Yearly Archives: 2015

29May/15

The Unbridled Joy of Being a Mentor

When I was a kid, I liked being the center of attention and the star on the stage. As I approach middle age, I still enjoy my star turns, but I have found that I greatly enjoy seeing others learn, grow, achieve and thrive. On May 18th, I watched a pair of young men graduate from Rutgers Newark. I was at least, if not more, proud of them completing their degrees as I was of my own graduation from the school of public policy a few days earlier.

My mother taught English at Elizabeth High School from 1987 thru 1999. She would drive an hour each way to work. She loved teaching there and would tell me about her students. She brought me to the school several times during those years. As a teenager, I remember thinking it was very large, a bit run down and full of people that I almost never saw in Hunterdon County. At 5200+ kids, it was the largest high school in America. Forty-six (46!) languages are spoken by students there. It serves a poor, high-minority and largely immigrant population. In the fall of 2006, I began working there as an English teacher (after I finished my MSW in the spring of 2006, there were only two districts that I was interested to teach in – Elizabeth and New Brunswick).

That fall, I had two freshmen classes and one junior class. I taught the freshmen classes for 100 minutes each day. I began each class by playing music for them (Dylan, the Beatles, Beethoven, Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Public Enemy) and having them write in their journals. I taught them poetry and had each class read about 10 books (I gave constant quizzes to ensure that they were reading). I also taught them about history (I’m a certified high school social studies teacher too). During that fall, I told my students that Scott Joplin died of syphilis. They asked me what that was. I was incredulous and inquired about their STI education. All three classes told me they had not received any – so, I spent a day on STI’s (and then included questions on them in a quiz). I also told my students about how I got into trouble as a kid, joined the Army, went to college, traveled the world, taught in Japan and how my friend died from addiction. I told them about my love of hiking and baseball. They teased me when the Vikings lost and would introduce me to new music. Every day was different and almost all of them were extremely rewarding.

2006-07 Freshmen AM English Class in Dwyer 212

2006-07 Freshmen AM English Class in Dwyer 212. Marvin and Waldys are 4th and 3rd from the right.

Marvin Pineda and Waldys Batista were two students in my freshmen morning class. They showed up early and stayed late. They did all of the assigned work, loads of extra credit and earned straight A+’s throughout the entire year. I taught them (and a few others) how to play croquet after school and on a few Saturdays (they really enjoyed sending me). Waldys would talk to me about his little brother, ask questions about the Yankees and generally served as an ideal role model for other students. He was perpetually calm and laughed at the silliness and zaniness that life threw at him. Marvin was equally bright but a bit more hot headed – he would get frustrated when he his peers weren’t as serious and he didn’t relish when I would correct him on attitude issues or on behaviors that he exhibited in other classes. Marvin was an absolute sponge – he wrote down everything I put down on the chalkboard and many of the things I said. He would spend his lunch period in my room – sometimes he did school work (if I was busy) or he would pepper me with questions about music, sports, English, history or my life. They were the kind of students a teacher dreams about having one time in their career, and I had two of them my very first year of teaching.

Originally, I had only planned on teaching at Elizabeth for one year. I worked as a drug counselor a few nights a week at Hunterdon Drug Awareness after school, but I knew I had to eventually find a full time counseling job in order to get my advanced counseling license (LCSW). Those plans changed when I found out that I would get to teach my two freshmen classes again as sophomores (again, for 100 minutes every day). I had the same 50+ students for a 2nd year, and that 2007-08 year was even more enjoyable than my first year. Waldys and Marvin continued to excel in my classroom, knock off A+’s and grow as writers and human beings. I hung my graduation gown from Rutgers in the front of the room and talked to all of my students about the importance of higher education. After his sophomore year, Waldys transferred to the Upper Academy of Elizabeth High School (basically the honors building) in order to better prepare for college. Marvin decided to stay at Dwyer House for a 3rd year (which would be my final one at EHS) and he took Journalism with me as an elective. Marvin told me about his family – how both of his parents worked two jobs and also served as the superintendents of the building they lived in. It was a grueling schedule that they did (and continue to do) for years in order to give their four children a shot at the American dream. When people ask me how I can work so many jobs or such long hours, I tell them that my schedule is easy compared to the parents of some of my former students (and I think of specifically of Marvin’s parents when I say it).

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Marvin, Waldys, Junot Diaz, myself and Jeremy Alba in the winter of 2008.

In the winter of 2008, Junot Diaz visited Rutgers. I had fallen in love with his writing after he won the Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I taught all of my students about him and had them read a few short stories from Drown. Waldys, Marvin and a few other students met me at Rutgers Newark the night Mr. Diaz spoke. We hung around afterwards and got to meet with him for about a half hour and took a number of photos. He was extremely gracious and my students were star struck. I was thrilled that they were so excited to meet a writer.

