Windham County Legislative Breakfast weighs risks of legalizing pot

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BELLOWS FALLS — Legislators, health professionals and members of Windham County met Friday morning to discuss marijuana use and trends among the youth.

"Our biggest issue in Windham County is about social access," said Prevention Consultant of Vermont Department of Health, Robin Rieske. "And we also look at perception of harm, and if the youth do not think they are at risk of harming themselves, they are more likely to use and misuse that substance."

The 2013 Windham County Youth Risk Behavior Survey for grades 9 through 12, showed that the most accessible drugs are those that are regulated. In terms of access, 77 percent of students said alcohol was "easy to get," and 75 percent said the same for cigarettes and 73 percent for marijuana. Rieske said they do not obtain these from stores, but rather family, friends and through other close connections.

"The perception of risk for marijuana is pretty low, and it's considered to be a 'safe drug,'" said Rieske.

According to the same survey, 24 percent of students believed that smoking marijuana regularly puts them at risk of harming themselves. In addition, the survey found that marijuana access and availability, prevalence and use before age 13, is statistically higher in Windham County than the state's average. Windham County is also statistically lower than the state in perception of harm and parental disapproval of marijuana.

All around one table at this meeting at the Rockingham Town hall, there were representatives from schools, law enforcement, Vermont Department of Health, select boards and municipal government, medical community, youth programs and youth agencies, the youth, prevention coalition, parents and residents of Windham County.

After some of the numbers were revealed about the perception and use of marijuana, the panel discussed what risk factors were coming into play based on the 2013 Marijuana Use and Risk Behaviors, Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition. The survey found that frequent marijuana use and risk behaviors are associated with one another. Four percent of high school students from Windham County who had not smoked in the past 30 days had attempted suicide one or more times in the past 12 months, whereas 8 percent of students who smoked one or two times in the past 30 days had attempted suicide in the past 12 months. And for those that smoked 20-plus times in the past 30 days, 16 percent of them had attempted suicide in the past 12 months.

Eighty-two percent of students who smoked zero times said they got mostly As and Bs, whereas 73 percent of those who smoked one or two times in the past 30 days, said they received mainly As and Bs.

Other risk behaviors presented were: "bullied someone else one or more times in the past 30 days; five or more drinks in the past 30 days; fought one or more times in the past 12 months; hurt self one or more times in the past year; made suicide plan within the past 12 months; of those who had sex in the past three months, used drugs or alcohol last time and sad two weeks past 12 months."

"At my school it's kind of common culture that everyone at my school does drugs," said Brattleboro Union High School Sophomore, Olivia Krzeminski. Krezminski said that some of her fellow students have a hard time believing her that she has never used drugs. "It's weird to feel like the odd one out if you have not done drugs."

Krezminski said she feels that faculty and her peers do not address drug use with as much concern as she would like to see.

"Everyone thinks it's normal and okay, and I'm over here being really worried for everyone and no one else really seems to have that reaction."

Those at the Friday morning meeting expressed their concern in relation to their job experiences. Courtney Slobondnjak, student assistant professional at Green Mountain Union High School, said there is not enough attention drawn to some of her students.

"Last year I was in Green Mountain three days a week and it didn't seem like enough," said Slobondnjak. "And this year, I'm there two days a week and I feel like in spite of the work I'm doing, it's just not enough. So I think it's really important to know that the funding for these roles should be more. There should be someone there five days a week."

Part of Slobondnjak's job is to bring a presence to schools by providing screening, assessment and referral programs. She added that her screenings have shown anxiety and depression to be very prevalent. Slobondnjak says she is taking a proactive role in tackling this with her students through breathing, non-secular meditation, talks about social skills, and discussing how to navigate cultural divides between students who use drugs and those that do not.

Others chimed in about the additional risks related to marijuana use.

"If you're talking about mental health and you're also talking about drug use and use the word recovery, then marijuana is going to be a hinderance at best, and maybe another addiction," said addiction psychiatrist, Dr. Nels Kloster. "We're talking about learning how to cope, improve your relationships, develop a productive life; and people who are struggling with mental health issues, we often consider that they have a vulnerable brain. And with a vulnerable brain, that's not a good idea to mix marijuana with that scenario if you want to see people get as healthy as they possibly can."

Others discussed proactive routes, such as avoiding the term, "recreational use," when referring to marijuana because some believe that term associates the drug as something "fun."

Dr. Kloster added that an additional goal should be prevention from early use of substances because it comes with a higher risk of drug dependency.

"We know that the drug war has failed, but we need to think about something else that might succeed. And I think the question that we should ask ourselves is what do we do here in Vermont to make this a state where young people can thrive and not feel the need to smoke marijuana?" said Dr. Kloster.

The remaining time at the meeting was spent in question and answer and further small group discussions around coffee and other breakfast assortments. The event was sponsored by the Windham County Partnership for Success which includes Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition, Deerfield Valley Community Partnership, West River Valley Thrives and The Collaborative and Greater Falls Connection.

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext. 275


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