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Prevention experts urge caution, education on marijuana

  • Marijuana buds in glass jars on wooden background kristin palpini



Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2018

SOUTH HADLEY — When New England Treatment Access opened its doors on Nov. 20, lines wrapped around the building and down the sidewalk as customers eagerly welcomed legalized recreational marijuana to the East Coast.

But not everyone says that the legalization of recreational marijuana in the commonwealth is cause for celebration.

Karen Walsh Pio, coordinator at the South Hadley Drug & Alcohol Prevention Coalition, is among those concerned with the increased accessibility of recreational marijuana, primarily because of the possible side effects it can have on young people.

“We felt as a coalition that our mission is to protect teenagers from easy access, and part of the difficulty with the marijuana business is not only does it provide ease of access, it also reduces the perception of harm,” Walsh Pio said.

She continued, “We see businesses operating, and it causes the average young person to think, ‘It’s a legal business, it’s no big deal.’”

Walsh Pio doesn’t think that young people should take marijuana use so lightly. Although recreational marijuana has been legalized for those age 21 and older, Walsh Pio is concerned that children and teenagers will still find ways to access cannabis products.

“I don’t think young people fully appreciate the impact of the THC on the developing adolescent brain,” she said.

“I’m afraid that they don’t appreciate that it can impact their brain in such a way that their whole potential is changed,” Walsh Pio added, voicing concerns about marijuana use affecting adolescents’ performances at school or in the workplace.

An article published in 2014 by Current Pharmaceutical Design found that teenagers who frequently use marijuana “often show disadvantages in neurocognitive performance, macrostructural and microstructural brain development, and alterations in brain functioning,” although is not clear whether marijuana use causes these disadvantages or if they are tied to pre-existing factors.

Walsh Pio said that improper storage could also lead to young children accidentally ingesting cannabis products, which can come in the form of chocolate bars or gummies, without realizing that they are not substance-free.

In an April 2018 town election, South Hadley residents voted to ban recreational marijuana sales in town, with 57 percent of voters supporting the ban. Walsh Pio hopes that this ban will not only make it more difficult to find marijuana products in town, but that it will also cause adolescents to consider why these products are banned.

Walsh Pio is not alone in her concerns. Barry Hirsch, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Baystate Health, said that he voted to legalize marijuana because he doesn’t think that people should go to jail for it, and believes that it is probably safer than alcohol. But, he added, a public education campaign is needed to increase awareness around the substance’s possible side effects.

Hirsch recently penned a letter to the Gazette, stating that he was “disappointed” to see that Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz was NETA’s first recreational cannabis customer. In his view, elected officials should send a message that “legalization does not mean endorsement.”

“They should be warning kids that there are more positive things to do in life than smoke pot,” Hirsch said in an interview.

Narkewicz said last week that he planned to donate the cannabis-infused chocolate bar that he bought to Historic Northampton.

Aside from possible cognitive effects, Hirsch said that he has seen some patients showing symptoms of cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, a condition associated with long-term marijuana use that causes nausea and cramps. But often, his patients are not aware that cannabis can have these effects.

“There are so many unknowns that I think it’s just concerning,” Hirsch said.

Narkewicz said Monday he does not believe young people should be using marijuana.

“Obviously, like any other adults substance — including alcohol and tobacco — I’m very much concerned with making sure that youth do not have access to marijuana,” he said.

As part of the agreement to site the shop in Northampton, NETA must give $10,000 annually to a local nonprofit to do marijuana education and prevention work, Narkewicz noted.

But, he said, overall, he sees marijuana legalization as an improvement.

“By legislating and by regulating it and by imposing a strict 21-and-older policy and selling it in very rigorously licensed stores, that actually is an improvement over the prior situation where marijuana was a black market substance,” he said.

South Hadley Police Chief Steve Parentela agreed that young people using the substance is a concern, also citing concerns about marijuana’s potential effects on the developing brain.

Parentela said that increased accessibility to recreational marijuana also raises concerns that more people will drive under the influence of cannabis, which is illegal under state law.

Walsh Pio concluded, “I really, really hope that the public is educating themselves.”

“The public needs as much education on the subject as they can get,” she continued, “because it is a completely new area and I honestly feel that a large percentage of people do not have all the information available to them yet.”

Staff writer Greta Jochem contributed to this report.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.