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Officials worry about weed use among youth

Although there are no cannabis dispensaries yet in Chautauqua County, a 3 year old child has already consumed marijuana-laced gummies. At the same time, more than a quarter of all senior high school students locally reported using marijuana.

County health officials are concerned examples like these are going to continue to grow, now that marijuana is legal in the state and dispensaries will soon be popping up in the area.

During a recent meeting of the county Board of Health, Melanie Witkowski, the executive director of Prevention Works, discussed her agency’s thoughts about how cannabis will impact young people and local communities. “We are looking to build a safe and healthy environment by educating our community on positive life choices,” she said.

Witkowski noted that a survey taken earlier this year in Chautauqua County indicated that 28.2% of 12th grade students have used marijuana in their lifetime, 21.4% of 12th graders have eaten products containing marijuana and 16.7% of 12th graders had used marijuana in the past 30 days. Overall, 64% of county youth do not perceive marijuana as harmful.

“That is a concern because as we see a low perception of harm, we’re going to see an increase of use,” she said.

Witkowski shared that marijuana today is much more potent than in the past. She said that in Colorado, where marijuana has been legal recreationally since 2012, 91% of the drug used there has a THC concentration of 15% or higher. THC, short for tetrahydrocannabinol, is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis that produces the high sensation.

“When we look back at the ’60s and ’70s, the potency was less than 3%,” she said.

In Colorado, she noted that from 2000, when medical marijuana was legalized, to 2019, that state has seen a 115% increase in drug overdose deaths. “That’s kind of a myth that’s going around that marijuana helps reduce overdoses in a community,” she said.

Also in Colorado, there tends to be higher crime where dispensaries are located and the dispensaries often are placed in low-income communities.

Witkowski said in Chautauqua County, the focus now needs to be keeping marijuana away from young people. “If you look at the source of whose providing substances to our community, oftentimes it’s within their own home,” she said.

With alcohol, parents, aunts and uncles, and older siblings have been known to provide individuals under 21 with the beverage. Witkowski is concerned the same can happen with marijuana. “Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safe,” she said.

There are also times when young people will take alcohol or marijuana from a household without parents’ knowledge. Witkowski shared that they know of at least two times that a child ate edible gummies, even though they can’t be purchased in Chautauqua County yet.

“One was as young as 3 years old, consuming a gummy that appeared to be just like a regular Sour Patch Kid. It looks just like it, but it was laced with THC,” she said.

Board member Elisabeth Rankin, who is also a Republican county legislator from Jamestown, noted that Fredonia has voted to permit dispensaries in its community. “I’m surprised they’re talking about that, when they’ve got the college there and so many potential users,” she said.

Board member Dr. Robert Berke added, however, that marijuana sold illegally can be laced with other drugs, making it more lethal. “The stuff that’s out on the streets now is the stuff that’s dangerous. It’s laced with fentanyl and methamphetamine, and with whatever else. This, although it’s high potency, if it’s being sold in dispensaries, in effect is just THC. I realize what you’re saying with high potency, all those things. But the deaths we’re seeing are because of the fentanyl and everything else that on the streets right now that people are using,” he said.

Even with that being said, Berke noted that marijuana can slow brain development of younger people. “Kids who are starting early end up behind the 8-ball for the rest of their lives. They lose that developmental stage. … They’re in their 30s and 40 and still have a 16-year-old brain because they missed certain developmental milestones,” he said.

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