Marijuana use at MVRHS is well above state and national averages

The recent Youth Task Force survey also showed decreases in alcohol and tobacco use.

In this file photo, Theresa Manning of Martha's Vineyard Youth Task Force discusses the importance of boxes for leftover prescriptions at various Island police stations. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The results of the 2016 Youth Task Force (YTF) survey, which examine substance use of middle school and high school students, show that although the rates of use of alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription pills are on the decline, marijuana use is on the rise. On the Vineyard, the rate is above both state and national averages.

The survey reported that the marijuana-use rate at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) is about 34 percent, higher than both the state rate, roughly 25 percent, and the national rate, 22 percent.

For the high school, 33 percent of students said they had drunk alcohol at least once in the past 30 days, which is in line with state and national averages. It’s also the lowest it’s been on the Vineyard, according to YTF surveys — it was 35 percent in 2014, and 42 percent in 2012.

The survey is based on data from 288 middle school students and 535 high school students, taken in March 2016. It is a customized survey, with standard questions and questions tailored specifically for the Vineyard to be reflective of the community. For instance, college parties aren’t relevant to the Island because there are no colleges or universities on the Vineyard. Beach parties, however, are a place where underage drinking occurs on Martha’s Vineyard, so customizing the questions in that way substantiates the survey.

Theresa Manning and Jamie Vanderhoop, YTF coordinators, met with The Times on Tuesday to discuss the findings of the survey. YTF is a coalition that aims to reduce substance use and harmful behaviors among Island youth. The survey, they said, is a tool for the community, and a good reflection of what is going at the middle schools and the high school.

So what makes the Vineyard different when it comes to marijuana? YTF relies on anecdotal evidence to understand the higher-than-average rate for marijuana use.

Ms. Manning said Island families are intimate. Parents are close with their children, so there’s an effort to respect a child’s privacy, but at the same time, the roles of the parent and child can become blurred. In addition, perceptions among adults of marijuana as not harmful, as well as high rates of adult use, translates into a permissive attitude for children.

“It’s giving parents more information to understand that it’s not the same thing for adult use and youth use, and I don’t think that message has gotten to adults,” Ms. Manning said.

“And that’s specifically because of the developing brain,” Ms. Vanderhoop said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), children who start drinking before the age of 15 are six times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking after 21 years old.

Shifting focus

With the decriminalization and legalization of recreational and medical marijuana, the challenges of curbing marijuana use among youth are immense. The message now will be one similar to alcohol, Ms. Manning and Ms. Vanderhoop said — legal for adult use — and for medical marijuana specifically, legal under the advisement of a doctor.

Still, they said parents and children receive conflicting messages about the potential risks and the perceived harmlessness of marijuana. “The research that we’re finding is that particular substance causes the same addictive issues that alcohol and tobacco do if they’re used at an early age,” Ms. Manning said.

The declining rates of tobacco and alcohol use, both on the Vineyard and nationwide, reflect the resources that have gone into combating those specific substances. With nine years of funding, YTF focused on youth access and use of substances, predominantly alcohol, which the funding targeted.

“We know that it takes time to have an impact on that, but we’ve seen the results of that effort, and we’re aware of the fact that at this juncture, it’s time for us to expand our efforts to really focus on marijuana,” Ms. Manning said.

In March, as part of a collaborative effort with Island Wide Youth Collaborative (IWYC) and the high school, Ruth Potee, a Massachusetts physician who specializes in the science of addiction, will speak to students from seventh through 12th grade about the effect of addiction on the developing brain, specifically regarding marijuana. Dr. Potee also will speak to community members in a presentation at the MVRHS library on March 23 at 6 pm.

How best to respond

Four percent of high school students reported using prescription medication without a prescription. And although the rate is low, YTF isn’t minimizing the issue simply because the numbers are small. Ms. Manning and Ms. Vanderhoop acknowledged that opioid addiction is a larger problem on the Island among adults. The challenge is how to best address that problem with students.

Ms. Manning used the example of young adults in their 20s going to high school parties — an age blending that is both common and socially acceptable on the Vineyard. YTF used a focus group with Islanders in their 20s, which concluded that that aspect of partying wouldn’t change.

“The knowledge of that being a social aspect and a social access point, and knowing that the age for that use is coming into that age group, it’s of great concern to us,” Ms. Manning said. “But we have to be really calculated about how we bring messages and resources to that age group and to parents so it’s responsible.”

Everybody isn’t doing it

Although high rates of marijuana use among Vineyard students are alarming, the data also shows that more than half of high school students have never used marijuana.

“Thirty-four percent of our kids said they have used marijuana in the past 30 days,” Ms. Vanderhoop said. “But when we ask about lifetime use, with our high school students, 52 percent have said they’ve never used marijuana in their lifetime.”

The survey also asked students about social norms and perceived use of a given substance. Student were asked to estimate how many people in their grade have used a particular substance in the past 30 days.

“There’s a lot of misperception,” Ms. Vanderhoop said.

The phrase “everybody’s doing it” is one of those misperceptions, and an important myth to dispel, according to Ms. Manning. When parents and children are asked what percentage of people are using a substance, they think everybody is using, when in fact, they’re not.

For perceived marijuana use, the survey showed that 30 percent of high school students thought that more than half of their peers use marijuana, and 26 percent thought that most of their peers use marijuana.

Ms. Manning explained that there is a science to conducting the survey in that way, because it highlights the myths. The goal is to combat misperceptions about marijuana by informing both parents and children with data. “If you can correct those misperceptions, you can change behavior,” Ms. Manning said. For example, in 2009, the middle school rate for alcohol use was 9 percent, but 69 percent of students thought that their peers were drinking. So in theory, “everybody’s doing it,” but in reality, 91 percent of students were not.

The YTF survey is a tool for parents and children, giving the community the ability to make more informed decisions when it comes to substance use among Island youth.

“You can let parents know that if your kid is using alcohol in middle school, it’s a big problem. Vastly, the majority are not, so get some help,” Ms. Manning said. “And for kids, when they are on the seesaw, wondering about that, they can feel confident in the fact that they’re with the majority.”