Listening tours, hemp cafes, and cannabis-infused food, drink and pet supplements. With the buzz brought on by commercialization, conversation these days often turns to marijuana, and it’s making an impact that even local kids notice.
“In the schools where we work, counselors are noticing that students are talking frequently and casually about marijuana,” says Compass Mark Prevention Specialist Amy Sechrist. “It’s part of a trend where people’s perception of the possible harms are lowering. Almost to the point where it’s being treated like a health food.” She also offers, “Research shows that when perception of harm is lowered, use invariably goes up.”
Over the past ten years, Compass Mark has noticed an uptick in acceptance of marijuana use as ‘normal’ for any age group, a perception promoted by the media and heavily funded by the deep pockets of the cannabis industry, currently worth over $11 billion in the U.S. alone.
Compass Mark is on a mission to change that. Amy Sechrist wears a lot of hats: in addition to answering the addiction helpline, she works with the rest of the team to educate the public about the consequences that Big Marijuana would bring to PA.
Breaking the natural cycle of dopamine
“Marijuana, like any mood-altering substance, artificially heightens dopamine,” Sechrist says. “Our bodies naturally create dopamine as a reward. It’s a “carrot” for doing something good, like reaching a goal, helping someone, or taking care of our basic needs. It feels nice, and it motivates us to keep going. Once we start spiking our dopamine artificially, our body stops creating it when it should. Things that used to make us feel good just don’t do that anymore.” As natural dopamine decreases, the tendency for risky behaviors and addiction increases if a marijuana user chases that elusive feeling.
“We work hard to research the possible harms from marijuana use, and then thoughtfully communicate that out through our social media, school programs and trainings with educators and local coalitions,” she says.
Compass Mark team members, including Community Prevention Mobilizer Chris Glover, reach out to key interveners within the community with accurate information. Coalitions like Ephrata Cares are run by people who care deeply about addiction prevention and education. They are made up of people in recovery, caregivers to children in the local school district, or professionals who donate their time to make a difference. Alongside these community groups, Compass Mark is spreading the word that marijuana use can lead to addiction and a host of other long-term problems.
Within schools, their facilitators work hard to communicate facts to high-risk kids. “Our Student Skills for Life class is our highest level of prevention for students over 13,” Sechrist says. “It’s for students who have already been experimenting with substances. Our facilitators have noticed a big spike over the past decade in how comfortable kids are talking about their marijuana use. We are giving them a lot more researched information about addiction and how marijuana affects the brain.”
“The public perception has changed over the past few years as well,” Sechrist says. “I don’t think most people really understand how commercializing marijuana is going to affect their lives, and those of their loved ones. We want to share what we know so people can make healthy decisions and live their best lives.”