My Turn: High rates of drug use make this state an island

For the Monitor
Wednesday, January 31, 2018

There are very few issues that come up in the State House on which the argument “This is how they do it in Massachusetts” bears any weight. However, when it comes to the legalization of marijuana, that’s the argument which many of our lawmakers are using. 

The idea that Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont legalizing this harmful substance makes us an island in New England, surrounded by states that are making a substance easier to access for our youth, is true. It is also true that we are an island when it comes to our high rates of substance use.

The Granite State has the highest rates of substance use in New England. In fact, as pointed out in a recent Monitor editorial, New Hampshire ranks second in the country – behind only West Virginia – for deaths from opioid use. We rank No. 1 in the nation for overdose deaths due to fentanyl. Addiction is ravaging the Granite State at higher rates than any surrounding states, making us an island in that capacity as well.

As a state, we’re also an island in that New Hampshire already has an exceptionally low perception of harm by our youth when it comes to marijuana use. In 2015, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, just 18 percent of our high schoolers believed that people were at risk of harming themselves if they used marijuana once or twice a week. 

The relationship between “perceived risk of harm” from drug use and increased rates of drug use has been well established by public health researchers. Given the evidence for even short-term impairment during a key stage of cognitive and social development, we need to do all we can to improve our young people’s understanding of the risks associated with marijuana use. Legalizing now, especially during an already overwhelming addiction epidemic, will send the message to our kids that marijuana use is not a big deal.

Our brains are built from the bottom up and are still developing through our early to mid-20s. Using harmful substances such as marijuana during those critical developmental years has the potential to negatively impact brain development and lead to poor life outcomes, which can include use of substances later in life. Is this what we want for our youth?

It’s important to New Hampshire that we are stewarding our next generation, helping them develop the skills and innovative thinking necessary for their well-being and success in the future. We need to be focusing on creating healthy policies for New Hampshire youth and families to do that.

New Hampshire does its best work focusing on New Hampshire-specific solutions. Our problems with addiction require large-scale New Hampshire-based solutions to combat, regardless of what other states are doing. A piece of that solution is halting the legalization of marijuana and protecting our youth from harm.

(Michele Merritt is president and CEO of New Futures.)