April Hughes, tobacco prevention coordinator for Healthy Communities of the Capital Area, says: “The more visible a product is, the more there is in an area, the more it seems normal. We know if something seems normal, the more likely our young people are more likely to engage in the behavior.” Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

GARDINER — As city officials move closer to approving a temporary ban on more cannabis shops in Gardiner, some people say normalizing marijuana is dangerous for young children and teenagers.

“The more visible a product is, the more there is in an area, the more it seems normal,” April Hughes said Wednesday. “We know if something seems normal, the more likely our young people are more likely to engage in the behavior.”

Hughes works in the area of tobacco and substance use prevention and youth engagement for Healthy Communities of the Capital Area, a non-profit public health organization.

But proponents of the marijuana trade say use by minors is decreasing.

Alex McMahan, one of the partners of The Healing Community MEDCO, said use by minors is decreasing faster where adult-use marijuana has been legalized.

Gardiner city councilors heard both sides of the argument Wednesday as they pushed consideration of a proposed moratorium to a second read when they  meet in October.

If the moratorium is approved, city officials would not accept new applications for the period of the ban, while Gardiner’s Ordinance Review Committee evaluates whether the city’s regulatory structure requires adjusting.

A moratorium would not affect applications submitted by Sept. 2.

Along with Samuel Quintana, a school resource officer with the Gardiner Police Department, Hughes gave a presentation on the use and beliefs that students in the Gardiner-area school district have about illegal drugs and alcohol.

Those attitudes are detailed in the results of the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, which is conducted every other year with students in middle and high schools. In Gardiner, 265 students at Gardiner Regional Middle School and 447 at Gardiner Area High School completed the survey.

The district includes Gardiner, Randolph, Pittston and West Gardiner.

In the survey, 25% of Gardiner high school students said they used marijuana within the previous month, and 22% used alcohol. The self-reported use in the Gardiner middle school was far lower: 5% and 7%, respectively.

Across Kennebec County, the use of alcohol and marijuana by students start to occur in greater numbers among 10th-graders, with highest use of alcohol (28%) and marijuana (29%) are among 12th-graders.

Most high school students in Gardiner said there is little risk police will catch them using alcohol, and consuming five or more drinks once or twice a week would cause them no harm.

About 60% of students said marijuana was “sort of” or “very easy” to access, showing it was easier to get than alcohol. About 26% said their parents were accepting of marijuana, while nearly 61% said their peers were accepting of it. Nearly 75% said there was low risk of harm in using marijuana once or twice a week.

A sign seen Thursday in a window on Water Street in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Hughes said marijuana use by minors affects brain development, and the earlier it is used, the greater its negative impacts — less control of emotions, poorer memory, lower verbal comprehension, among others. Using alcohol also results in poor outcomes, she added.

“When your impulse control lowers,” Hughes said, “you’re more likely to engage in more-risky behaviors.”

Hughes said those who now sell alcohol and medical marijuana products in Gardiner are following the regulations and doing everything expected of them to keep those products out of minors’ hands.

But the survey shows students are getting pot and alcohol from family members and friends, and are using it at home and elsewhere, in some cases with parents present.

Hughes said the rate of students experiencing adverse childhood experiences — substance abuse in the family or the effects of divorce, abuse, neglect or family violence, among others — is higher in Gardiner than across the state. That, she said, contributes to the likelihood of substance use.

Quintana said since the start of the 2019-20 school year, he has confiscated vaping devices and supplies, tobacco cigarettes, marijuana paraphernalia, a knife and a pan of marijuana-infused brownies.

“The student learned from a parent how to produce (marijuana) butter and used the butter in making brownies,” he said, “and brought them to school.”

The items were collected from students who have experienced adverse childhood experiences, Quintana said. Those students, he added, need be able to regulate their moods and make good decisions.

McMahan, who spoke during the public hearing for the temporary ban, said much of the information being handed out now on marijuana use is outdated. He offered up the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention in October 2019.

“It’s a longstanding study that goes back to 2004,” McMahan said, referring to a study conducted in Washington state. “What the data shows is that youth use has declined since marijuana has been been legalized. It’s great news for us. We’re getting the drug dealers out.”

He said youth use is something that everybody outside and inside the industry want to help combat.

“The fact is,” McMahan said, “it’s not good for youth.”

Because his company’s application for a business license has already been submitted, it would not be affected by a moratorium if city officials were to impose one.

Since 2016, when Maine voters narrowly legalized adult-use marijuana in the state, Gardiner officials have worked through a long and public process to decide whether and how to allow pot-related enterprises within city limits.

Earlier this year, city officials enacted changes to Gardiner’s Land Use Ordinance to prepare for the launch of the adult-use commercial market, which was expected to take place in 2020.

With the launch of the adult-use marijuana market set for October, Gardiner officials have been surprised by the number of applications for medical and adult-use marijuana that have been submitted for consideration, due in part to the amount of available business space downtown and because other communities are either limiting the number of shops or opting against them.

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