PITTSFIELD — On Sept. 22, the Berkshire United Way Board of Directors voted unanimously in favor of supporting a "No" vote on Ballot Question 4. Although Berkshire United Way has not historically taken a position on ballot questions, given our work with Pittsfield Prevention Partnership and Berkshire Youth Development Project, both of which are focused on reducing adolescent alcohol and drug use, we felt we had to take a stance on the legalization of marijuana in the state of Massachusetts. The potential for negative health, education and economic impacts to individuals as well as the impact on our community are significant.
Legalization of marijuana provides easier and wider access and gives the misperception that marijuana is safe. The reality is, this is not the marijuana that was available 30 years ago.
Between 1983 and 2013, the average level of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana's psychological effects, nearly tripled. The average level of THC in seized samples is 15.1 percent; this compares to an average of less than 4 percent in 1983.
At greatest risk are our county's youth. According to the Institute for Health and Recovery, where marijuana is legal, young people are more likely to use it. In Colorado, youth are 20 percent more likely to use marijuana regularly since legalization.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University has identified adolescent substance abuse as the number one public health problem in the United States. Research has shown that one in 11 people who start using marijuana will become addicted; that rate jumps to one in six among adolescents.
Despite the fact that all states that have legalized marijuana have regulations restricting its use to those 21 or older, marijuana is clearly being marketed to a younger audience in the form of edibles such as gummy bears, "pot tarts," "nugtella" and "orange kush." Edible products, which pose a risk for children who may mistake them for regular treats, constitute nearly half of the legal marijuana in Colorado. Some of these products are even available in vending machines. According to the National Poison Data System, accidental exposure to marijuana among children under 6-years-old has been on the rise in states that have decriminalized marijuana.
Short-term risks resulting from marijuana use, according to the New England Journal of Medicine (2014), include problems with memory and learning. Long-term risks are more dramatic. A recent study found that those who were heavy users of marijuana in their teens and continued use through adulthood demonstrated a permanent drop of eight points in their IQ, impaired motor coordination and altered judgment.
In Colorado, marijuana-related emergency room visits increased 30 percent, as did traffic deaths involving marijuana. Marijuana users also have a much higher high school dropout rate than their non-using counterparts.
Rick Cresta, LICSW, MSW/MPH, says, "It's not what marijuana causes teens to do when they are under the influence that is significant. It is what they do NOT do: attend class, be on time for school, meet deadlines, complete work, comply with parental requests, graduate with a good GPA, get accepted to college, compete effectively, get promoted, care deeply, and remain motivated to reach their goals."
As young adults, marijuana users may also find it more challenging to gain employment. Many local employers require drug testing that eliminates prospective employees who use marijuana. This includes hair testing by some employers, which can trace marijuana use back six months. This creates a challenge not only for the job seeker, but for business owners who seek skilled workers to fill open positions.
Berkshire United Way has worked tirelessly with numerous organizations throughout the county to reduce and prevent youth substance abuse. As you cast your vote on Nov. 8, we encourage you to vote "No" on Question 4. We owe it to our youth.
Kristine Hazzard is president & CEO and Christopher Mathews is board chair of Berkshire United Way.