With pot legal, how do we prepare our teens?

Increased access for adults will mean increased use by teens, expert warns

With recreational cannabis about to be legal, how do we prepare our youth?

That question was the focus of the latest JUF Government Affairs Committee panel, which featured State Sen. Heather Steans, chief Senate sponsor of the Cannabis Tax and Regulation Act; Dr. Beth Fishman, director of the Jewish Child & Family Services Addictions Program; and Maureen McDonnell, executive director of the PEERS agency, which provides substance abuse treatment and prevention programs to people in the northern suburbs and on the North Side. The session was moderated by GAC Vice Chair-State Jason Friedman.

Steans opened the discussion by saying she was a late convert to the cause of legalizing cannabis. She was persuaded, however, by evidence that prohibition wasn't working and by the state's successful implementation of the medical marijuana law in 2014.

Also important to her decision, she said, was a 2013 ACLU study that found that, although African Americans and Caucasian Americans use cannabis at roughly the same rate in Illinois, African Americans are more than 7½ times more likely to be arrested for it. So, including restorative justice provisions to correct this injustice became a compelling goal. Over 770,000 cannabis-related records may be eligible for expungement under the act.

Fishman, an expert in addiction recovery, said she has concerns about the impending legalization.

"When there is increased access, there is increased use," she said. "Increased access to marijuana for adults also results in more use among underage youth, and data have shown that one in six youth who use marijuana will become addicted. Marijuana products today come in significantly higher THC potency than has ever been previously available, and we know that higher potency creates higher risk of negative outcomes."

She recommends educational programming to increase community knowledge about the marijuana of today and its impact on the body and brain, particularly for youth.  Additionally, "as a community, we can support youth drug prevention programs grounded in Jewish values, such as the Partners in Prevention program facilitated by JCFS Chicago: Response for Teens.  This program teaches refusal skills for drugs, as well as healthy decision-making for many important areas in the life of young people." 

McDonnell is optimistic about opportunities to limit the dangers of teen use, citing the success of earlier public health initiatives targeting the dangers of smoking and driving after drinking.

In the PEER prevention program, staff begin by recognizing that teens love facts and want to be entrusted with making their own decisions. Parents are important to educate because, despite how it might appear at times, teens value what their parents think -- and how they act -- around alcohol and drugs.

Part of Peer program focuses on helping teens manage their stress, because high levels of stress may drive them to use marijuana and alcohol to self-medicate. Another part is to create "sober fun activities." 



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