RUMFORD — Nearly 71 percent of high school students think smoking marijuana one or two times a week isn’t harmful, according to a state health survey. That has officials of a River Valley substance abuse prevention agency concerned.

“Unfortunately, that has to do with the legalization of marijuana and a lot of students in our area think that because they see it as medicine, they don’t think it’s harmful, Allie Burke, program director for River Valley Rising, said.

“And now that it’s legalized they think it’s better than alcohol,” she said. “So that’s a concern that we have, that 70 percent of our high school students don’t think that marijuana is harmful.”

The Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, a collaboration between the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Department of Education, said the percentage of students who think smoking pot presents a low risk to health rose from 67.6 in 2015 to 70.70 in 2017.

“Students think marijuana is safe to use because of pro-marijuana messages and marketing from media,” Burke said. “With the legalization of marijuana, parents are now allowed to grow it at home, and they can have 2.5 ounces on them, so it’s more accepted.”

River Valley Rising, a nonprofit organization that works to reduce youth substance abuse, will hold a public forum on marijuana use at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 28, at Mountain Valley Middle School. Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Sgt. Chancey Libby will address the issue.

According to a River Valley Rising pamphlet, the level of THC, the chemical compound in marijuana that produces the ‘high,’ has risen from about 4 percent in 1995 to about 12 percent in 2014. The pamphlet also states that the National Institute on Drug Abuse says using marijuana leads to altered senses, altered sense of time, changes in mood, impaired body movement, difficulty with thinking and problem-solving, and impaired memory.

A River Valley Rising poster reads: “Research has shown that marijuana can be harmful to the developing brain of adolescents, which could result in psychotic symptoms, drug addiction, schizophrenia, and lower IQs.”

Although the survey indicates more students this smoking pot is a low health risk, use of it has declined in the past two years. 

The state survey indicates marijuana use among Mountain Valley High School and Dirigo High School students during a 30-day survey period fell from 27.5 percent in 2015 to 25.6 percent in 2017. At Mountain Valley Middle School and Dirigo Middle School, the percentages were 15.4 in 2015 and 12 in 2017.

However, the survey indicates the percentage of students at those high schools who use unprescribed prescription drugs rose from 5.10 percent  in 2015 to 7.8 percent in 2017.

“This is a concern that this is at high school level and the numbers are going up and not down,” Burke said.

Melissa Harding, River Valley Rising’s program coordinator, said, “Parents should be mindful of how much of a prescription they have.”

Burke said it should be locked up or stashed away so younger children can’t get it.

“We had law enforcement come to our last coalition meeting here and they told us that they’ve seen a definite increase (of opioid abuse) in this area,” Burke said.

“One of the good things that has happened,” she said, is alcohol use and abuse by area students is down. The state survey indicated 23.4 percent of River Valley high school students drank alcohol in the past 30 days, compared to 23.2 percent in 2017. At the middle schools the percentages were 7.1 in 2015 and 4.6 in 2017.

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River Valley Rising representatives held a free ski night at Black Mountain in Rumford last Thursday night. From left are Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education program manager Katie Thorne, River Valley Rising program coordinator Melissa Harding and program director Allie Burke with her daughter Eliza Nellis. (Submitted photo)

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