LEWISTON — Just as rolling billboards hit the streets in Lewiston from the Marijuana Policy Project touting the drug as “less toxic, less addictive and less scary than alcohol,” Healthy Androscoggin gave a lecture Tuesday evening on the dangers of teen marijuana use.
Substance Abuse Prevention Manager Scott Gagnon began by saying the forum would not address Question 2 on the city ballot that would make marijuana use legal for adults age 21 and older.
“Androscoggin County is above the Maine average for use of marijuana,” Gagnon said, and the 2013 figures speak for themselves.
He said 12.2 percent of Androscoggin County middle school students have admitted using marijuana. “It’s a pretty stark increase from 2011, when it was 7.9 percent,” he said.
Asked how many used marijuana by age 11, he said the number was almost one in five, a slight decrease from a 2011 survey.
“When you think of it, that’s a very young age for a person to be using any substance,” Gagnon said.
High school students given a similar question showed 25.5 percent have used marijuana by age 13.
The percentage of middle school students who identified themselves as regular users was 6.9 percent and nearly a quarter of middle school students said they could easily obtain the drug.
By high school, that number jumps to 18.9 percent, with 56.2 percent saying the drug was readily available.
High school students were also asked about peer approval of marijuana use and nearly half answered there is little to nothing wrong with using the drug.
As for physiological effects, Gagnon said, “Studies have shown that problems with attention, learning, memory and processing speeds can be associated with heavy marijuana use.”
He also said the levels of tar and carbon monoxide inhaled when smoking marijuana are three to five times higher than tobacco.
“The chemical makeup of the marijuana smoke is actually more toxic than the tobacco smoke,” Gagnon said.
Addressing arguments that cannabis is not habit-forming, Gagnon said, “Science has proven that marijuana is addictive and that it’s three times more likely to lead to dependence among adolescents than adults.
“National research shows that about one in six youths who start experimenting with marijuana will develop an addiction,” Gagnon said, showing a graphic citing 872,000 people nationwide were reported as seeking treatment for marijuana addiction.
The stuff out there now isn’t hippie-grade marijuana, he said.
“Frankly, it’s very different from even a decade ago,” Gagnon said, with average THC levels under 4 percent in 1983 to 10 percent in 2008 and even higher on average today.
THC is the principal psychoactive ingredient in the marijuana plant.
With marijuana making it into the mainstream, it is even being marketed in common items such as fruit punch, chocolate bars and gummy candies, Gagnon said.
He said parents need to be vigilant. He advises them to know their child’s friends and their friends’ parents.
Wait up for them to come home and engage with them in productive conversations about drugs, he said, adding he doesn’t advocate having a “big talk” about marijuana but prefers many small talks.