Question 4: BCC talk focuses on concerns about addiction, marketing, driving dangers

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Photo Gallery | BCC forum on marijuana

PITTSFIELD — Virtually everyone Dr. Jennifer Michaels has treated for substance abuse disorders began their addiction with alcohol and marijuana, the medical director of the Brien Center said.

In a talk called "Marijuana: Myths and Realities" at Berkshire Community College Tuesday afternoon, Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless and Michaels presented on the risks of marijuana use and concerns about legalization.

The presentation was organized by the Pittsfield Prevention Partnership, which includes Berkshire United Way, the Brien Center and the district attorney's office and was held three weeks before the state is set to vote on ballot Question 4 whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

On Sept. 22, the Berkshire United Way voted unanimously to oppose legalization, according to an Eagle opinion column written by leaders of the organization.

Igor Greenwald, a Berkshire County resident who attended the presentation, supports legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts, but he does not want his two teenage sons to use the drug.

"Every alcohol store they walk into will card them, but no [illegal] marijuana dealer will," he said.

Michaels' presentation included responses to common questions about whether marijuana is natural, addictive or safe.

Among the statistics she cited were:

- Marijuana is somewhat safer than alcohol — although drinking and driving quadruples the risk of being in a car crash, marijuana doubles it, she said.

- Marijuana presents a threat to public safety in ways not seen with alcohol, specifically when it comes to driving while high, Capeless said.

- Although there are field sobriety tests for intoxicated drivers, no such test exists for drivers high on marijuana. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court also ruled in 2015 that the odor of burnt marijuana does not provide enough cause to stop and search a vehicle, Capeless said.

- Marijuana can also affect judgment and create delusions, leading to dangerous behavior, Michaels said.

Michaels told the story of Levy Thamba, a college student who ate an entire marijuana cookie — six doses — while in Colorado, a state that legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. He began hallucinating and jumped out a window and died, she said.

- Both Michaels and Capeless voiced concern over edibles like marijuana lollipops and gummy bears, due to their appeal to children.

"Just like the cigarette market, you need the next generation of users to be profitable," Michaels said after the presentation, expressing concerns over marketing.

Michaels said that marijuana has addictive qualities like all other "drugs of abuse," which release the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. When the excessive dopamine levels go down, the user is left irritated and depressed, she said.

"That's the cycle of addiction," Michaels said.

An audience member asked Michaels for her opinion on people who feel marijuana helps them manage depression.

"Does that mean it's medicine or a treatment, or that they're in withdrawal, which happens many times a day?" she said.

Igor Greenwald, a Berkshire County resident who attended the presentation, supports legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts, but he does not want his two teenage sons to use the drug.

"Every alcohol store they walk into will card them, but no [illegal] marijuana dealer will," he said.

Survey data shows that marijuana use in Berkshire County among youth is higher than the national average, said Nancy Stoll, vice president of community impact for Berkshire United Way.

Under the proposed law, selling marijuana to minors would carry less severe penalties than selling alcohol to minors, Capeless said.

Improper sale of alcohol to minors carries up to one year in jail, while the current referendum provides no penalties for the sale of marijuana to minors, provided the seller reasonably verified that the recipient was at least 21 years old using a government-issued ID.

An audience member questioned Capeless on legalization's potential to eliminate gang violence over marijuana and controlling sales of the drug.

"There is still going to be the black market," Capeless said. The referendum would regulate the potency of legal marijuana, which could drive users to the black market seeking increased potency, he said.

"People think that it is a simple matter of legalization of marijuana," he said. "The devil is in the details."


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