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Letters: What does legalization mean for our youth?

On January 1, adults in Missoula County 21 and older will legally be allowed to purchase marijuana for personal use. Voters legalized general-use cannabis for adults last November. The Legislature then created basic statewide laws and regulations. However, there are still a lot of details to work out, and some of that is up to local governments.

In Missoula, officials are considering a local 3% municipal tax on the sale of marijuana, as well as an ordinance requiring dispensaries to have buffer zones away from schools and childcare centers, and between dispensaries to prevent too many from being in the same area.

Although this is related to the sale of marijuana to adults, Healthy Missoula Youth, a coalition of public health and prevention professionals, is concerned what legalization could mean for our youth. The following are our top concerns:

MONTANA YOUTH ARE AT HIGH RISK: Montana is 5th in the Nation for youth marijuana use, and 3rd in the Nation for youth being diagnosed with an addiction. Marijuana is the most used drug for youth seeking treatment in Montana

MISSOULA YOUTH USE MORE MARIJUANA THAN THEIR PEERS: Missoula high schoolers are more likely to use marijuana on a regular basis than their peers in the rest of the state. In 2021, 25% of Missoula high schoolers used marijuana in the last 30 days vs. 20% of Montana high schoolers. And those Missoula high school students who use regularly tend to use almost EVERY DAY.

MARIJUANA IS NOT HARMLESSAND CAN NEGATIVELY AFFECT HEALTH: Marijuana use can damage the developing brain and is tied to reduced IQ and school failure. It can also increase their risk of anxiety, depression, and suicide. One in five people who begin using marijuana early will develop an addiction to marijuana (or a cannabis use disorder). The stronger the marijuana is, the more addicting and damaging it can be.

MARIJUANA IS MUCH STRONGER THAN IT USED TO BE: Today’s marijuana is much stronger than it was twenty years ago. In 2000, THC potency tended to be around 5%. Now, most marijuana has 17% THC. And some marijuana concentrates (such as dab wax or shatter) can have a potency of up to 99% THC.

YOUTH COULD START USING MORE POTENT MARIJUANA: After legalization, our neighbors in Colorado and Washington have seen their youth using stronger, more potent marijuana products. Use of marijuana concentrates has more than tripled in Washington and now makes up 35% of sales. In Colorado, dabbing more than doubled between 2017-2019, from 20% to 52% of high school youth who currently use marijuana.

As a community, we can shape what marijuana legalization means for our youth. The following are strategies backed by research to protect youth from early marijuana use:

  1. Do not allow products attractive to youth in shape, packaging, or marketing.
  2. Prohibit the use of flavors and flavor names known to attract youth.
  3. Raising prices via taxes is an effective strategy to prevent youth from starting to use.
  4. Require that marijuana dispensaries are located away from where children are (i.e., schools, daycares, parks, and youth centers).
  5. Limit the number of marijuana dispensaries in one area.
  6. Prohibit smoking and vaping indoors, in workplaces, housing, and in public outdoor spaces.
  7. Dedicate a portion of marijuana tax revenue to public health, public safety, and substance use prevention.

As we move forward, let’s make sure to work together to create a community that helps our youth stay healthy and thrive!

Leah Fitch-Brody is the Healthy Missoula Youth Coalition facilitator