Marijuana use among Jessamine County teenagers is higher than the Kentucky average.

A 2012 survey pegged marijuana use in Jessamine County above the averages for the region and the state for eighth-graders and high-school sophomores and seniors. The Kentucky Incentives for Prevention (KIP) survey was completed by more than 1,600 Jessamine County students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12. Survey highlights were presented to the board of education at its August work session.

Nearly one in five sophomores surveyed reported using marijuana in the past 30 days, with that figure even higher at 23.9 percent for seniors. Both of those statistics are at least 5 percent higher than the state average. Among eighth-graders, 7.3 percent reported using marijuana in the past 30 days, and 12.7 percent — about one in eight — said they had used the drug in the past year.

The KIP survey addresses several other drugs including those legal for adults such as cigarettes and alcohol, which have both seen steady declines in use at each grade level statewide in the biennial survey since 2004. Marijuana use had been trending down among Kentucky teens from 2004 to 2008, but the numbers jumped back up again in 2010 and held steady last year, with 30.3 percent of seniors reporting marijuana use in the past year.   While presenting highlights of the KIP survey to the Jessamine County Board of Education on Aug. 12, director of pupil personnel Virginia Simpson said she has seen a “cultural acceptance” of marijuana through her years in the school system.

Simpson was part of a series of drug-testing forums with parents of student-athletes 10 years ago. A parent at one of those forums had questioned why a school should suspend a player for marijuana use and take away his or her “hook” for coming to school. Simpson said that parent’s words had stuck with her since: “You know in your heart as a Jessamine County resident, that kid’s going to be recreationally using marijuana every weekend for the rest of his life.”

Sgt. Scott Harvey of the Nicholasville Police Department is in schools regularly teaching fifth- and seventh-grade students about the dangers of drugs as part of the D.A.R.E. program on substance-abuse prevention. He said adults in Jessamine County don’t necessarily accept marijuana use but may see it as “not their problem” — an assessment he said is badly off-base.

“I think society-wise, we see people not wanting to meddle in other people’s business, and they see it as another person’s business. ‘It wouldn’t be right for me,’ they say, ‘but I don’t care if somebody else does it,’” Harvey said. “My problem with that is that it does affect me if somebody is driving up the road and crashes their car because they’re under the influence — it can directly affect me.”

While only 1.3 percent of Jessamine County sixth-graders said they had used marijuana in the past year — a figure right in line with the region and just above the state average — education about marijuana is reaching a younger and younger audience. D.A.R.E.’s national elementary-school curriculum recently added policy and procedure on addressing marijuana if the topic is age-appropriate for the specific classroom.

Harvey said he was surprised at how many eighth-graders reported using marijuana in the KIP survey but that children were undoubtedly affected by national debates over legalizing marijuana and using the drug as a medication. He noted talk-show host Montel Williams and CNN medical expert Sanjay Gupta as two major voices who have come out in support of medical marijuana and were making an impression on students.  “They’re seeing marijuana as not as big a deal any more,” Harvey said. “I think that’s one of the things that’s possibly being reflected in this data.”

The debate over medical marijuana has heightened in Kentucky in recent years, in part spurred on by the January 2012 death of perennial gubernatorial candidate and marijuana advocate Gatewood Galbraith. A bill in the Kentucky Senate to legalize medical marijuana was named in honor of Galbraith and introduced in January 2013 but never made it out of committee.

Marijuana is made from components of varieties of the cannabis plant and is usually smoked to produce physiological effects from its main active ingredient, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The cannabis plant contains ingredients with the potential for “relieving pain, controlling nausea, stimulating appetite and decreasing ocular pressure,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Some varieties of the cannabis plant bred for industrial applications are referred to as hemp.  Harvey acknowledged the benefits of chemicals in marijuana to those dealing with anorexia and cancer treatments but said manufacturing and smoking the drug “in somebody’s basement” is not a reliable way to medicate.

“When you smoke marijuana, depending on the temperature it’s burned, depending on how far away the bud on the plant is, it varies the THC content,” he said. “There’s no way to get a measured dose of the medicine that you’re needing out of the plant unless it’s done scientifically under a controlled environment.” Marinol is an FDA-approved drug that contains THC and is marketed as an alternative to marijuana. NORML, a national marijuana-advocacy group, says Marinol can produce benefits similar to marijuana, but the group contends the drug lacks several other compounds in natural cannabis known to have further benefits.   “I think there are compounds in (marijuana) that help people — no doubt — but our days of smoking medications are several hundred years behind us,” Harvey said. “Those same compounds can be pulled out and put in a pill.”

