Student Cannabis Use Stable, but Speaker Tells Haverhill, Product is More Potent, Easily Hidden

Haverhill School Committee member Richard J. Rosa. (WHAV News file photograph.)

The sale of recreational cannabis has been legal in Massachusetts for almost five years and a person need not travel far before encountering a billboard pointing to the location of the nearest retail store. As a result, some parents, educators and medical personnel are asking “How is this affecting our kids?”

Last week, Richard J. Rosa of the Haverhill School Committee posed that question to Dr. Randi Melissa Schuster, director of School-based Research and Program Development at Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Addiction Medicine. Schuster responded that her research with more than 30,000 school-age kids shows the actual percentage of teens using cannabis has remained stable over the years. The decreased perception of risk, as a result of legalization, however, has led to an increase in the amount and types of cannabis being consumed by teenagers who are using.

“The rates of cannabis use have remained largely stable over time. However, how kids are using and how frequently they are using is very different then what it’s been. We’re seeing a lot more use of edibles at school. We’re seeing vaping and the ways of use allow for more discrete use and use in school,” she said.

In addition, the doctor said, the casual acceptance of cannabis as being benign has been reinforced by the large amount of advertising for the product, particularly in the form of billboards.

“Over time, kids are viewing this to be less and less harmful and, of course, this makes sense. I drove here from Medford and I passed 23 billboards for medical marijuana on my way here. Kids are seeing this. Kids are being flooded. They’re not blind to this messaging that has become pervasive,” she explained.

When pot sales became legal in Massachusetts, the Cannabis Control Commission granted establishments the right to “engage in advertising practices that do not promote the use of marijuana by individuals less than 21 years old.” To that end, they created the “85% Rule,” meaning that 85% of the audience for advertising on television, radio and the internet need to be 21 or older. That rule, however, cannot be effectively applied to billboards.

Schuster added another issue is that today’s cannabis is not your grandfather’s since it is significantly more potent.

“The problem is, the typical products that kids are now using tend to be much more potent than they were in decades past. The drugs that kids are using now are fundamentally different than Woodstock weed. Back in the 60s and 70s, the primary psychoactive constituent in cannabis, THC, was 2%. Now, average THC content is 12%,” she noted.

Schuster added much of the pot being used now actually contains up to 80% THC content. She said, while there is little to no data on the long-term effects of using this highly potent marijuana, research has shown younger users, whose brains are still in the developmental stage, are at a heightened risk of negative effects including mental health concerns. As a result, she said, schools become “the prevention arm of our mental health system” by identifying potential problems before they reach a crisis state.

Responding to Schuster’s presentation, Mayor James J. Fiorentini said he believes more than ever that the legalization of cannabis has an impact on cities and towns where stores are located and he lamented that powerful lobbying groups representing the cannabis industry appear to have been effective in persuading politicians to relieve the industry of financial responsibility in that regard.

Schuster finished her presentation by pointing out that despite the onslaught of cannabis advertising, 70% of teenagers are still not using the product.

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