Substance Abuse Prevention Group Warns Of Pot's Impact On Developing Brains

Jul 3, 2018

It's now legal to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana under Vermont law if you're over 21. The law, which was passed in January, took effect on Sunday.

A majority of the legislature supported this law, and Gov. Phil Scott signed it. But Scott was among those who raised concerns about youth drug use and road safety. Groups like Prevention Works! VT have also raised those concerns.

VPR's Henry Epp spoke with Prevention Works! Vermont coordinator Lori Augustyniak. Listen to their full conversation above.

What are your main concerns as we begin this era of legal recreational marijuana for adults in Vermont?

Well, we in the prevention community in Vermont are greatly concerned about the effects that this law is going to have on youth, specifically, and the larger effect on communities. The law doesn't change the fact that mind-altering substances including marijuana are harmful to the still-developing teen brain.

And youth are getting a lot of messages right now about marijuana; that it's harmless. We want to make sure that we're countering that with enough information. So that they and their parents and other adults that care about them are giving them good messages to avoid marijuana use until they're older.

What more do you think state government could be doing at this point to make sure that cannabis does not get into the hands of those who can't legally have it — those under 21?

So there are certainly things that the state government can do around enforcing laws that would be really helpful and I know law enforcement intends to do. But the bigger problem that we see when it comes to substance abuse prevention is that most youth report that they get access to alcohol, tobacco and marijuana from parents, other adults in their life and older siblings.

So we want adults to be really aware of how they're modeling use in front of youths and also making sure that they're not supplying it even inadvertently to use in their home or to their children's friends. We really want to make sure that we're controlling that aspect and empowering parents to take precautions and make sure that it's not something that's accessible in their own homes.

What’s Prevention Works! VT's approach now that the drug is legal?

Our focus is on community education and building resiliency within communities. So it really will be about making marijuana use a less desirable choice for youth. Educating parents and others about the harms around marijuana use.

I think part of our biggest challenge right now is regardless of whether people see legalization as good or bad policy it really isn't a cause for celebration right now. We need to see legalization as the lesser of two evils quite honestly. And now that we have replaced the formal legal controls that existed priorly we need to replace of with social controls like prevention services and parents being more aware of what their kids have access to and having those conversations with their kids about the harms of marijuana use, that we really know that we do not want to promote youth marijuana use.

And we are being flooded right now with messages through popular culture and in the media that really perpetuate the false notion that marijuana is harmless.

Those who support legal marijuana in Vermont now hope to push the state toward creating a retail market for the drug. Do you think that approach where a resident would have to enter a store and show ID could help control marijuana use by those who are underage?

I know that's the argument that a lot of folks bring forward. But again we have a tax-and-regulate system for alcohol and alcohol is by far the most abused substance by young people. That argument alone is not enough to say that that's going to create a safer atmosphere for youth. And also we know that once the substance is commercialized like that there's an entirely different pressure to promote that substance and promote that drug.

So we really want to make sure that we are not creating a system that is actually going to promote the use and increase the rates of substance use. Until 2015, we saw marijuana use rates by youth stable for the past 10 years. But it significantly increased between 2015 and 2017. So we are very cautious around how we would see this drug kind of integrated into our culture and making sure that there are proper safety measures in place and lots of prevention messaging that precedes any further changes in the legal status of marijuana.