2014-01-24 / Community

Marijuana laws create new challenges

Educators seek avenues for providing facts about psychological, physical addiction
By Alex Acquisto
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — When asked if she finds marijuana usage among students a more serious risk now, health teacher Jill Lamontagne, a 2006 graduate of Kennebunk High School, said, “It’s kind of an ironic cycle that I’ve watched; It’s more of an issue now than when I was in high school, for sure,” Lamontagne said. “My biggest thing was, I walked into it (teaching) knowing what the problem was when I was in high school, which was just drinking. I was sort of smacked in the face; this is now a bigger issue.”

Assistant Superintendent Sara Zito, along with Assistant Principal at Kennebunk High School, John Suttie and Lamontagne spoke at the Truth About Marijuana Seminar in early December in Saco.

Since then, they’ve made it their goal to integrate those teachings into the classroom.

Zito was initially contacted to participate in the seminar by Bill Paterson, the Substance Abuse Prevention Project director for the Coastal Healthy Communities Coalition and an adjunct professor in the University of New England’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“We’re finding, with the new types of brain and addiction research, particularly with teens, marijuana as a drug impacts their brain development,” Paterson said. “We’re also finding that, for teens, there’s an increased risk of addictions: one in six.”

A few years back, Paterson said, “People didn’t think of marijuana as a physical addiction as well as a psychological addiction.”

In November, Portland became the first city on the east coast to legalize the possession of marijuana for those 21 and older.

Approximately 15,000 residents voted on the issue, which allows adults to have no more than 2.5 ounces on their person. This controversial legalization, and others like it, has brought the issue to the forefront with youth, Lamontagne said.

Lamontagne attended the University of Southern Maine and earned her master’s in health from the University of New England.

She has been teaching health at Kennebunk High School for two years. “Why are more kids doing this and how can we stop it?” Lamontagne wants to know. “And it’s not just in Kennebunk, it’s across the board, nationwide.”

At the Jan. 6 Regional School Unit 21 meeting, Zito told the school board, “Across the state we have reason to be concerned about marijuana ... students really seemed to want to know the facts. The more we can put in the hands of our educators, the more we can protect our students.”

Said Zito: “The increasing amount of news about marijuana legalization presents new challenges for our young people and for educators and law enforcement and the more facts we can provide to people, the better informed their decisions can be.”

“We’re bringing it to the forefront,” Lamontagne said. “Telling people, ‘I don’t know if you know this is an issue, but it is an issue and here are some facts surrounding it.’”

Lamontagne teaches her students about the risks of marijuana use on the adolescent brain.

For example: “It doubles their risk of anxiety and depression. It negatively affects teens’ ability to do their best school work or perform the best on the athletic field,” Lamontagne said. “Students who believe marijuana is easy to obtain are seven times more likely to try it, and five times more likely to try it if they don’t think they’ll get caught.”

Said Paterson: “People are feeling like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t seem as bad as alcohol, but you know, it’s apples and oranges.”

“In Colorado we’re already seeing that the accident rate has gone up 50 percent since last year. I mean, that’s huge.”

While it’s one thing to influence students while they’re in school, it’s another thing to have the same influence over them when they go home in the afternoon, Paterson said. “You want to keep kids healthy and safe. You only have them for so many hours in a school setting and then let them out into the community. I guess what I want to see is that the facts are out there.”

“For example, we’re finding through the new research there’s a brain loss of 6 to 8 points from teen marijuana exposure, which is the same to childhood exposure to lead,” Paterson said. “Our nation’s response to protect them from marijuana exposure should be the same to protect them from lead exposure.”

When asked if ways in which marijuana can be used to treat a disease or serious affliction are also discussed with students, Lamontagne said yes, but with a caveat. “The fact that marijuana can be used for medicinal purposes doesn’t make it safe for anyone to use,” Lamontagne said. “The severity of a person’s condition could potentially outweigh the risks, Lamontagne said, “but even then, that person still has risks.”

One of the collective goals of the Prevention Activities Team is to start the conversation about marijuana with students at a younger age, before students are exposed to it in social situations, Lamontagne said.

“Tobacco, alcohol and marijuana are the top three leading addictions in North America. We need to get the facts out there, especially when you’re looking at teens and their brain development,” Paterson said.

An informational session is being planned for parents, probably sometime in the spring, Zito said. “We would provide the facts about marijuana that are included in the unit and give parents an opportunity to ask questions and just open a conversation about this important topic.”

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