SOMERS POINT— Warnings about the downsides of recreational marijuana legalization were at the forefront of discussions at a community symposium designed for local officials and experts.
About 125 educators, law-enforcement officers, municipal leaders, substance use prevention and treatment providers, youth leaders and others gathered Wednesday to discuss the potential negative impacts of the medical and recreational marijuana industries on youth in New Jersey.
“(Marijuana) remains the most controversial, politically volatile drug and the most dangerous drug in the country,” said guest speaker Ed Shemelya, coordinator of the National Marijuana Initiative.
The event was organized by Atlantic Prevention Resources’ Join Together Atlantic County, a substance-misuse prevention coalition. It was held in the cafeteria at Chartertech High School for the Performing Arts.
The debate over recreational marijuana legalization has intensified in New Jersey. Previous statewide polls have indicated a majority of residents favor legalization, but not everyone is completely sold on the idea, and legislators from both parties have voiced concerns.
Newly elected Gov. Phil Murphy has said he supports establishing a recreational industry in the state.
For that reason, Bob Zlotnick, president and executive director at Atlantic Prevention Resources, said educating community leaders and professionals about any possible negative impacts on youth is important.
“We’re not anti-pot or anti-alcohol,” he said. “But we want people who read about how (legalization) can lead to an economic boom to ask, ‘What may be the downside?’ It’s false to think that this won’t get into kids’ hands, just like something legal like alcohol does.”
Speakers who presented at the symposium titled “Marijuana: Where we are today and what to expect,” detailed several grim features of legalization in other states.
Shemelya, a 30-year veteran of the Kentucky State Police and drug law enforcement, said while the opioid epidemic has hit Kentucky just as hard as elsewhere in the country, marijuana remains the most dangerous drug because “it is the most misunderstood drug in the country.”
Shemelya used data from Colorado and Oregon that showed an uptick in marijuana usage among teenagers, driving while under the influence traffic stops, emergency room visits, drug violations among students in schools and homelessness since those states legalized recreational marijuana several years ago.
While legalization would make the state more money, create jobs and increase the value of some real estate markets, Shemelya questioned if those factors outweigh the possible negative impacts.
Not everyone at the symposium agreed with his findings and research, especially advocates for the state’s already existing Medical Marijuana Program.
Barbara Merrifield, a medical marijuana patient and small-business owner in Somers Point, said professionals should also become more educated on how the state’s current medical program works, how marijuana has helped her and other adults cope with chronic illness and more about what positive impacts might result from a legalized system.
Zlotnick said the prevention organization has plans to hold community events for the general public as well so people can eventually make informed decisions on the state’s future regarding marijuana legalization.