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On the MET steps in June, 2009.

In the spring of 2009, I accepted a job at Rutgers as the new Recovery Counselor. They agreed to hire me part-time at first in order for me to finish the school year at Elizabeth (I will always be grateful to them for that). My last day at Elizabeth was in late June. I cried when I drove away from the school. The next day, I took Marvin, Waldys and Jeremy Alba to NYC to see the Public Library, Grand Central Station, Strawberry Fields and the Natural Museum of History. It was teaching, learning, mentoring and guiding in action. We laughed and joked and I answered the questions that I could. It was a wonderful day.

 

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2010 EHS Graduation

At Rutgers, I organized and attended about 150+ activities a year with students and alumni in recovery. Marvin and Waldys came along to a number of those activities, including hikes, plays, sporting events, speaking engagements and meals. Marvin transferred to the honors building for his senior year, and both he and Waldys did very well there. In June of 2010, I had the pleasure of attending their (and all of my other students’) high school graduation. A 2009 New York Times article reported that 53% of students in the largest 50 cities in America graduate high school in 4 years while that number jumps to 71% in the suburbs. My students not only graduated from high school, but they had done so against considerable odds.

My job at Rutgers required me to work 3 days in New Brunswick and 2 in Newark. Marvin and Waldys delighted me by enrolling at Rutgers Newark in the fall of 2010. I saw them several times a month and continued to involve them in activities with my other students. We still talked about the things we always talked about, but we also spoke more about girls, their friends’ substance use, their families, money and jobs. Both took a little while to adjust to the rigors of college coursework, but eventually they started doing well at Rutgers. There were hiccups: Marvin’s car was stolen, Waldys’ parents divorced, Marvin almost got married (ugh…that was brutal)…the list goes on. We spent time together and talked about these problems, and one way or another, things worked out. Sometimes they were embarrassed to tell me something, so they would wait a little bit or the other one would tell me what was going on. I introduced them to my friends and family, and many of them knew Marvin and Waldys by name. A few of my friends were particularly helpful with them, and for that I am also grateful.

IMG_7378On May 18, 2015, 9 years after I met them, I had the unbridled pleasure, pride and joy in watching Waldys Batista and Marvin Pineda graduate from college. Waldys graduated with a BS in Criminal Justice and Marvin with a BA in film. Waldys has been applying for jobs as a police officer both in and out of NJ. He’s a dream candidate – he’s smart, hardworking, even tempered, humble, bi-lingual and cares about people. Marvin has been working and interning in film and will continue to do so (all of the videos on my site were shot by him). His goal is do to well enough making educational documentaries so that he can help build schools in poor countries. Sigh. These kids…these young men. I am so proud of them.

Go mentor someone. It will do as much for you as it does for them.

 

 

18May/15

Why I Got A Degree in Public Policy

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Yesterday, I graduated from the Edward J. Bloustein* School at Rutgers with a Masters in Public Affairs and Politics (it’s an advanced one-year public policy degree).  It is my third degree from Rutgers (I earned my BA in history and English in 2001 and my MSW in 2006). Each class was enormously time consuming and it took me four years to complete it.  Now that the degree is finished, I am going to get back to writing for this site more regularly. But first, I will elucidate the process which led me to pursue this degree.

In late 2003, I returned to America after teaching in Tokyo for a year. I took a job at Integrity House (a long term substance abuse treatment facility in both Secaucus and Newark) as a front line counselor. I had been there less than a month when I made the decision to pursue a MSW full-time while working full-time. When I was at Integrity, it was impossible to ignore the problems that my clients faced in addition to addiction: inadequate education, a lack of job skills, poor health care, a bloated criminal justice system that regurgitated prisoners, stressed out families, and a vicious cycle of poverty. After stabilizing my clients in recovery, we would focus on education and job skills. There were very few resources, and many of our clients just returned to the same blighted street corners with no hope of anything but a minimum wage, 25-hour a week job.

In 2005, halfway through my MSW, I began working at Hunterdon Drug Awareness (HDAP) in Flemington, NJ. Drug addiction caused the same problems in Hunterdon that it did in the inner-cities of NJ, but the people of that county had more resources to repair their lives. They had an easier time going back to school or developing skills that lead to meaningful and better paying jobs. This crystallized my thinking that I had to work on more than just drug treatment with people, but it would require additional skills and a different type of work if I wanted to affect macro level change. I also started working with clients that were addicted to prescription drugs like Xanax, Adderall, Valium, Vicodin, and Oxycotin. A lot of the people that came into treatment didn’t view prescription drugs as a problem because they were “safe, legal and pure.”

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Spring 2007. This was one of two Freshmen classes that I taught. They had quizzes every week and journal writing every day.

