Legal weed: Navigating the new normal for New Jersey kids | Opinion

Nicholas R. De Mauro Special to the USA TODAY Network

It looks like we are just now weeks away from legal recreational cannabis here in the Garden State as New Jersey follows suit with many other states in the union. At this writing, 37 states permit medical marijuana, 18 plus Washington, D.C., permit recreational marijuana, and in 13 states, weed is still illegal.

While the age for legal use is 21, the amounts for possession vary widely from state to state, as do regulations on cultivation and transportation. Right now, as just one example, you could enjoy recreational marijuana in Virginia, cross the state line into North Carolina and suddenly be breaking the law.

To say the least, our laws are confusing. Now consider for a moment that you’re not an adult tasked with making sense of all this — you’re a school kid.   

“Illegal” = bad.

“Legal” = OK.

How about “Medically Legal” and “Fully Legal?” Now what?

With the coming of legal recreational cannabis for adults, those of us who are law enforcement professionals, educators, parents and students are no longer living in a black-and-white world. Everything has gotten a lot grayer.

Knowing that marijuana will be more available and in many more forms that ever before — think brownies, lollipops, and gummies — what do we do now? It is a simple answer, but one with many layers: educate, educate, educate.

Information from the Mendez Foundation, an educational group that began in the 1960s in Florida and is now a recognized leader in social-emotional learning, shows that middle school kids wildly overestimate how many other kids are using marijuana. If the teacher asks sixth graders to point to a sign on the wall with the percentage of classmates who smoke pot, most students point to a figure closer to 90% than 10%, which is the right answer, according to the Mendez Foundation.

The myth is that “everyone is doing it.” The fact is they are not.

For people with chronic pain, insomnia and a great many other health problems and conditions, cannabis has turned into a popular option. Many people will tell you that cannabis has been highly successful for them when conventional medicines and treatments have not. While the active component in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol, can be well-tolerated and beneficial for adults, the effect on still-developing brains is of concern. THC is known to negatively affect things that are important to kids in the classroom: concentration, memory, thinking and perception, according to the Mendez Foundation.

There have been a great many studies on how marijuana effects younger brains — some credible, some less so. One study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2018 that got the attention of educators was from Canada, where the legal age for recreational marijuana is 19.

The University of Montreal studied 3,826 students in 31 schools for four years starting in seventh grade and determined that cannabis could be worse for teens than alcohol. Said the lead researcher, Patricia J. Conrod, “Our findings suggest young people should do everything they can to delay the onset of their cannabis use, if not avoid it entirely.”

With “legal weed” in New Jersey, figuratively and literally, just around the corner, our children — middle schoolers, tweens and teens — have a choice they have always had, but they may have to make it more frequently soon: Smoke that joint? Eat that brownie? Chew that gummy? For free or at a low cost or no cost.

Legal recreational cannabis, like alcohol and cigarettes, is becoming a part of our daily lives. How we deal with it will make the difference in terms of new societal norms. And there’s the challenge: If my middle school teacher uses cannabis for pain management, is that OK? if my teacher smokes a joint before his or her last class on a Friday, is that OK?

Organizations such as ours advocate never going down that path. We start with setting goals, knowing what you must do to reach those goals, identifying and managing your emotions — and building the confidence to say “no” to your peers. New stuff? No. Not at all. More important than ever to our young people in the age of easily available weed? Yes. It is and it will be.

We need to intensify evidence-based education in our schools to ensure that our youth can make good decisions with understanding the consequences of cannabis in our society.

Nicholas R. De Mauro is executive director and CEO of Law Enforcement Against Drugs and Violence, based in Allentown, New Jersey. For more information on L.E.A.D., click here.

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