How marijuana legalization could sink new plan to tackle Maine’s drug abuse crisis

Republican and Democrat leaders today unveiled their $4.8 Million plan to address the substance abuse epidemic facing the state of Maine.  It is a comprehensive plan that provides additional resources and supports for law enforcement, treatment, prevention, and recovery services.  It includes funding for the 10 new Maine DEA Agents Governor LePage has been requesting for the past year.  It also includes resources to expand access to treatment and recovery services.  It is a great, bi-partisan first step in gaining some traction on this public health crisis.

Certainly, this proposal still needs to go through the legislative process and win approval from a majority of lawmakers as well as getting the final approval from Gov. LePage.  However, assuming the plan becomes law, the real threat that would defeat the aim of this plan would be legalized marijuana.  If, in the middle of a drug abuse crisis, Maine chose to increase access to an addictive drug, we would be squandering this golden opportunity and wasting precious resources.

According to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), people who develop an addiction to marijuana are three times more likely to develop an addiction to heroin (for alcohol the risk is two times, lower than the risk posed by marijuana).  More marijuana use in Maine would mean greater risks for addiction, and greater risks for more heroin addiction. Our young people do not start drug use by shooting heroin.  They start with tobacco, alcohol, and increasingly marijuana.

This week, the results from the 2015 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey (MIYHS) were released.  I will provide more in depth analysis of this data in a future article.  But what is striking to me in the first review is the stark difference between the trend in youth marijuana use, and virtually every other substance.  Amongst Maine high school students between 2013 and 2015, past 30 day use of tobacco is down, past 30 day use of alcohol is down, past 30 day misuse of prescription drugs is down.  Meanwhile, marijuana remains stubbornly, statistically flat at around 20%.  Maine youth are getting the message about tobacco, alcohol, prescription drugs.  They are also getting the messages from the marijuana industry…










…which at least, in part, can explain why the numbers have remained stagnant over the past 5 years.  And this is where the numbers are without a Big Pot market in Maine.

The MIYHS and NSDUH data shows that marijuana is a significant factor in our overall substance abuse crisis. It remains a significant threat to the health, wellbeing and futures of our youth, while also providing an avenue to other addiction issues such as heroin and opiates. To think you can increase access to marijuana and somehow not worsen addiction in Maine is to not understand the science and realities of addiction. Frankly, it is utterly tone deaf to continue to propose to legalize marijuana in the middle of this public health epidemic. At a time when we need all energy into being a part of the solution, the marijuana legalization forces are deciding to be a part of the problem.

Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

About Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C is a Certified Prevention Specialist and is the Director of Operations at AdCare Educational Institute of Maine, Inc. He currently serves on the Maine Substance Abuse Services Commission as well as the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, Center for Substance Abuse Prevention National Advisory Council. Scott volunteers as the Chair of the marijuana policy education and advocacy group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine and is the current Board President of the Maine Council on Problem Gambling. Scott also serves as a Co-chair of the Prevention & Harm Reduction task force of the Maine Opiate Collaborative, the effort convened by U.S. Attorney Thomas E Delahanty, II to address Maine's growing opiate and addiction crisis. Scott is the recipient of the 2015 Maine Public Health Association's Ruth S. Shaper Memorial Award and 2015 Healthy Androscoggin Will Bartlett Award and is also the 2013 recipient of the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse Prevention Award.