After graduating with my MSW in 2006, I took a job as an English teacher at Elizabeth High School,** which was the largest HS in America at the time (5500+ kids). My students were 65% Hispanic, 15% black, 15% Haitian and 5% other races. Many of them were the children of undocumented workers (who often worked 2+ jobs in order to scratch out an existence). The quality of the building, books, desks, supplies and instruction were all deficient. In 2007, due to a lack of space, the library of Dwyer House (where I taught)  was cleared out in order to make more class room space. The books were thrown in dumpsters. I took photos of this, rescued books from the trash, and wrote an impassioned essay about it on Myspace (it was 2007).

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The condition of the library was disastrous. The books had already started to be thrown out here. In my 2007 Myspace essay I wrote, “This never would have happened at a white, suburban school.”

Much like my time at Integrity House and HDAP, I poured myself into the work, bonded with those that I served and generally had a great time every single day. But the problems that my students and their families faced would not be solved by a high score on a vocabulary quiz or being able to articulate the political reasons behind the fighting in Julius Caesar. At the end of the 2009 school year, I was offered and turned down tenure. I had decided to take a job at Rutgers running the Recovery House and working at both the Newark and New Brunswick counseling centers.

In the spring of 2009, there was one student in the Recovery House who was in Recovery House for opiates. By the fall, that number had jumped to 6 (25%). In 2011, about half of the students were in recovery from opiates. I was also seeing more and more students come into the counseling centers that had problems with prescription drugs. It was even more pronounced than what I had seen a few years earlier at HDAP. I was also exposed to the devastating relationship between alcohol intoxication and sexual assaults (I’ve written about how males weaponize alcohol to incapacitate their prey). I collected data on what we accomplished and wrote about how a community could foster recovery and inspire students to academic excellence.

In 2010, I was asked to be a Trustee of the New Day Recovery Charter High School in Newark. While there were over 30 recovery high schools around the country, neither NJ nor NYC had one. From 2010 to 2012, I would leave work at Rutgers Newark at 6 pm every other Monday and head over to the New Hope Baptist Church for school board meetings that would sometimes last until 9 pm. We talked about educational policy, the recovery process, fundraising and how to get community support. We were all hardworking, excited and dedicated to this cause.

Alas, we didn’t understand the politics of the Newark School System nor were we prepared for the lack of faith and support of both the Department of Education and whatever niche covers charter schools. We were denied the charter in 2011 and then again in June of 2012. At that point, we decided to disband.

In the summer of 2011, my friend Eric Arauz recommended me for the Governor’s Council on Drug Abuse and Alcoholism (GCADA). I was mulling over issues on the school board and what I’d like to accomplish on the GCADA while flying on a plane to attend a close friend’s wedding in Sienna, Italy. I had also been reading a number of political profiles in the New Yorker (I catch up on that magazine when I travel) when I came across the story of a cabinet official who decided to get a policy degree when he was getting more involved in that kind of work. A light went off. By the time I returned to NJ ten days later, I had made an appointment to meet with Stuart Shapiro and was prepared to do whatever I needed to do to start taking classes at Bloustein that fall. During my interview, I told Dr. Shapiro that I wanted to hone my analytical skills and knowledge base in order to be more effective in the work that I was already doing.

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3 Task Force Members: Myself, Dr. Louis Baxter and Governor Jim McGreevey

In 2012, the GCADA created the NJ Heroin and Other Opiate Task Force. We held hearings, were on the radio, made the news and eventually (after a lot of listening, reading, data gathering and discussions, some backstabbing, and several political delays) released a report on March 17, 2014. Our report addressed mezzo and macro level issues, including, but not limited to: (1) creating a recovery high school in NJ; (2) creating more recovery college programs; (3) creating a warm-line so that people could get better and more timely access to opiate treatment information; (4) mandating the prescription drug monitoring program; (5) improving treatment in county jails; (6) revising the health curriculum in public schools in order to cover the dangers of prescription drugs; (7) better training of professionals that prescribe and dispense prescription drugs and (8) the enforcement of the Mental Health and Addiction Parity Act (2008) and the Affordable Care Act (2010), which mandates that treatment for addiction must be treated the same was as treatment for cancer or diabetes. My contributions to that report represent the changes in my thinking and approach that were influenced by the Bloustein school.

I took courses on policy formation, research, economics, energy, the environment, education, health care, and the state and federal budget. The professors were learned, patient and encouraging. I have found that this course-work has pushed me towards the middle of a number of policy issues, and I try to avoid hyperbolic language and taking rigid positions. This is particularly true of issues that I think I can influence. Supporters of these issues might grow frustrated at my deliberate pace, but I have adopted the wisdom of Ben Franklin: “Half a loaf is better than no loaf.” A small policy victory today can leave the door open for bigger victories later.

