Maine’s new medical marijuana in schools law poses risks that must be addressed

As has been reported, the Auburn School Committee formally adopted a policy for implementing Maine’s new medical marijuana law for children in schools. The law that was passed in the 2015 sessions, allows for students who have medical marijuana certifications, to have the drug administered by a parent or primary caregiver on school property. It specifically does not require or allow school staff, such as school nurses, to handle or administer the drug. Essentially the law is carry in/carry out.

This new state law was weakened substantially from the original version that was submitted which would have allowed even adults to possess marijuana on school premises if they had a certification. The original bill also didn’t specifically take school staff off the hook for having to administer the drug, which would’ve forced school nurses to engage in activity that violates federal law. However, at the end of the day, this new law is in violation of federal law by allowing a Schedule I substance onto school property, thus, violating federal drug-free school laws. The question remains on what kind of threat this could pose to federal after-school funding.

Beyond the federal law issues, there are other more pressing concerns surrounding this new law which need to be addressed. While it is all well and good that this new law is intended to only apply to a very small number of students in some very specific situations, it will be important that the oversight is in place to ensure this is how it is implemented. The overall medical marijuana system in Maine is one that is fraught with loopholes and an extreme lack of oversight. Those loopholes have lead to diversion, including diversion to children. With this new law literally bringing the drug into schools, it will be extremely important that implementation is airtight with strict and rigorous oversight.

The other piece that no one is talking about in the news stories, is the spillover effect this new law will have in terms of continuing to normalize marijuana amongst our youth. Once again, I can appreciate that the intent of the law is to apply to only a very small portion of children in our schools, however, we must remember and consider how the rest of the student population will interpret and internalize this new law. We can be quite certain that students in middle and high school will be aware of these new policy changes through the media coverage. This means that a parallel strategy of communication and education is critical. The rest of the student body must understand that this new policy absolutely does not mean that it is okay for them to use marijuana.

In the absence of direct communication and education, we know that some students will make this assumption. We already know that has happened as a result of our overall medical marijuana laws. I’ve heard this first hand from parents and educators and we see it reflected in the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey. We now have just under 60% of Maine high school youth who believe there are no risks from regular use of marijuana. That number was at 39% before Maine’s medical marijuana law was operationalized. This normalization puts our youth at increased risks of addiction.

As someone who until very recently worked in Androscoggin County leading substance abuse prevention initiatives, I have a great deal of respect for the Auburn School Department. They have been and continue to be great partners in youth substance abuse prevention efforts. I know they will put in every effort to do right by their students. I can appreciate the department wanting to get out ahead of this and put a written policy into place that works to protect their students and staff. The schools are not responsible for this new state law passing and going into effect and we cannot leave them the burden of dealing with the collateral risks posed by the law. This is where lawmakers, community and state leaders, and prevention and addiction efforts need to come together and do everything we can to support our schools and our youth. We cannot allow this new law, as unintentional as it may be, to become more fuel for Maine’s addiction crisis.

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.