Berkshire United Way plays a key role in advocating for good public policy. We also help to educate both policy makers and community members on important issues to promote informed decisions. Sometimes advocating just isn’t enough. Such was the case on September 22 when the Berkshire United Way Board of Directors made the unanimous decision to take a stance against the legalization of marijuana.
Why is the defeat of this ballot question so important to us? Because of our commitment to create a safe environment for our youth. We do this by collaborating with partners throughout the county to help our youth make healthy decisions and by working to reduce the risk factors that can derail them from graduating high school.
Marijuana use poses a risk to both the physical and mental health of young people, and the risk of addiction is much greater for youth than it is for adults. We have learned a great deal from states that have legalized marijuana. A state-funded report out of Colorado found that marijuana use among high school students is on the rise in Colorado since legalization. Results from the 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey tell us that fewer students in that state now view marijuana use as risky behavior. This is particularly disconcerting, since the current ballot question allows recreational marijuana dispensaries to ‘set up shop’ as close as 500 feet to a public park or school.
One of Berkshire United Way’s goals in the area of positive youth development, is to decrease marijuana use by 10 percent among our county’s youth. While alcohol continues to be the substance with the highest utilization rate, when last surveyed in 2015, 8.5 percent of eighth graders, 22.3 percent of tenth grade students and and 37.3 percent of twelfth graders admitted using marijuana in the past 30 days. Those usage rates, which have remained relatively unchanged since 2011, are significantly higher than those of their peers across the country.
Of those Colorado high school students who reported using marijuana in the past 30 days, 28 percent consumed it through edibles. In 2014, the year retail dispensaries opened in Colorado, edible marijuana products comprised about 40 percent of sales in the legal marijuana marketplace there. Edible products are particularly appealing to youth, because they don’t produce smoke or an identifying odor; they also carry a lower risk for being caught at school. Should Question #4 pass in Massachusetts, the sale of edible marijuana products will be legal in Massachusetts.
Legalization of marijuana also poses a risk to our county’s youngest drivers. According to the Washington State Marijuana Impact report issued in March, 2016, one in five tenth grade students reported riding with a driver who had used marijuana; nine percent reported driving within three hours of consumption.
Some may argue that tax revenue generated by the sale of recreational marijuana will be beneficial to our schools and education system. That is not necessarily the case. Massachusetts will have the lowest marijuana tax rate of any state that has legalized the adult use of the drug. For example, Colorado collects a 15% excise tax on marijuana sales, if Question 4 passes, retail marijuana would be subject to an excise tax of just 3.75% in Massachusetts. In Colorado, the first $40 million of that excise tax is directed to a school building fund. In the ballot before us, marijuana tax revenue in Massachusetts is earmarked for licensing, enforcement and regulation; and there are concerns among legislators that those funds won’t be enough to cover the state’s expenses. There are currently no funds set aside for education or public health and safety concerns.
The upcoming election provides us with an opportunity to send an important message to our youth. We encourage you to send them a message that fosters positive youth development by Voting NO on Question #4.