LENOX -- What's the big deal about chronic marijuana use?
That's the topic to be explored Wednesday evening at a countywide community forum for parents and teens organized by Berkshire United Way, the Berkshire Youth Development Project and the town's School Department.
The free public event begins at 7 p.m. at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, 197 East St.
The guest speaker is Rick Cresta, a licensed social worker with a private practice in Boston and an adjunct faculty member at Boston University's School of Social Work.
"I like to find a point of agreement," Cresta said in a phone interview, noting that descriptions of the impact of marijuana range from a harmless recreational substance to a dangerous neurotoxin.
In his view, "it may cause less harm than all other drugs, including alcohol, but that doesn't mean it's harmless."
But, in order to preserve credibility, he avoids overstating the effects.
"I talk about the confusion and how we best address it with reality, by helping parents engage with young people, be accessible to them, but reality-based so it doesn't make them defensive," said Cresta. Ultimately, he added, teens will make their own decisions.
"I emphasize there are significant consequences from chronic use as a way of life rather than recreationally," he said.
Chronic use, also defined as heavy, regular use, ranges from three times a week to three times a day, said Cresta.
"I'm not here to demonize it," he said, "but to discuss what you should know, and then you can make the right decision. Marijuana is significant, not for what you do while you're on it, but rather for what you don't do."
"We've been hearing from parents about how hard it is to talk to their kids about marijuana in particular," said Karen Cole, youth development coordinator for Berkshire United Way and a co-organizer of the forum.
"Students have been suggesting that it's not harmful," she explained. "Parents have a hard time countering that with material that doesn't lead to a lot of pushback."
Cole noted out that, according to surveys of Lenox middle and high schoolers at two-year intervals, the majority of teens in the community are not using the drug. Among seniors, in the most recent study one year ago, 42 percent acknowledged having tried marijuana at least once. In the 30 days prior to the survey, 29 percent had used the drug.
"We're not trying to be the moral guardians," said schools Superintendent Edward W. Costa II. "Schools are always a mirror of the community they're in, we want to be in sync with parents and together we can send a consistent message to minors. Information is good, and that's what we're trying to provide."
Adolescents are bewildered by liberalized attitudes toward marijuana, he maintained.
The planned opening of medical marijuana clinics in Massachusetts, the previous decriminalization of marijuana possession in the state, with penalties similar to a speeding ticket, and the legalization of the drug in Colorado and Washington state are among the factors, though the U.S. government still classifies it as illegal.
"To the teenager, this is really confusing," said Costa, "because on the one hand the national government is telling them and us it's illegal but wait a minute, it's not illegal if it's medical."
While teens have absorbed the message over decades about the health effects of tobacco, he added, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is now a misdemeanor, "so they determine that tobacco is bad for you, marijuana is not."
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If you go ...
What: "Youth Chronic Marijuana Use: What's The Big Deal?" a free countywide community forum for parents and teens.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, 197 East St.
Speaker: Rick Cresta, licensed public health and social worker; master's degrees in social work and public health; adjunct faculty member at Boston University School of Social Work.
Key Topics: Identifying biases about marijuana and the reasons underlying its use; exploring the physical, behavioral, psychological and emotional impact of chronic marijuana use on adolescents; strategies to engage young people in discussion about marijuana use without increasing defensiveness.
Organizers: Berkshire United Way, Berkshire Youth Development Project, Lenox School Department.