EAST GREENWICH — The infamous, seven-leaf green plant and its purpose in society invokes many emotions from different people.
Some firmly believe that marijuana can be a major benefit to the medical community, while others feel that the health risks and the negative moral impact it has on the social order, as a whole, outweighs the supposed benefits.
All of those issues were brought to the forefront last Wednesday evening at Swift Community Center when five local officials from the medical, religious and political fields discussed in a public forum conducted by the East Greenwich Drug Program and the Academy Foundation whether or not medical marijuana should be legalized in the Ocean State.
According to previously published reports, Rhode Island decriminalized less than an ounce of marijuana back in April and lawmakers discussed a separate bill that would legalize marijuana for recreational use.
The reports also stated a survey conducted by the Marijuana Policy Project by Public Policy Polling stated 52 percent of residents in the Ocean State would support
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“treating weed no differently than alcohol.”
Michael Cerullo, a licensed mental health counselor based in Exeter, Rebecca McGoldrick, the executive director of Protect Families First, Michelle McKenzie, senior project director at Miriam Hospital in Providence, Peter Asen, director of Providence Mayor’s Substance Abuse Prevention Council and Rev. Donald G. Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island Council of Churches, all shared their respective thoughts and took questions from the audience about the pros and cons about ending the prohibition of marijuana in Rhode Island.
The five-member panel talked about how marijuana impacts the lives of young people, as well as in the justice system, how young people should be educated about it and what kind of an effect the legalization and regulation of medical marijuana for adults would have on young people across the state.
In speaking on experience in working with many individuals who have addictions to many substances, Cerullo stated he isn’t opposed to medicinal marijuana and the decriminalization of it. However, Cerullo takes issue with the mixed messages children receive about marijuana and how they’re “oblivious to the clear dangers of it.”
Anderson said the “war on drugs” that the United States declared over 40 years ago has had a negative impact in the country, both socially and financially. Between spending $1 trillion dollars “fighting this war” and the prison population increasing “fivefold” where 25 percent of the world’s population is incarcerated in the United States, Anderson said the four-plus decade battle has not changed the addiction rates in the country.
“We resorted to saying ‘law enforcement, this is your problem, so go solve it,’” Anderson said. “That has not worked. We do have to recognize that the adopted drug policies in this country have been failures and we need to all take an honest look at approaching this problem.”
McKenzie stated the “zero tolerance” policies that are implemented in area schools where marijuana is banned on school grounds - which on the surface can be a good thing - is actually detrimental to the children because they become “alienated” from educated activities and after-school resources that will allow them an alternative to use drugs.
McKenzie also cited a recent review of Rhode Island schools show kids of color are more likely to be suspended from school for marijuana as a response to “zero tolerance” than their white peers as a major reason why marijuana is applied discriminately in society.
“This is not okay,” she said. “Not only do we have a policy that is not helping the problem, it is also being discriminately applied where some kids get hurt more than others.”
Asen, in his response, said 20 percent of students across Rhode Island have reported using marijuana in the past month, and the numbers are close to being on the level where there’s almost the same amount of kids using marijuana as there are using alcohol.
Asen also believes students are negatively impacted by other adults in their communities who smoke marijuana and the messages they send.
“There’s a sad testament in that and a failure in the impact,” Asen said. “We need to teach kids that this is not what they should use to have fun, or if they’re feeling depressed. We need to have higher expectations for younger people and higher aspirations for young people.”