“Monitoring the Future,” a 2011 study conducted by the University of Michigan, found that Rhode Island, Colorado and Vermont’s 12- to 17-year-olds are using marijuana more frequently than the rest of U.S. teens.
The Ocean State Prevention Alliance was established this year in response to growing concern about the recent increase in youth marijuana use. The OSPA consists of substance abuse task forces in Barrington, Tiverton, Narragansett, Middletown, North Kingstown, Woonsocket, Providence and Chariho.
“The OSPA monitors the progress of marijuana legalization efforts, educates the community on issues regarding legalization and provides opportunities for residents to address these issues,” wrote Rebecca Elwell, coordinator of the Tiverton Prevention Coalition, in an email to The Herald. “Of particular concern is the decrease in perception of harm reported by young people. As perception of harm decreases, use rates tend to increase.”
This June, Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 signed legislation that replaced criminal penalties for possessing up to one ounce of marijuana with a civil violation of $150, a change that will take effect in April 2013.
“Decriminalization can be confused with ‘legalization.’ To be clear, marijuana possession is still illegal in Rhode Island, only the penalties have changed,” Elwell wrote. “With the passage of legislation to allow marijuana for medical purposes in R.I., further misinformation about the risks of use have also become pervasive.”
But the recent decriminalization is only part of the drug’s popularity among Rhode Island teens.
“There is a history of tolerance in Rhode Island. It’s a geocentric problem,” said John Mattson, founder and president of John Mattson Consulting and an evaluator for many substance abuse task forces in the state. “We are at a crossroads of transportation between Boston and New York.”
As an evaluator, Mattson collects data to look at how populations behave and how trends develop and emerge. He conducts anonymous surveys, focus groups and interviews.
Most dealers operate out of Providence, but use is pervasive across the state, Mattson said. Teens in the cities often have to work and take care of their families – suburban teens are more likely to come from higher-income families and have greater levels of boredom, leading to higher use rates, he said.
“The society is very polarized with very affluent suburbs and very poor urban centers,” Mattson said, adding that marijuana use is correlated with socioeconomic status.
“Not many teenagers in the city can afford to use marijuana every day,” he said.
Mattson also expressed concern about the recent legislation.
“The decriminalization of marijuana and medical marijuana is giving the wrong message,” he said. “We have stopped educating people.”
Education is a main goal of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, an international grassroots network of students who are concerned about the impact of drug abuse. SSDP believes that education will help students make well-informed decisions about substance abuse.
“The war on drugs has done more harm than good,” said Elizabeth Kinnard ’14, a member of Brown’s chapter of the SSDP. “The U.S. policy is failing, and the drug use rate is higher than ever.”
SSDP was instrumental in supporting the decriminalization of marijuana, medical marijuana and the good samaritan policy in Rhode Island, Kinnard said. Good samaritan policies help people to make responsible decisions by protecting them from arrest when they call for medical help during an emergency relating to alcohol or other drugs, such as an overdose.
“We want to implement reality-based education,” Kinnard said. “It’s important to teach students the realities surrounding marijuana, or they won’t know how to safely use drugs, and they won’t know the negative effects of drugs.”
“Teens report that marijuana is easier to get than alcohol,” she said. “Alcohol has strict regulations and penalties in place so that it is kept out of the hands of teens. With marijuana, you work with a dealer rather than a store.”