The risks

Despite marijuana’s illegal status, high-school students in the KIP survey perceived less risk from smoking the illicit drug than from drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes.   Faced with four options on questions about risk — no risk, slight risk, moderate risk or great risk — only 40.7 percent of Jessamine County high-school seniors said people who smoke marijuana regularly face a moderate or great risk of harming themselves. More than 58 percent of seniors perceived a similar risk from drinking one or two alcoholic beverages a day, and 78.6 percent of them saw a significant risk from smoking one or more packs of cigarettes a day.

But NIDA reports that marijuana contains up to 70 percent more irritants and cancer-causing substances than cigarette smoke. The institute notes that there is no conclusive evidence that marijuana use leads to lung cancer.

The THC in marijuana acts on the brain’s reward system to give the user a sense of euphoria while impairing the ability to form new memories and disrupting coordination and balance, according to NIDA. The institute lists memory, learning-skill and sleep impairments as persistent consequences and increased risk of chronic cough and bronchitis as long-term effects of marijuana abuse.

Kevin Wilson, a community education and prevention specialist with the Bluegrass Prevention Center, said the perception of risk from marijuana use is “lower than ever” but that the actual drug has become more dangerous with higher levels of THC and lower levels of the  compound that counteracts THC’s psychoactive effects. Wilson sits on the Jessamine County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy (ASAP) board as well as ASAP

boards in Boyle, Garrard and Lincoln counties.  “In effect, we’re getting a much more dangerous product on the streets than ever before, and people aren’t really seeing it as any big deal,” he said.

Wilson said the effects of marijuana can be “all over the map” depending on the individual but that its potential to inhibit normal brain function was especially important when examining the risks to teenagers.  “The big thing is what it does to the potential in a young person, and it does affect the way that the brain develops,” Wilson said.

NIDA says long-term marijuana use can lead to addiction and cites a 1994 article that estimated 9 percent of marijuana users would become dependent on it. Though labeling marijuana as addictive is controversial, Harvey said he has seen direct evidence of dependence on the drug in his police work.

“When people are willing to steal from their families and pawn their sister’s most important possessions to get marijuana, then there’s obviously an addiction there,” he said. “I wouldn’t do that to get a scoop of ice cream; it’s a different situation.”

Addressing the issue

Marijuana use could be addressed by a recently created Jessamine County task force on substance abuse, though that group has focused initially on another illicit drug prominent in the county.

The task force, headed by Jessamine County Health Department director Randy Gooch, was created after a community health survey identified substance abuse as a “main health issue” in the county, Gooch said. The group has met once and plans to partner with the Kentucky Agency for Substance Abuse Policy to address substance abuse in Jessamine County.

Gooch said heroin has been the primary concern of the substance-abuse task force in its early stages. Jessamine County Attorney Brian Goettl and Jessamine County EMS director Jerry Domidion have reported a significant rise in heroin abuse this year, which authorities attributed to the passage of a 2012 bill that made it more difficult to abuse prescription pain pills.

“Marijuana hasn’t even really come up yet because heroin has been at the top of the agenda, and that’s the thing that we see our drug courts dealing with and our police and our emergency-response units dealing with is relative to heroin and heroin overdose,” Gooch said.

Though the consequences of marijuana use may not be as alarming as those from heroin or other addictive drugs, Gooch said marijuana needs to be addressed because it can serve as a gateway drug.

“Unfortunately, I think what ends up happening is when they experience or experiment with marijuana, it’s kind of like alcohol in a way — maybe marijuana is not the drug addiction that’s going to lead them to overdose and suicide and things of that nature, but I think it leads them on to other drugs that provide that potential,” he said.

Harvey said he was pleased with sixth- and eight-graders’ attitudes toward many drugs in the KIP survey, noting that those students are fresh out of D.A.R.E. programs the previous year. He said the police can only address marijuana abuse by enforcing existing laws and educating the public.

“We will continue to educate; we will continue to set a better example and show people positive alternatives to drug use in general,” he said.

Source:   Aug. 2013

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