LEWISTON — A middle school student recently came before the School Committee for a suspension hearing. At the meeting with her father, she faced committee members and admitted stealing her father’s marijuana and taking it to school.

She wasn’t caught using “but had an aura of marijuana. Friends of hers were aware she had marijuana,” said Lewiston School Committee Chairman Jim Handy, who presides over student suspension and expulsion hearings.

“Her father admitted he did not secure his medical marijuana,” Handy said. “He took what happened seriously and learned a lesson on how he has to make his marijuana secure at home.”

The student is back in school after “a significant suspension,” he said.

The recent case is one of four in which students were suspended by the School Committee for possessing and/or distributing marijuana in school. Other students have been suspended by principals for possession, or for being high.

If Lewiston voters pass a Nov. 4 referendum legalizing recreational use of marijuana, the trend will grow, school officials warn.

Since Maine voters approved medical marijuana dispensaries in 2009, and since Portland voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2013, use among Lewiston students has increased, officials say.

According to a student survey, Lewiston student use of marijuana has surpassed alcohol. “And alcohol is legal for those 21 and over. Marijuana is not even legal,” Handy said.

“Over a third of students at the middle school have used marijuana,” he said. “At the high school it’s just over half. Here’s what becomes of that: It becomes acceptable. A high percentage of students think it’s no-risk or low-risk when it’s of great consequences, especially to young people.”

Use has increased in the past year to the point that, Handy said, “I can’t tell you how many people, kids and parents, say it’s all over the schools.” That’s a broad generalization, he said, “but when I hear it from so many different people, I have to say there’s something there.”

Last month, Handy proposed that the School Committee pass a resolution urging Lewiston voters to reject legalized recreational use of marijuana. The resolution passed. Since then, the South Portland School Committee passed a similar resolution. Legalizing recreational marijuana is also on the Nov. 4 ballot for South Portland voters.

If the Lewiston referendum passes, “what we’d be saying is we condone it, Handy said. “It will send a message, not only in our community but in surrounding communities, that a government entity condones the use of marijuana.”

He added, “It’s symbolic. There are still state and federal laws that do not allow the legalization of marijuana. But symbolism has meaning. It’s how it is perceived. A government entity now says, ‘We don’t think marijuana is such a bad idea.’ You can say it’s not going to impact kids. All kinds of substances are prohibited, but people get access. What we’re saying now is that we condone it.”

Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said attitudes toward marijuana have grown more acceptable.

“There’s a viewpoint that marijuana doesn’t have a long-term impact on the body,” he said. “But new research is clearly pointing out marijuana has a significant impact. It retards the appropriate development of the adolescent brain. We know that use has a significant detriment to student learning in the classroom.”

The more any drug is available in the adult population, the more it will filter down to students because some adults are lax or complacent about providing it to students. That would be bad, Webster said.

“We do not have the resources in Lewiston, or Maine, to deal with the issues that will come from legalized marijuana,” he said. “We need to be much more thoughtful of the impact of marijuana on adolescents, how we protect them.”

Handy takes issue with marijuana proponents who say the health affects are nil, that it will bring in tax revenue and will be regulated.

It is not harmless, Handy said.

“There are terrible effects in Colorado based on their short experience: more car accidents with drivers using marijuana, more ER visits with young children being poisoned by it, the same thing with pets ingesting it. Children find it in food or find the marijuana joint and decide to light up because mom and dad do it.”

Experts say alcohol and drugs, including marijuana, cause more damage in children, including high school students, because their brains are still developing, Handy said.

“Marijuana causes slow reactions,” he said. “Students who smoke it are not inspired to do well in their schoolwork. Their aspirations are lost. They don’t care about success for themselves, about going to college.”

And “if you vote to pass this referendum, you’re going to be voting for a tax increase,” Handy said, “from societal harm that more substance abuse will cause, from accidents by uninsured drivers to domestic violence.”

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Marijuana & Youth forum Tuesday in Lewiston

LEWISTON — The Lewiston Auburn Public Health Committee and Healthy Androscoggin will present a forum on Marijuana & Youth from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 28, at Lewiston Middle School.

The forum will present the latest data and science on marijuana and will feature local experts sharing their experiences with how marijuana is affecting youths and the community.

Data from the 2013 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey show that 19 percent of high school youths report using marijuana in the past 30 days, virtually unchanged since 2009. However, middle school use jumped by 54 percent from 2011. Androscoggin County has the highest rate of middle school youth marijuana use in Maine.

Following the forum, a panel of local experts from education, law enforcement, and the medical and behavioral health fields will share their experiences and thoughts on how the community can address rising marijuana use.

The forum is free and open to the public.

For more information, call Healthy Androscoggin at 795-5990 or go to www.healthyandroscoggin.org.

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