Teens, marijuana, and the changing conversation

With the passage of a new law that makes adult use of marijuana legal in Vermont, those on the front lines of drug prevention wonder how this new reality — and changing attitudes toward cannabis — will affect teens, who are far more vulnerable to addiction

TOWNSHEND — In July, the Legislature passed a law that removes criminal penalties for those age 21 and older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana for personal use.

Act 86 has its supporters, but the law has also left some parents and professionals concerned about what it means for the young people in their lives.

A Sept. 26 panel discussion and question-and-answer session at Leland & Gray Union Middle & High School looked to shed light on the range of issues and implications of legal access to cannabis.

The event was organized by West River Valley Thrives, a Townshend-based substance-use education and prevention organization serving the towns and villages of the Windham Central Supervisory Union.

Windham County State Sen. Becca Balint kicked off the evening discussing the creation of Act 86.

Lawmakers try to find a balance between Vermonters' civil liberties and protecting the most vulnerable, the Brattleboro Democrat said.

Balint expects that if the state decides to create a tax-and-regulate system, the Legislature will have deeper conversations about keeping marijuana away from young people.

She explained that the two most-well-known components of marijuana are CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol). CBD is known for reducing pain, easing nausea, and preventing seizures. THC is the main psychoactive component.

In her opinion, not enough studies have looked into the long-term effects of marijuana - and, specifically, THC - on developing brains.

Cassandra Holloway, director of the Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition, and Robin Rieske, a longtime prevention specialist at the Vermont Department of Health, spoke on behalf of their respective organizations.

Words carry weight

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Vermont adolescents rank high in their use of marijuana, Holloway said.

The CDC releases an annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey Results and Trends Report. The report tracks “risky” behaviors that can contribute to consequences like violence, unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse, or unhealthy lifestyle.

According to the CDC, 24 percent of Vermont youth used marijuana within a 30-day period. Of that percentage, 42 percent used the drug more than 10 times.

Holloway said that other risks, such as binge drinking or tobacco use, increased among adolescents who regularly used marijuana.

She focused on the role that marketing and language play in youth deciding to try marijuana, likening her concerns to how tobacco companies marketed to kids with cartoon characters like Joe Camel.

For example, Holloway asked: what if instead of categorizing marijuana as “medical” or “recreational,” people used the terms “medically authorized use” and “adult-regulated use.”

The words carry different weight and denote different consequences, she said.

Holloway urged parents and the community to think about how they model marijuana use in their homes or normalize its use as a means to cope, connect with others, or to celebrate.

It's important to understand how people self regulate, she said, and to recognize the significant pressure on young people.

Add to this, that Americans “aren't supposed to” have negative emotions, she said. Everyone needs to learn that “we don't always have to feel good,” Holloway said.

Holloway reminded the audience that a combination of education, policies, a change in marketing, and taxation helped reduce smoking among young people. The same outcome can happen around marijuana, she predicted.

Bred for potency

Hanako Jones, a counselor at Brattleboro Union High School who runs its student assistance program, explained the difference between marijuana from the 1970s to what most people access in 2018.

Prior to the 1980s, the potency of THC in most marijuana hovered around 1.37 percent. Now, potency of THC is almost 30 percent, Jones said.

She compared the disparity in strength between 1980s and today's marijuana to the difference in the strength of a light beer and a “Jäger shot.”

THC and CBD work on the body's endocannabinoid system, which helps regulate the endocrine system, Jones said.

A downside to THC, Jones continued, is that it mimics a “bliss” chemical in the brain called anandamide, a neurotransmitter that serves as the body's version of THC.

According to Jones, heavy consumption of THC can fool the body into stopping its own production of anandamide, leading to depression, irritability, and nausea, she said.

Jones said that of people who use marijuana before the age of 14, one out of six will develop an addiction. According to the federal website, National Institute on Drug Abuse, “[p]eople who begin using marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than adults.”

Getting used to the new rules

Sgt. Ryan Wood outlined how the Vermont State Police prepared for the law to change, with the police expecting an increase in marijuana use and its potential consequences like driving under the influence.

Troopers took an advanced course in recognizing impaired driving, he said.

According to Wood, the agency is also training more drug-recognition experts, who are trained to evaluate people under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

The screenings can take as long as five hours depending on the availability of the DREs, making enforcement burdensome for the VSP, Wood said.

Wood noted that many people still don't understand the law.

Heather Smith, a mental-health clinician with Youth Services, echoed Wood.

One of Youth Services' many programs focuses on restorative justice, and a number of the under-21-year-olds diverted to the program had received a citation for marijuana possession. They didn't understand the age limits, she said.

In Smith's opinion, the citations are not always a bad thing. By enrolling in these programs, through which the young offenders make amends for their transgressions outside of the conventional criminal-justice system, the participants receive education and learn new coping skills.

There are challenges, however, she said. Some of the 16- or 17-year-olds she has worked with have struggled between protecting their housing - contingent on being drug-free - or continuing to use marijuana.

Concerned about normalizing marijuana use

Kurt White, director of the Brattleboro Retreat's Ambulatory Services said, “I want the community to have a sensible and fair conversation about marijuana.”

A self-proclaimed “worrier by nature,” White said, “There's a certain population that's going to be hurt by this [new law].”

White explained that he's not worried about the non-psychoactive CBD extracts or by adult, casual users of cannabis.

He does worry, though, about changing public perceptions that will eventually normalize the use of marijuana.

Over time, White expects more people will use the drug and more people will do so at an earlier age. If those young people have risk factors for addiction such as childhood trauma or a family history of addiction, they might struggle as adults, he warned.

“It's that group I'm really worried about because I see them in my office,” White said.

“Vermont is on the high side of a lot of these risk factors,” White said. “So Vermont needs to be extraordinarily careful.”

Dulling the pain

The speakers noted that the failed “Just Say No” approach to drug prevention has left prevention programs needing to rebuild credibility with most young people.

Audience member Deb Witkus, community outreach coordinator at Greater Falls Connections, a similar prevention program serving the Bellows Falls region, posed some questions: What is it about Vermont that makes it a high-risk state for substance abuse and suicide? And why do kids use drugs as a way to cope?

“Because in the end, there's always something there to dull the pain,” she said. “I think we're doing something wrong that's bigger.”

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