During the recent push towards marijuana legalization that seems to now have stalled, much was said about societal effects, the benefits of CBD, and needed changes to legislation involving driving under the influence, as well as ways of undoing years of prison sentences predicated by the wars on drugs.
There have also been concerns raised by those who’ve looked closely at data that charts teenage use of marijuana on a state and national level, as well as in Ulster County…where the rates of use appear significantly higher that the rising levels across the country and state.
According to Youth Development Survey results for Ulster County from the 2016-2017 school year, tabulated for the Ulster Prevention Council by Scantron Assessment Development and Psychometrics with a 37 percent participation rate by students in grades 7-12 throughout the county’s public schools, 19 percent of all respondents were current users of marijuana, with a spread of use showing substantial increases as students get older.
Three percent of 7th graders reported having tried marijuana within the last year compared with 39 percent of 12th graders; an overall 18 percent of users reported using marijuana on more than five occasions.
In a 2014-15 school year assessment of high school drug use and attitudes by the NYS Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, data was similar to that found in Ulster County, while the National Institute of Health’s 2017 Monitoring the Future survey found approximately 25 percent of 12th graders had tried pot, with under 15 percent having used marijuana more than five times in the past year.
The national survey went several steps further than the state and local data, noting that annual marijuana prevalence peaked at 51 percent among 12th graders in 1979, following a rise that began during the 1960s, then declined to 22% in 1992 after which there was a resurge and drop, followed a steady rise in use — and perceptions of use — since the 2007-2008 school year (with a notable decline during the 2012-2015 years). The national survey also found that vaping pot showed a significant rise over the past three years.
Of particular interest to those scouring the statistics as fuel for current policy discussions regarding legalization, and the need for further, more intense studies, have been concurrent shifts in regards to teenage attitudes towards marijuana over the past decade.
The older they get…
In the Ulster survey, it was noted that while “over two-thirds of respondents feel that smoking marijuana is wrong or very wrong,” such perception “drops precipitously as students get older.” Of seventh graders, 92 percent feel that smoking marijuana is very wrong or wrong, while only 41 percent of 12th graders feel the same. The same attitudes get reflected when Ulster students are asked whether marijuana places people at risk of harm, with 7th graders agreeing at a 70 percent rate versus 12th graders agreeing that smoking marijuana once or twice a week is a risk to their well-being, at 32 percent.
As a comparison, 84 percent of surveyed students in Ulster County said they have never tried cigarettes, and 85 percent saw smoking tobacco as a risk to one’s health. Twenty-seven percent of all surveyed students reported having drunk alcohol within the past thirty days, although 78 percent of all respondents said they felt it is wrong to drink alcohol regularly, with that perception actually rising, percentage-wise, by grade and age.
On a national level, researchers noted that use of marijuana has expanded as perceptions of its risk have dropped. This trend, it was added, reflected a general sense that pot was easier to access for teenagers, especially as they aged, to a level where 80 to 90 percent of students nationwide said they could score easily. This, the researchers added, correlates with cigarettes becoming harder to access, and thus losing popularity, while the access of alcohol, and slight increases in binge drinking among some teens, has resulted in downward-slipping approval rates for drinking among high schoolers.
Age of initiation for marijuana use in Ulster County, the Prevention Council report noted, was similar to that of cigarettes, with 54 percent reporting initiation between the ages of 12-14 and 39 percent reporting that they began marijuana use after the age of 15. Such data relates to similar experimentation with alcohol, and reflects state and national figures.
“Sixty percent of Ulster County High School seniors report that they have used marijuana. This is 15 points higher than the national average and 18 points above the state rate. Forty percent of them reported that they had used it recently, which is indicative of frequent use. That is 17 points above the national and 14 above the state averages. I can’t find a county worse than us,” noted Onteora School District resident Tom Kadgen, who alerted us to the current data. “Research indicates that Cannabis effects brain development in the young. The earlier one begins using marijuana the more likely it will have negative effects upon their lives. It can result in decreased intelligence, interfere with memory, and reduce one’s ability to reason. There is also the danger of becoming dependant as Cannabis is an addictive substance. There is also mounting evidence that it may cause psychiatric disorders over time…Which begs the question as to why it falls to someone like me, to bring something like this to the public’s attention.”
His arguments reflected a recent controversial New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell that resulted in similar findings and opinions.
Cheryl DePaolo, Director of the Ulster Prevention Council, added recently that while her agency cannot lobby one way or another regarding legislation such as that which could legalize marijuana in New York, “Our focus is on marijuana being harmful to the adolescent brain. Our mission is youth focused.”
She said she’s helped with letter writing campaigns regarding her agency’s findings, as well as those of state and national surveys. She added that she’s been hearing that Tracey Bartels, chair of the Ulster County legislature, is leaning in the direction of concern regarding the ways adult legalization could trickle down to effect “minority users.”
Addressing the youth issue
From a larger legal perspective, Professor of Law Julie Steiner of Western New England University School of Law in Springfield, MA, a specialist in the new marijuana laws, said all the concerns, and statistics being bandied about, are being taken very seriously as various states work out their individual means of pot decriminalization and legalization.
“It is somewhat difficult to predict where New York will end up on these issues; however, there are certain things that we know or can expect the legislature to do in light of the concerns about high school use,” Steiner noted in a recent email. “First, there has been a continual push by policymakers and youth/health advocates to ensure adequate education, screening, early intervention and treatment for users under 21 years of age. Second, I fully expect New York to ensure strict regulatory requirements that prevent licensed retailers from selling to those under 21 years of age. Third, New York is under pressure to earmark some of the marijuana-industry tax revenue to be used for education and treatment programs, including mandatory education programs in schools, public awareness campaigns, and money for screening and early intervention in the event of substance abuse detection. Fourth, buffer zone laws that create distance between retail establishments and high schools (indeed, all k-12 schools) are also a component of the legislative scheme aimed toward lessening the impact on youth. All of these efforts, together, attempt to address the problem of high school use.”
Talk about thorny issues.