Scott Gagnon: Marijuana is not the way forward for Lewiston

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On Nov. 4, the voters of Lewiston will have many important decisions before them. One of those crucial decisions will be whether or not to legalize marijuana.

On the surface, it may not seem like a big deal. After all, nothing changes legally as state and federal drug laws pre-empt local law. However, the symbolism of a “yes” vote is a really big deal when we think about the message it will send to Lewiston youth.

As parents and grandparents of pre-teens and teenagers, it seems like our kids never, ever listen to us. But the research into teen behavior is very clear — the examples and norms we as adults set for our families and our communities has a huge influence on our youth. They are listening to us and paying attention to the decisions we adults are making at the ballot box.

The groundbreaking work of Drs. David Hawkins and Richard Catalano identified a number of factors that influence whether or not youth become involved in substance abuse. These are known as risk and protective factors.

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The protective factors build resilience within our young people to resist experimenting with and abusing drugs.

The risk factors are those aspects of the families, schools and communities that may condone or encourage youth substance use.

The vote on marijuana in November is crucial because, one way or another, it will send a very loud message to our youth as to what Lewiston sees as a community norm around drug use.

A “yes” vote will send a message to our youth that marijuana isn’t harmful and isn’t a big deal. That is powerful symbolism that comes with consequences. We are already seeing some of those consequences play out in Androscoggin County.

Since 2009, when Maine’s Medical Marijuana program became operational, we have seen a dramatic spike in marijuana use by Androscoggin County middle school youth. The increase in the number of middle school youth using marijuana has been a little over 54 percent, according to data from the 2013 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey.

The survey gives us clues as to why this is happening. Nearly one-out-of-three middle school youth now believe there is no risk from regular marijuana use. More than one-out-of-five Androscoggin middle school youth who use are starting before age 11. That is textbook normalization in action.

The Lewiston School Committee recently took an impressive step of leadership when it adopted a resolution stating opposition to the legalization of recreational marijuana in the city of Lewiston. To the majority who voted in support of the resolution, it was clear that a “yes” vote on legalizing marijuana would increase barriers to education for our youth.

That is supported by the 2012 study by Madeline H. Meier, that establishes a link between teen marijuana use and lower academic performance and reduced job prospects. In short, marijuana gets between a young person and achieving his life dreams and goals. Fewer Lewiston teens thriving and striving to reach their dreams is a loss for everyone in the community.

The truth is these symbolic — but impactful — votes in Lewiston and South Portland are just another step toward the ultimate goal of the Marijuana Policy Project, which is to legalize recreational marijuana statewide.

The marijuana industry investors and CEOs who sit on their boards of directors are just itching to open up a market in Maine.

Along with the industry comes the marketing machines and the marijuana edibles, like THC-infused gummy bears, lollipops and sodas. If you thought the marketing to teens from the tobacco and alcohol industries was bad, just wait and see what happens if we let the marijuana industry into Lewiston.

The voters of Lewiston have a powerful opportunity to stop the normalization of marijuana in Maine in its tracks; a chance to say, loud and clear to our youth, that we don’t condone marijuana, we don’t accept it as part of the community norm of Lewiston, and that we absolutely will not have the marijuana industry in our city.

Scott Gagnon of Gray is the volunteer state director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine.

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