With legalization possible, educators struggle to get anti-pot message across

A poster, developed by drug-prevention educators and students with the Groton Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention, on display at Fitch Senior High School. (Courtesy Carolyn Wilson)
A poster, developed by drug-prevention educators and students with the Groton Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention, on display at Fitch Senior High School. (Courtesy Carolyn Wilson)

Last school year, the Fitch High School chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions drafted fliers to post on the walls with figures on how using marijuana and abusing prescription drugs affects teenagers' health.

They had been meeting regularly with Carolyn Wilson, who runs anti-drug efforts in Groton schools for the Groton Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention, which has been using a state grant to fund education around marijuana and prescription drugs since 2015.

The posters went up. Then some of them came down, crumpled and tossed on the ground.

"I was told by students that it was just the marijuana posters," Wilson said. "They're way more receptive (to) the opioid ones and the prescription drug ones than the marijuana ones." This year, she had the posters laminated.

Public health experts say that the effects of heavy marijuana use on the brain — which can include decreased memory and concentration, lowered judgment and processing skills and memory problems — can be especially harmful in adolescents because their brains still are developing.

But for anti-drug educators, the message that marijuana is harmful for young brains is increasingly drowned out by the drum of popular culture, laws allowing the sale of marijuana in states from California to Massachusetts, medical marijuana programs and parental indifference.

"It can be discouraging," Wilson said. "Their perception of harm is nonexistent. A lot of kids have this perception that it's practically legal."

Educators can try their best but, with much of the grant money and media pressure focusing on opioid painkillers and heroin as overdose deaths from those drugs reach into the thousands for Connecticut just this year, marijuana can seem like a footnote in the "just say no" discussion.

"It becomes a little bit of a comparison," said Angela Duhaime, a former educator with the drug prevention group Southeastern Regional Action Council. "People say, 'Well, it's not as bad as alcohol, it's not as bad as heroin.'"

That message often comes directly from the adults raising teenagers, Wilson said.

"A parent (could be) saying, 'I don't see a big deal with this. It's better than alcohol, it's better than heroin,'" she said. "It's not in fashion right now to be against it."

The question of whether the sale of marijuana to adults will soon become legal in Connecticut throws another wrench in efforts to convince teenagers that they should avoid the drug.

State legislators will consider bills that would legalize the sale and taxation of marijuana in Connecticut for the fifth session in a row this year. No legalization bills raised in the past five years have made it out of the committee level of the General Assembly.

But this year, as legislators struggle to find revenue sources to alleviate the state's budget deficit and watch as Massachusetts rolls out the marijuana laws that Bay State voters approved in a referendum last year, legalization in Connecticut is looking slightly more likely.

Wilson said she and the drug prevention organizations she works with haven't taken an official position on legalization efforts in Connecticut.

"We pretty much stand together and say that it increases youth access and decreases perception of harm, which can lead to increased use," she said. "From a prevention standpoint, I feel like the force behind marijuana legalization is not helping the prevention cause."

Some teenagers said this past week that, legal or not, their classmates who are going to smoke marijuana — or vape, or dab, or eat it —  will do it regardless of whether the adults around them can do so legally.

Gabriel Pluss, a student at East Lyme High School's Coastal Connections program, said he has been aware of his classmates using marijuana since he was in seventh grade.

"To most people, it doesn't seem like a big deal," he said. "I think it just depends on the person, really. If it's something they like to do ... they're not going to be the kind of person to think, 'Oh, it's wrong'. They're just going to keep doing it. Some people don't view it as a drug at all."

No matter how many times they're told it will do damage to their developing brains, Tychala Edwards said, social acceptance of the drug and parents' lax opinions usually win out.

"I feel like they've been told a million times and they still do it," said Edwards, 15, a student at Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Technical High School in Groton. "They just think it's cool."

Wilson said drug educators are hoping that if talking to kids a million times about marijuana doesn't do the trick, two million might. Persistence has paid off in changing the minds of parents who once thought nothing of letting their children drink alcohol, she said.

"For a while, people didn't know the effects of alcohol on brain development in youth," she said. "That became one of the strongest messages in prevention that we have — (but) it took time."

Meanwhile, a yearslong push to get Connecticut lawmakers to take up legalizing marijuana continues in Hartford.

A bill led by state Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, is making its way through the committee process this session and boasts 22 co-sponsors, including Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, and Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington.

Urban said she supports marijuana legalization in Connecticut based on the evidence she said she's seen that it has had beneficial effects on the economy and few negative consequences in the states where it has been legalized. "The sky hasn't fallen in," she said.

Urban said any legalization bill in Connecticut would not allow children to buy marijuana, but that it would be up to parents and educators to regulate children's drug use in the same way kids are discouraged from drinking alcohol.

"At some point you've got to say, 'We have some parameters, and we've got to operate within those parameters,'" she said. "Be responsible adults, be parents, talk to your kid about what the dangers of alcohol and marijuana are."

Elizabeth Abernathy, a 16-year-old Guilford High School student who spoke at a news conference held by the Connecticut chapter of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, argued that legalization would make marijuana seem less harmful in the minds of people her age.

"(They think) it's safe enough that it's legal, so it can't be harmful," she said. "It's in the back of their minds. If people's perception was (that it's) as harmful as it is, in their minds, it wouldn't be legal."

The probability of marijuana sales being legalized in Connecticut anytime soon is hazy. Even if the General Assembly votes on a bill, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has long been clear on his opposition to legalizing marijuana — though he did suggest in a budget deficit-reduction plan released last month that lawmakers consider legalization in the long term.

But with marijuana sales set to start in Massachusetts this summer, a legislative commission studying legalization in Rhode Island, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo seeking a study on legalization in his state and the New Jersey legislature considering a legalization bill under a newly elected governor who campaigned on legalizing cannabis, Connecticut lawmakers could be feeling peer pressure to take it on sooner than expected.

The temptation of tax dollars from legal marijuana is also a draw as the legislature slogs through another session of difficult budgeting, Soto said.

"Obviously this is polarizing, so it's going to take time to get through the process," he said. "But there's more pressure this session."

Wilson and Duhaime are watching the legalization fight from a distance, but say local anti-marijuana education efforts will persist regardless of the outcome.

"We get into this thing about whether it's legal or not legal," Duhaime said. "I think we can handle (either)."

Marijuana use by teenagers declined nationwide between 2014 and 2016, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. A Southeastern Regional Action Council report last year found that the percentage of surveyed teenagers who said they used marijuana went down here, too, from 14 percent in 2014 to 12.1 percent in 2016, though the reported use of prescription drugs rose by 7 percent in those years.

Wilson said her work in area schools with Groton Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention might change slightly if marijuana is legalized in Connecticut, but the message for teenagers essentially will remain the same.

"We always go back to ... what's considered medicine, and what's considered recreational for adults is different for youth," she said. "Your brain is way more susceptible to the effects of marijuana than an adult's would be. It's a totally a different ballgame."

m.shanahan@theday.com

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