Melanie Witkowski of Prevention Works, which has offices in Dunkirk and Jamestown, says teenage marijuana use has increased. Photo by Jo Ward

Melanie Witkowski knows the numbers too well – and they signal cause for concern at the local level. Since the focus of discussions about marijuana legalization in New York State for the past several years, it has seen a trend that could be viewed as disruptive to Chautauqua County and our society.

As the Executive Director of Prevention Works, Witkowski’s organization focuses on creating a safe and healthy environment by effectively educating the community about positive life choices. It has an excellent relationship with the county’s 18 school districts and 7,900 students in grades 7-12.

Because of this bond, the agency knows how teenagers are reacting to the latest developments in Albany. “I am very concerned, especially about our youth.” Said Witkowski. “We’ll see an increase in marijuana use as we grow up.”

Perception, she says, is everything.

In contacting schools in 2017, Prevention Works found that 50.6% of teenagers found marijuana harmful to their health. With the drug gaining acceptance across the country – with consent in a handful of states – the harm factor decreased to 38.9% in the same segment of students in 2019.

“When you have less misperception of harm” She said, “You will see an increase in marijuana use.”

Last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo and other heads of state hailed the controversial deal to allow recreational marijuana. Most of the announcement focused on the positive impact of new revenue in the form of tax revenues totaling $ 350 million per year and the potential of this industry to create 30,000 to 60,000 jobs across the state. Little was said, however, of the adverse effects a number of other communities could have other than that a portion of this revenue would be earmarked for drug treatment.

This is an important piece, according to Witkowski, who sees marijuana as a potential start to a bigger and more dangerous problem.

“If you are around people using substances, there will be other substances in that mixture … and at those gatherings or parties they attend.” She said. “You are putting yourself in a riskier position.”

Marijuana legalization isn’t just about those who are already exposed to the demons of addiction. It could also be about negatively impacting our local economy.

Major employers are already facing problems when it comes to the workforce in the region. In the northern county, Wells Enterprises, which oversees Fieldbrook Foods, has vacant positions while other companies, including Athenex, which is just getting started, have just begun hiring.

Witkowski believes that even if marijuana is legal, some employers might avoid those who use it because of the equipment and technology required for the position. “I’m worried about the workforce” She said. “We already have problems in our community when it comes to hiring individuals.”

Last week, Jamestown began discussing an issue that other municipalities will have to grapple with in the future: whether to refuse approval of adult retail cannabis pharmacies or licenses for on-site use in their jurisdiction. The decision not to allow these types of sites, while affecting legal availability, does not prohibit the use of the substance.

This goes back to Witkowski’s greatest concern about the drug’s effects on teenagers. She said that in 2017, about 12.6% of the students were used by students from the county’s middle and high schools. Since the legalization talk, the number has risen to 17.4% in 2019.

“A 5% increase in two years is sometimes unheard of.” She said. “I’m really interested to see where it will be in 2021. We’ll definitely have a problem when it comes to youth.”

How this will affect educational outcomes in schools – some already struggling with high levels of poverty – remains to be seen. But she believes the effects will be far-reaching.

“We are talking about academics … (and) we will see a change in the social environment” Said Witkowski. “Even at the moment, it is difficult for us to get children to exercise. … Now some schools don’t even have enough people to have a team. We will see the lack of interest across the board. “

John D’Agostino is the editor of OBSERVER, the Postal Journal and the Times Observer in Warren, Pennsylvania. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000. 253.

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