Last week, the Wilton Youth Council hosted a presentation and panel discussion for families, “Recreational Cannabis: What Families Should Know,” to address the July 2021 Connecticut Marijuana law legalizing the possession and consumption of cannabis for adults 21 years and older. The event was held in partnership with the Wilton Public Schools, Wilton Library, Wilton Police Department, Mountainside Treatment Center, SPED*NET,  Middlebrook PTA and Wilton High School PTSA.

Clinical experts were joined by Wilton school administrators and law enforcement representatives to discuss the recreational cannabis legalized landscape and its implications for families.  A panel discussion and audience questions followed the presentation, delivering the biggest takeaways for parents about how potent, available and harmful to adolescents cannabis is today and what to do to protect their kids now that the law has changed.

Cannabis Products – More Potent, More Plentiful

Melissa McGarry, Project Director for Trumbull’s Prevention Partnership, kicked off the evening with a compelling case for how the potency and diversity of cannabis products appeals to an underage audience.

“Marijuana has evolved — the plant bears very little resemblance to what many of us grew up with,” McGarry said. “Plant matter of 4% THC in the 1960’s has grown to 40% and manufacturers will continue to maximize the plant’s THC power,” she added.

Potency is not the only way cannabis has evolved. The variety of cannabis offerings available on the open and black market has grown exponentially, and now includes vaping oils, concentrates, edibles and tinctures.

McGarry cautioned the new landscape is difficult to regulate and navigate. The packaging on edibles, for example, is intentional to mimic favorite snack brands.

“We often see kids mistaking edibles for the real thing. Pop tarts, gummies and other look-a-like edibles are intentionally marketed to youth in other states and Connecticut is trying to mitigate the product risk with different packaging,” she said.

According to McGarry, potency exposure is another risk consideration.

“With edibles, the challenge becomes determining what is a serving size? A serving size might be one sixth of a cookie with a wide range of potencies. We often see users unintentionally overconsume edibles unaware the absorption time is two hours with residual effects up to 24 hours.”

Adults may be attracted to the wide range of cannabis choices; however, the challenge for parents is staying ahead of all of the obvious and discrete ways adolescents can access and consume cannabis.

IQ Impact: The Harmful Effect of Cannabis on the Developing Adolescent Brain

Today’s marijuana is stronger and more addictive than ever before. And addiction at a younger age is more certain. One in six adolescents will be addicted to marijuana before the age of 18 compared to one in 10 adults, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Panel member John Daviau, MACP, a community psychologist, certified dialogue educator and certified prevention specialist, said that in Connecticut alone, 11,000 students are currently addicted to marijuana.

Cognitively, cannabis binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain. The same area that produces the sensations of euphoria, intoxication, memory and motor impairments is also critical for brain development (U.S. Surgeon General). Daviau referenced a Duke University study demonstrating an average 6-8 point permanent IQ drop among teens who use marijuana 3-5 times per week.

“When these same teens were tested again in their forties, none of them had regained those iQ points whether they had stopped using marijuana in their twenties or were continuing to use marijuana — they lost their IQ permanently,” Daviau added.

A rise in psychotic disorders among teens is another harmful consequence of today’s cannabis. High doses of THC are linked to anxiety, agitation, paranoia and psychosis (U.S Surgeon General). The association of THC and schizophrenia is stronger with early age and frequent use of cannabis as reported by the CDC.

Mountainside Clinical Director Anthony Nave sees the effects of THC as a feeder of increased depression, hallucinations, anxiety and paranoia.

“THC and mental disorders are not just living in their own parallel space. The reality is the two are co-dependent where more substance abuse will progress mental illness and vice versa,” he said

Potholes in State Marijuana Legalization

THC potency should be a red flag for parents even with Connecticut’s legislation that caps THC at 30% for plants and 60% for concentrates. In the hands of adolescents, these levels are detrimental to brain health. 

“Researchers and scientists who study the physiology of kids consider anything over 10% THC to be high potency.” Daviau said. “Couple this study with a research sampling in four markets determining that 94% to 97% of products are all over 10% THC. We should realize every product is high potency and parents need to be very concerned if kids are using them.”

Excluded from legislation caps are pre-filled vape cartridges, the preferred method of cannabis consumption for adolescent teens. Vaping for this age group doubled between 2013 and 2020 according to the American Medical Association. 

It’s a statistic Wilton High School Principal Robert O’Donnell can unfortunately verify.

“The drug of choice we are seeing is vaping. Incidents are quite low as we’ve prioritized actively and frequently monitoring areas where students gather during their free time.”  

The district is taking other steps. “All of our schools are drug free zones and we are trying to eradicate it entirely from the high school,” O’Donnell added. We combine punitive action with educational programs for a first offense. Second offenses require longer punitive measures with suspension from athletic and co-curriculars while transmission or dealing is a mandatory expulsion.”

As vigilant as schools can be, under the law penalties for use, possession, or the sale of marijuana in school cannot be greater than penalties for alcohol. Even a THC positive test result cannot be the sole basis for discipline. Outside of school, the law puts restraints on law enforcement. Seeing or smelling marijuana is not sufficient to pull someone over under the law yet adolescents stopped for alcohol face a possession charge and penalties on their driver’s licenses.

“If the consequences are less for marijuana than alcohol possession under the law, what message is that sending our kids?” McGarry asked. 

Prevention to Protect Kids

Panelists agreed that protecting kids starts with communication early and often, and recommended staying in close contact with schools and other adolescent advisors.

Other prevention suggestions for parents were addressed throughout the discussion.

  • Parent and peer disapproval of marijuana is a deterrent 
  • Talk early and often about the dangers of marijuana and counterfeit medications 
  • Help kids build an exit strategy to get out of difficult situations — “leave now, talk later”
  • Actively listen to help problem solve and find solutions together with clear action steps
  • Safely secure medical or recreational marijuana away from kids at home
  • Recognize that changes in adolescents can be gradual. Look for the subtleties:
    • Mood swings and slower reactions
    • New friends in place of old friends with repetitive weekend activities
    • Physical appearance of watery or red eyes
    • Academic shift from a good to flailing student
    • Sleeping and spending pattern changes
  • Partner with school administration and counselors for student check-ins, support and qualified resources 

Outside of the home, schools and local law enforcement are the first line of defense for prevention. 

Middlebrook School Dean of Students Nicole Querze said the school invites parents to work together.

“If you notice your child withdrawing or changing friends, reach out to us. Quite often we see students in a very different light. If they are retreating at home, they may be flourishing at school however we want to hear from you so together we can see the bigger picture. At school, students can report concerns about their friends directly or anonymously. This is another tool for us to reach out to kids that were not immediately on our radar.” 

O’Donnell agreed. “We all have some level of drug training. If you have concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to the school so we can partner with you.”

That partnering is something that School Resource Officer Sgt. Frank Razzaia of the Wilton Police Department said can make a critical difference.

“With the schools, law enforcement is proactively staying connected, being present and noticing behaviors as well as discarded drug paraphernalia. If we see or suspect anything, speaking directly to an adolescent is prohibited by law without a parent present. This adds another layer of difficulty in our prevention efforts.” Razzaia said.

The panel discussion concluded with suggested action items for parents from Daviau. 

“This is the perfect time to connect with your state senators and representatives about untying the hands of law enforcement and sharing your concerns about the new legislation.”

One other tip from Daviau: “Let’s not associate the words recreational and cannabis in a positive, normative kind of way. Recreational cannabis is not a term that I would encourage any parent to use.”