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More money, problems with legalization

Editor's Corner

Melanie Witkowski of Prevention Works, which has offices in Dunkirk and Jamestown, says teenage marijuana use has increased. OBSERVER Photo by Jo Ward

Melanie Witkowski knows the numbers too well — and they signal reasons for worry on a local level. Since discussions began to center around legalizing marijuana in New York state in recent years, she has seen a trend that could be considered as disturbing for Chautauqua County and our society.

As executive director of Prevention Works, Witkowski’s organization focuses on a safe and healthy environment by effectively educating the community on positive life choices. It has an excellent relationship with the county’s 18 school districts and 7,900 students in grades seven to 12.

Because of that bond, the agency knows how teenagers are reacting to the latest developments that are occurring in Albany. “I’m extremely concerned, especially as it relates to our youth,” Witkowski said. “We are going to see an increase in marijuana use with our youth.”

Perception, she says, is everything.

In reaching out to schools, Prevention Works in 2017 found 50.6% of teenagers saw marijuana as being harmful to their health. As the drug was becoming more accepted around the nation — with approval in a handful of states — the harm factor decreased in 2019 in the same segment of students to 38.9%.

“When you have a lower misperception of harm,” she said, “you are going to see an increase of marijuana use.”

Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state leaders hailed the controversial deal of allowing recreational marijuana. Most of the announcement focused on the positives of new revenue in the form of tax collections totaling $350 million annually and the potential for this industry to create 30,000 to 60,000 jobs across the state. But little was said about the negative impacts that could face a number of communities other than a portion of those revenues would be earmarked for drug treatment.

That is a major piece, according to Witkowski, who sees marijuana as being a potential start to a larger and more dangerous problem. “When you’re around individuals who are using substances, there’s going to be other substances in that mix … and at those gatherings or parties they are attending,” she said. “They’re putting themselves in a riskier situation.”

Legalizing marijuana is not just about those who are already facing the demons of addiction. It also could be about negatively impacting our local economy.

Major employers are already facing issues when it comes to the region’s workforce. In the north county, Wells Enterprises that oversees Fieldbrook Foods has positions that are not being filled while other companies, including Athenex that is just starting to get off the ground, have only begun to search for candidates.

Witkowski believes that even if marijuana is legal, some employers may shun those who use it due to the equipment and technology required for the position. “I’m concerned with the workforce,” she said. “We already struggle in our community when it comes to hiring individuals.”

Within the past week, Jamestown has started discussing a topic other municipalities will have to face in the future: whether to opt out of allowing adult-use cannabis retail dispensaries or on-site consumption licenses within their jurisdiction. While the decision to not allow those types of locations may decrease the legal availability, it does not prohibit the use of the substance.

That gets back to Witkowski’s major worry about the drug’s impact on teens. She said that in 2017, usage by students in county middle and high schools was about 12.6% of the students. Since the legalization talk, the number has increased to 17.4% in 2019.

“To see a 5% increase in two years is sometimes unheard of,” she said. “I’m really interested to see where it’s going to be in 2021. We are definitely going to have an issue as it relates to youth.”

How that affects educational results within the schools — some that are already struggling due to high poverty levels — remains to be seen. But she believes the impact will be far reaching.

“We’re talking about academics … (and) we’re going to see a change in the social environment,” Witkowski said. “Even right now we have a hard time getting kids to participate in sports. … Now, some schools do not even have enough people to have a team. We’re going to see that lack of interest that is going to happen across the board.”

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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