August 04, 2013|By John Keilman and Lisa Black, Chicago Tribune reporters
Gabrielle Abesamis said she and her classmates at Niles West High School in Skokie receive plenty of information about marijuana from their health teachers, but when it comes to using the drug, some of her peers shrug off the lessons and just say YOLO — “You Only Live Once.”
With medical marijuana now encoded into Illinois law, she said, that attitude will only strengthen.
“Even though it’s for medical use, I don’t think that matters to them,” said Abesamis, 17. “The fact that it’s legal for some people to possess it, they feel it’s OK for them to have it too.” Illinois on Thursday became the 20th state to legalize pot for some medical patients, and although lawmakers say the rules will be among the toughest in the nation, educators and treatment experts worry that putting a partial stamp of approval on a once-forbidden drug will send a confusing message to young people. “What happens with teenagers is (that) they begin to have that medicine-versus-drug argument,” said Andy Duran of Linking Efforts Against Drugs, an educational group based in Lake Forest. “They begin to think it’s not harmful or it’s not addictive because it’s a medicine.” Teen views about the risks of marijuana have been easing for more than 20 years, according to the University of Michigan’s authoritative Monitoring the Future study. In 1991, about 4 in 5 high school seniors believed that people put themselves at great risk by smoking pot regularly. In 2012, fewer than half shared that opinion. Attitudes appear even more casual around Chicago. The Illinois Youth Survey, which polls students about alcohol, tobacco and drug use, found that only a third of suburban teens and a quarter of those in the city believed that smoking pot once or twice a week brought great risk. “Already, adolescents perceive marijuana to be not harmful, so I don’t know that we’re in a position where they could perceive it to be less harmful,” said Pamela Rodriguez of TASC, or Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, which connects teens coming from juvenile court with drug treatment specialists. She said the new marijuana law might actually prompt productive discussions about the proper use of medications. The abuse of prescription drugs is another major issue among her clientele, she said, and talking about medical pot could be a way to address the risks that any medication can pose. The Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale teaches thousands of children about drugs each year, and Margo Schmitt, the center’s director of education and evaluation, said its science-based presentations won’t change with the new law. “We have actually been getting a lot of questions about it, especially this last spring,” Schmitt said. “Many of the kids have family in other states that have had something to do with (liberalized marijuana laws), so we get a lot of questions. We always answer them scientifically.” Frank Pegueros, president of the international D.A.R.E. program, based in Los Angeles, said it has not made substantive changes to its anti-drug lessons, taught by police officers, even as states have relaxed their laws on pot.
“The fact that states have legalized marijuana for some purposes really calls for additional prevention education … because the fact is, the greater prevalence of the substance, the more accessible it is to minors,” he said. Kate Mahoney of PEER Services, which provides drug education and treatment in Evanston and Glenview, said teens have long pointed to the medical use of marijuana to excuse their own pot smoking. Her response, she said, has been to say that she hopes they’ll never have a condition like cancer that might justify such a prescription. “It is really challenging, because the truth is that most teens really do best with clear black-and-white boundaries,” she said. “We have muddied the waters.” Dr. Thomas Wright, chief medical officer at the Rosecrance treatment center in Rockford, said he will try to draw parallels between marijuana and other legal substances. “Just because it’s not illegal doesn’t mean it’s going to be good for you,” he said. “It’ll just join the ranks of alcohol and tobacco — two of the deadliest and most addictive drugs we have.” [email protected] [email protected] Twitter @JohnKeilman Twitter @LisaBChiTrib