Advocates for legalizing pot in Maine tout study showing no spike in teen use in states with medical marijuana

Patrick Fallon of Brigid Farms stands in front of a cannabis plant Saturday morning during the Home Grown Maine Medical Marijuana Trade Show at the Spectacular Events Center in Bangor on April 19, 2014.
Brian Feulner | BDN
Patrick Fallon of Brigid Farms stands in front of a cannabis plant Saturday morning during the Home Grown Maine Medical Marijuana Trade Show at the Spectacular Events Center in Bangor on April 19, 2014. Buy Photo
Posted June 19, 2014, at 9:07 a.m.
Last modified June 19, 2014, at 10:22 a.m.

LEWISTON, Maine — Supporters of legalizing marijuana for recreational use in Maine said Wednesday that recent reports show teen pot-smoking wouldn’t increase with legalization.

A study in the Journal of Adolescent Health looked at the impact of marijuana use by teenagers in states that had enacted medical marijuana laws and compared them to nearby states that had not. The study, which considered 20 years of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on about 11 million teens, found no increase in youth marijuana use.

The other report, the results of a CDC National Youth Risk Behavior Survey that included annual data from 1991 to 2013, shows that the percentage of teens who say they regularly use marijuana rose from 14 percent to 23 percent.

The data sets show regular marijuana use by teens is down slightly, about 2 percent since 1995, when about 25 percent of youths said they used marijuana at least once during the 30 days prior to the survey.

But the statistics, released earlier this month, also show that the use of harder drugs by teens, including hallucinogenic drugs and methamphetamines, had decreased slightly.

The survey also shows steady decreases in the number of teens who regularly use tobacco and alcohol. The survey showed regular alcohol use by teens was down from about 51 percent in 1991 to about 35 percent in 2013.

The number of teens who smoked cigarettes regularly (20 or more days in a 30-day period) was also down from about 12.7 percent in 1991 to 5.6 percent in 2013.

Those who favor legalizing recreational marijuana in Maine for adults 21 and older say the numbers on alcohol and tobacco use are a result of more regulation and education.

“We’ve been told that regulating marijuana will increase teen use, but the 20-year CDC data clearly does not support that,” Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, said Wednesday. “Interestingly enough, though, teen use among tightly regulated products like alcohol and tobacco has been significantly declining over the past few years.”

Russell has offered legislation that would put the legalization question to voters statewide and, if approved, return it to the Legislature so lawmakers could craft a policy for Maine. While her bills in recent years have failed, they have steadily gained greater support among her colleagues, and this year, Maine Democrats added legalization as a plank in the party platform.

Those supporting legalization do not support giving marijuana to children, Russell said, noting some opponents have tried to demonize lawmakers or other advocates for legalization as drug pushers.

“I think people legitimately have concerns about youth access,” Russell said. “But to suggest that those of us who want a regulatory framework don’t support restricting youth access is false.”

Washington and Colorado have legalized recreational marijuana for adults, in conflict with federal law. Twenty-two states, including Maine and the District of Columbia, have legalized medical marijuana.

Maine is also among a handful of states that have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, also in conflict with federal law, which still considers marijuana a controlled substance.

Volunteers for the Marijuana Policy Project in Maine are collecting voter signatures in York, Lewiston and South Portland to put the issue before voters in those cities in November.

Last November, 67 percent of Portland voters supported making the use and possession of marijuana legal for adults in Maine’s largest city.

The Marijuana Policy Project hopes passage of local ordinances will compel Maine’s Legislature to act, or the project will launch a statewide ballot initiative for 2016.

David Boyer, Marijuana Policy Project’s Maine political director, said the group is well on its way to having the voter signatures it needs.

According to Boyer, the group has collected more than 350 signatures in Lewiston and has until Aug. 8 to gather 859. He said the York signatures had been gathered and were turned in Thursday.

Boyer said Wednesday that the newly released CDC data show Maine has the lowest youth marijuana use of the six New England states and is below the national average for 2013, despite being one of the first states to decriminalize marijuana in 1976 and one of the first to make medical marijuana legal in 1999.

“Some of our opponents say there is a correlation that legalization means increased access to youth,” Boyer said. “But the data doesn’t really prove that.”

In Lewiston, legalization supporter Stavros Mendros, a Republican former state lawmaker and former city councilor, said the newly released data sets affirm an argument he’s often made that regulation would lead to less access.

He and Russell said they do not personally use marijuana and definitely do not support youth consumption of pot.

He said regulation would better protect youths. “In the case of marijuana, it’s already illegal,” he said. “Those selling will sell to anyone they can find, where when it’s regulated they have a lot more to lose, a lot more at risk.”

But opponents to legalizing marijuana, including Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Lewiston’s conservative mayor, Robert Macdonald, and the city’s superintendent of schools, Bill Webster, said it would lead to more use and abuse by young people.

Webster said the advent of medical marijuana has made the drug easier for youths to get their hands on and legalization for adults would send the wrong message to youths.

“Before we broaden adult usage of marijuana, I hope that we consider more how to protect our children from this drug, as the research clearly shows that it is devastating to the development of the young mind,” Webster said earlier this month.

Others who work to prevent youth substance abuse in Androscoggin County say legalization in Lewiston would be the wrong move.

Scott Gagnon, substance abuse prevention coordinator for Healthy Androscoggin and a spokesman for the citizen group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said more and more Maine youths believe there is no risk or a “slight risk” of harm from marijuana use.

He said legalization would add to the perception that marijuana use is harmless.

He said new data from a statewide survey of youths show pockets of increased marijuana use among preteens, including in Androscoggin County.

He said the new CDC numbers show him a different story than what legalization advocates suggest.

While alcohol and tobacco use are trending significantly downward, marijuana use has more or less “flat-lined,” Gagnon said.

And that flat-line trend in Maine correlates with the state bringing on medical marijuana dispensaries in 2009, which is also when the debate about recreational legalization got started, he said.

“We are making great strides with tobacco and alcohol, but we seem to be stuck with marijuana,” Gagnon said. “Everything else is trending down.”

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