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What could legal recreational marijuana in Michigan mean for children?

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

Michigan voters will decide in November whether to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults.

One major issue is how to keep it out of the hands of young people.

On a sunny morning last month, high school student Tim Schlumberger was hanging out with a few friends at a Boulder, Colorado skate park.

Schlumberger says he doesn’t use cannabis. But many of his classmates do. And some do a lot.

“Yeah, it depends,” says Schlumberger. “You got some people ... like started smoking weed when they were really young and they just got into harder drugs and really screws with them.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, teenagers who use cannabis products are especially at risk, since the teen brain is still developing. So getting an effective message to young people has been an ongoing effort in Colorado.  

Andrew Freedman was Colorado’s first state government marijuana czar. He now works as a consultant helping governments with their own marijuana industries.   

Freedman says Colorado’s first teen education campaign was called “Don’t Be A Lab Rat.”

“We thought it was a softer message than “Just Say No,” mused Freedman.

The campaign featured human-size cages set up in public spaces around the state.

Freedman admits it didn’t go over well.

“The industry and advocates looked at it and said, 'Those look like prisons.' And we’re like, ‘No they don’t.  They’re giant lab rat cages,’” says Freedman.

“Then the rest of Colorado took a look and said, ‘No, no, they look like prisons,’” concedes Freedman.

State and industry officials believe their messaging has improved since then, and the data suggest the message is working. 

Mike Van Dyke is with the Colorado Department of Health. His division monitors the effect of marijuana on public health. He says recent surveys show marijuana use among Colorado teenagers remains at the same level as it was before legalization. But there are also disturbing trends.

“What we are starting to see in the adolescent population … we are starting to see changes in the types of products they are using,” says Van Dyke.

For example Van Dyke says more teenagers are dabbing.Dabbing involves inhaling smoke from concentrates which can be 50% to 90% pure THC. Researchers say dabbing produces a more intense high than other ways of consuming marijuana.   

And hospital emergency rooms are seeing the results. 

Dr. Sam Wang is a pediatric emergency physician at Children’s Hospital in Denver Colorado.

He says a review of ER records shows the percentage of pediatric visits for marijuana related health issues roughly tripled between 2005 and 2015.  

“Potentially, it’s not that they’re using more. But adolescents, when they are using … may be using more potent products being exposed to more higher amounts of THC” says Wang.

Some health officials here in Michigan want to get ahead of the problem.

Earlier this year, the Genesee County Board of Health came out against the November ballot question. 

“If mom and dad are using it recreationally, that sends a message. That models a behavior. That makes it more likely that they will use as well,” says GCBH president Kay Doerr.

For some, education is the best solution.

Mollie Lotz and her partner Sarah Grippa have developed a new curriculum for schools. It’s already being taught in schools in Colorado, Texas, Florida, and even one in Michigan. 

Lotz says they wanted to get away from the ‘Just Say No’ model, which often equated marijuana with heroin and other drugs.   

“If we continue teaching marijuana with heroin, meth, cocaine and other substances, we’re going to lose the students whose parents are maybe using medicinally or recreationally,” says Lotz. “Students already know it’s quite different because it’s recognized as a legalized substance in Colorado.”

Lotz says Michigan educators need to be ready to answer questions about marijuana before voters decide whether to approve legalizing recreational use in November.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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