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Start preparing kids now for risks from New Jersey legal marijuana, by Katie Faldetta

Start preparing kids now for risks from New Jersey legal marijuana, by Katie Faldetta

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So it’s legal — now, how do we protect our kids?

Many New Jersey citizens considered the state’s recent legalization of marijuana as a move that reflected evolving societal norms. Some touted potential new revenue streams. Others applauded the advance in criminal justice reform.

But did anyone stop to think about the kids?

The new legislation opens the door to a host of problems. Marijuana will be easier to access and readily available, yet the consequences of being caught using underage were removed with no added support system to address youth use and access. This law has removed an intervention point where teenagers were able to review their actions and change their behavior.

Cape May County does not have exorbitant youth arrests. Previously, when a minor was stopped by police for marijuana use, they wouldn’t face charges. They would receive a “stationhouse adjustment” — essentially, a stern talking-to with police — and be referred to a program at social service agencies such as Cape Assist, a substance abuse prevention and treatment agency that operates in Cape May County.

Under the original provisions, police were limited in their ability to investigate suspected marijuana use by juveniles, and parents would not be notified of any wrongdoing until the third warning. Losing police intervention and parent action would make it more difficult to reach and help these kids, possibly before a habit becomes an addiction.

The legislation would have jeopardized parents’ ability to intervene on their children’s behalf. Fortunately, Gov. Phil Murphy just signed bill A-5472 into law that requires law enforcement to notify parents or guardians the first time someone underage is caught with marijuana.

Even though this legislation changed, the danger remains for young people. Sometimes a community has to protect children, and these laws are examples where the community has stopped protecting children. In passing a law that makes marijuana more accessible to adults, the state has put children at risk.

New Jersey determined recreational marijuana use was safe enough for adults. But what does it do to kids?

Marijuana affects the growth and health of developing brains; it changes brain chemistry. It’s reported that 1 in 6 people who start using marijuana before the age of 18 can become addicted. It can affect a young person’s ability to build and maintain healthy relationships, diminish school performance, interfere with sports and extracurricular activities, and hinder college opportunities and future employment options.

Now that marijuana is legalized, young people need to understand these life-altering risks more than ever.

Solutions involve multiple strategies across multiple sectors: the Legislature, schools, home and the community.

In December, Assemblyman Erik Simonsen, R-District 1, took steps to protect our youth when he sponsored Assembly Bill 5168, which would require schools to provide age-appropriate instruction, beginning in grade three, on the dangers associated with cannabis and marijuana use. Although preparations are underway for this instruction, it may not be available until the 2021-2022 school year.

Conversations are needed now. Parents must have honest and ongoing conversations with their children about the lasting effects of marijuana on young brains and the impact it can have on their future. Legalization adds a twist to the dialogue, but parents can explain the distinction: Marijuana should only be used with an adult-healthy brain.

We also must remember our most vulnerable youth — those who lack support at home. They likely won’t hear the information in a timely manner. And even when schools move forward with marijuana education, more needs to be done. We cannot leave everything up to schools.

Although municipalities have the power to ban marijuana sales within their borders, it likely would not be effective. Banning would lead to all the problems, but with no benefits of the funding. Residents could still buy marijuana in other towns and/or have it delivered. But we can urge municipalities to leverage the control allowed in the law by determining where retailers can open and setting local limits on the amount of THC that can be sold in products. They also are able to sanction where smoking can and cannot occur in public areas.

The next few years will be critical as the effects of legalization unfold. We must work together, along with our local leaders and municipalities, to make sure our kids stay informed — and safe — in an environment of new risks.

Katie Faldetta, of Northfield, is CEO and executive director of Cape Assist, a non-profit organization that specializes in drug and alcohol education and counseling services.

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