors besides biological mechanisms, such as a person’s social environment, are also critical in a person’s risk for drug use,” the institute’s website says. “An alternative to the gateway-drug hypothesis is that people who are more vulnerable to drug-taking are simply more likely to start with readily available substances such as marijuana, tobacco or alcohol, and their subsequent social interactions with others who use drugs increases their chances of trying other drugs. Further research is needed to explore this question.”

Ms. Bell has a similar view.

“Most people who have tried opioids or other drugs also probably ate ice cream before, but that doesn’t imply that we should ban the sale of ice cream because that’s going to lead to heroin use,” she said.

While Delaware decriminalized pot in 2015, meaning anyone over 21 caught with no more than 1 ounce of the drug simply pays a $100 fine and forfeits the marijuana, it’s hard to say whether that change has led to increased use.

Stacey Robinson, a nurse at Sussex Central High School and co-chairwoman of the Sussex chapter of atTAcK Addiction, estimated a majority of students have tried the drug, although she believes alcohol use is more prevalent among teens.

According to the state, there were 256 separate incidents involving drug crimes in schools in the 2015-16 school year, out of 713 total school crimes. There were also 80 Department of Education offenses classified as involving drug paraphernalia.

Different districts approach teaching students about controlled substances differently.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said districts can create their own curricula as long as they meet certain requirements set down for the state. Districts can also buy programs like Smart Moves Smart Choices, a prescription drug abuse awareness initiative created by the National Association of School Nurses.

Capital School District uses the Botvin Life Skills, a plan adopted by the Division of Public Health and the Department of Education in a pilot program. Students begin the program in sixth grade and continue it through eighth grade. In high school, they take a half-credit health class that touches on drugs.

The Caesar Rodney School District, a spokesman wrote in an email, teaches student about being healthy starting in first grade and specifically focuses on drugs from grades five to eight. Like in Capital School District, CR students take a half-credit course in high school.

“The Caesar Rodney School District follows the state guidelines for topics to be covered across elementary, middle and high school using a variety of curriculum materials, print and on-line resources, simulations, guest speakers, etc,” Dave Chambers wrote.

Smyrna School District begins drug education in third grade and continues it through high school.

Should House Bill 110 pass, schools would have new factors to consider.

Exactly what lawmakers do with legalization remains unknown. The bill has passed out of a House committee but still needs to be approved by both chambers and then signed by the governor. None of those things are certainties, especially given Gov. John Carney’s stated view that Delaware “should take it slowly and learn from other states.”

According to a 2016 poll from the University of Delaware, 61 percent of Delaware voters support legalization.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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