A recent assessment of substance use by local youth shows that more high school students are using marijuana than alcohol for the first time since the assessments began in 2009.
Kate Marone, director of Damariscotta-based Healthy Lincoln County, presented the findings of the agency’s most recent assessment to the Damariscotta Board of Selectmen on Wednesday, Sept. 5.
According to the assessment, only one in three students in Lincoln County believes marijuana can be harmful. Over half of students believe it is easier to access alcohol and marijuana than cigarettes or prescription drugs.
Eight percent of students in Lincoln County tried marijuana before they were 13 years old, while 22 percent use marijuana on a regular basis, according to the assessment. Fourteen percent of students said they tried alcohol before they were 13, while 19 percent drink on a regular basis.
The agency conducts the assessment every two years, using data from the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey. The survey was last distributed to schools across the state in February 2017.
Almost 1,500 students in Lincoln County, in grades seven through 12, participated in the survey, according to Marone. Students from four out of four eligible high schools and seven out of eight middle schools participated.
In addition to its findings about marijuana, the assessment revealed the growing popularity of electronic cigarettes, including the Juul brand. A recent change in state law makes it illegal to sell e-cigarettes to anyone under 21 years old, although the law grandfathered anyone who was 18 as of July 1.
Juul e-cigarettes are similar in appearance to USB flash drives, which allows students to disguise them, Marone said. One e-cigarette can contain the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.
Local schools are aware of the trend and taking steps to combat it.
Lincoln Academy “has seen an increase in e-cigarette usage by students,” Dean of Students and Director of Residential Life Jake Abbott said. “This increase was observed midway through last year. They have been found to be present on campus fairly regularly.”
Abbott said LA’s nurse and administration have worked with the Lincoln Academy Parent Association to provide an informational session for parents, and have sent information home to parents.
“We are working in conjunction with Healthy Lincoln County to provide educational resources to faculty and staff at the school,” he said.
Abbott said that if a student is caught with an e-cigarette multiple times, the consequences can range from detentions to suspension.
Great Salt Bay Community School has not had “any documented cases of students using e-cigarettes,” Principal Kim Schaff said in an interview. However, the school sent a letter to parents May 16 to make them aware of the devices.
“Since we care about the safety of your children, I feel that it is important for you to be aware of the health risks associated with e-cigarettes and the types of products on the market, especially since the use of e-cigarettes is growing among adolescents,” Schaff wrote in the letter. “In our local community, law enforcement and schools are reporting an increase in this behavior in our youth.”
Schaff shared information on e-cigarettes with teachers, so they would know what to look for.
Marone said one part of the assessment she found upsetting was the finding that only 60 percent of students in Lincoln County feel as though they matter to people in their community.
Twenty-four percent of local students reported that they have had three or more adverse childhood experiences, Marone said.
Adverse childhood experiences are categorized into three groups: abuse, neglect, and family/household challenges. Each group is further divided into subgroups, such as physical or emotional neglect, substance abuse, domestic abuse, divorce, incarceration of a family member, mental illness, or emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.
The study showed that 22 percent of students said violence in their home has made them want to leave.
Marone said Lincoln County’s survey results were largely consistent with results from the rest of the state, although there were differences in two areas.
Lincoln County had a smaller percentage of high school students, 24.3 percent, reporting that they have experienced depression-like symptoms, compared to the state as a whole at 26.9 percent.
Lincoln County has a higher percentage of high school students, 43.1 percent, reporting that they think people have little to no risk of harming themselves if they have one or two drinks of alcohol nearly every day compared to the state as a whole at 40 percent.
At the presentation, Damariscotta Police Chief Jason Warlick praised Healthy Lincoln County for its work. “It is an amazing program for Damariscotta and Lincoln County,” he said.
“From a police standpoint, these assessments are invaluable,” Warlick said in an interview. “They are used by our (department) and other departments to determine where our resources are most needed.
“If the numbers are continuing to drop in alcohol abuse by teens but the marijuana is on the rise, we as administrators can focus on marijuana enforcement in youth as a priority.”
Warlick said the information helps the department decide which trainings and seminars to send officers to.
“The more training an officer can get in a specific area will help him or her combat that specific issue,” he said. “The information from the assessment also helps the agencies determine what presentations need to be done in the area schools.”
Every year, the department makes a presentation on drug and alcohol awareness to seventh- and eighth-graders at GSB.
“The information I present to the classes is largely based on data I receive from these assessments,” Warlick said. “It allows us to focus on the current trending issues and in many cases get in front of the issues before (they become) a larger problem.”
“I’m all about risk management,” Warlick said at the meeting. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem.”
In addition to the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, Healthy Lincoln County used data from the Lincoln County Parent Phone Survey; the Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System, which is a national and state survey; the U.S. Census; and interviews with local youth and adults.
“For our purposes, we use the (Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey) and the other data sources on a regular basis to better understand the current health issues of our youth, and to help our (Lincoln County Substance Use Prevention Partnership) prioritize where we need to put our efforts,” Marone said.
Marone will make similar presentations to the boards of selectmen in Wiscasset, Boothbay Harbor, and Waldoboro, and to the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners, this month.
(Clarification: An earlier version of this article online and on the front page of the Sept. 20 edition reported that it is illegal to sell e-cigarettes to anyone under 21. The law that raised the age to 21 grandfathered anyone who was 18 as of July 1, 2018.)