Pot emerges as new focus for groups fighting teen substance abuse

Caribou Police Chief Michael Gahagan said &quotI really do think [marijuana] is a gateway drug."
Bridget Brown | BDN file photo
Caribou Police Chief Michael Gahagan said "I really do think [marijuana] is a gateway drug." Buy Photo
Posted Dec. 25, 2013, at 9:54 a.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — Earlier this month, the possession of marijuana for nonmedical use became legal in Portland. This, and other sporadic discussions about marijuana legalization in Maine, has shifted the focus of an Aroostook County-based organization that works to curb substance abuse among young people.

Now, besides teaching youth about the dangers of drunk driving, they are paying more attention to how marijuana can impair motorists when they get behind the wheel.

Michelle Plourde Chasse, Community Voices project manager, said in the past, Community Voices and similar groups have focused on alcohol when talking about impaired driving prevention over the past two or three decades.

This year, they decided to change.

With marijuana in the spotlight, she said that law enforcement and community members are questioning what effect marijuana legalization in Maine would have on the prevalence of marijuana-impaired driving.

“I think that most people would recognize that someone drugged behind the wheel is just as dangerous as someone who has been drinking,” said Plourde Chasse. “Reaction times are slower, you are braking slower, you are not as quick to act, you are not as apt to pay attention behind the wheel. It can be dangerous. But its not something that you read a whole lot about. You read a lot about drunk driving, but not about drivers impaired by marijuana.”

Community Voices is a coalition supported by SAD 27 in Fort Kent, Healthy Maine Partnerships Power of Prevention and Healthy Aroostook, with funding from the Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services.

According to Maine Department of Transportation data collected in 2009 and 2010, the most recent data available, the drug class that includes marijuana was ranked as the No. 1 drug found in impaired driving cases in which a drug recognition expert was consulted.

Plourde Chasse said that she was not surprised by this, and believes that many young people do not believe that marijuana is harmful or can be be dangerous.

According to the 2013 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, which was released Dec. 17, nearly 52 percent of high school teens said the regular use of marijuana carried little to no risk. That’s up from 43.9 percent in 2011 and 39.1 percent in 2009.

Caribou Police Chief Michael Gahagan said that of all of the drugged driving arrests in Caribou, the majority have at least marijuana in their system, sometimes along with other drugs.

“Most of the time, marijuana users turn to more hard-core drugs,” he said. “In my professional career, I have never arrested a drug user that hadn’t started with marijuana.”

Gahagan said that he is also concerned about marijuana being legalized, and agrees that more people are relaxed in their attitude about the drug.

“I really do think it’s a gateway drug,” he said. “And there is a kind of culture out there among young people that marijuana is ‘no big deal.’ People don’t realize that if they go out and get into a car accident and kill someone and are found to have drugs in their system, there can be serious consequences.”

Presque Isle Police Chief Matt Irwin agreed. He said that the department does not have a system to track down many accidents are caused by drivers impaired by marijuana, but said that it is not uncommon to have drivers who are found to under the influence of alcohol to also have the drug in their system, or to have marijuana in the car with them.

“Marijuana is definitely a gateway drug,” he said. “There is nothing good that can come from making it legal.”

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