It is with great pride that I can now say that I am an alumnus of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

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Governor Florio, Dean Hughes, myself and Assemblyman Benson.

* The school is named for the 17th President of Rutgers. Edward J. Bloustein served from 1971 to 1989. He oversaw Rutgers College becoming co-ed, attracted top faculty, created the Employee Assistance Program, created one of the first Alcohol Policy Committees in higher education and generally raised the reputation of the university. All of the long-time and retired faculty that I know speak of him fondly.

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This was taken at the end of the 2007-08 school year. I had taught these kids for 2 years and now it was time for us to part. Many of us cried before, during and after the photo.

** I worked as a full-time teacher at Elizabeth and worked 2 to 4 nights a week as a substance abuse counselor at HDAP in Flemington. I did this for three years. I usually logged 700 miles a week.

05Apr/15

A Starting Plan to Address Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Last month, I wrote an article about the Hidden Wounds of Sexual Assault (I described how the survivors of sexual assaults are often: afraid of the dark; jump when touched; get alarmed at loud or sudden noises; have difficulty being intimate with someone; have problems in relationships; were not believed by friends, boyfriends, family members or the authorities; ….as a result, trust people less).

There is a new documentary out titled The Hunting Ground – it covers a number of sexual assaults on college campuses, that some frats (SAE) are fortresses of rape, and how many universities have failed to protect their students and/or prosecute the attackers/predators.

I’ve posted information about the movie on our Facebook site. I use that site to also put out links to numerous articles that I find informative and topical, and over the last half year I’ve suggested that people read about the failures of how the military addresses sexual assaults, methods that sororities are trying to shield their members against rape, and the horrific story of two football player-rapists’ attack on a young woman at Vanderbilt.

In today’s New York Times, Professor Jenny Wilkinson of the University of Vermont wrote an account about how she was sexually assaulted when she was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. Despite being found responsible by the University, her attacker received a minimal reprimand with no real consequences. It’s a story that I urge people to read. Dr. Wilkinson concluded her piece with some basic suggestions to improve the way sexual assaults are handled on campuses:

At a minimum, though, we need victim-friendly proceedings, including administrators who encourage students to file reports; trained legal representatives, investigators and panel members; and rules that allow students to bring in outside support. Victim-sensitive punishments, explicitly expulsion, would allow survivors to walk around campus without fear of running into their attackers. With these changes, university proceedings could actually make a difference by getting predators off campus and into the hands of family members and friends who can find them the help they need.

27Mar/15

The “Irrational” AA Article and It’s Blowback

Earlier this week, an article from The Atlantic titled “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous” was widely read and discussed. It started a vigorous debate.

Two articles on the reaction:

The High Functioning Alcoholic from Psychology Today

Spirituality vs. Science from the Huffington Post

A blog reaction:

Trashing AA as Irrational

And a TV clip:

Does AA Really Work? from MSNBC. This clip had two women discuss it. I have to say, especially for TV (and cable tv, no less), that the discussion was equal and measured. No shouting or namecalling or casual dismissing.

A few thoughts of mine:

(1) Too many treatment programs rely too much on the 12-Step Model.

(2) Those that do rely on the 12-Step Model tend to discount medication and a number of behavioral therapies that have strong outcomes (and data to back it up).

(3) I have personally and professionally seen AA be wildly successful for thousands of individuals.

(4) I agree that AA’s strongest aspect is the power of the group. The creation of a social network and a collection of some inspirational role models.

(5) In summation, AA is a wonderful program that helps lots of people. Treatment programs need to offer more than just AA though.

19Mar/15

The Hidden Wounds of Sexual Assault

A few months ago, I was talking with someone I’m very close to about sexual assaults on college campuses, in the military, and generally throughout America. I told her how 1 in 4 women in the United States will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime, and how that number jumps to 1 in 2 if a woman has a substance use disorder. I spoke about how 80% of survivors are under the age of 30, and how often colleges typically mess up the less than 5% of cases that are reported.

She responded, “Something happened in the last year.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve talked about sexual assaults for the last half decade, but nothing like you’ve done in the last year. Something happened to someone you know. One of your clients maybe.”

I stopped and thought about it. I sat down and thought some more. “Over the last dozen years, I have heard a great many stories involving sexual assault and rape. Some of them were particularly gruesome and heinous,” I said. “But it’s not just the incident. The mental, emotional and spiritual toll that these women have experienced and endure has long lasting consequences and affects many different areas of their lives. The sum total of it all has left me deeply affected, concerned and angry.”

Here are a few examples of what I’ve helped women process through the last few years:

(1) Jane Doe #1: Went to a highly regarded, small, private, liberal arts college in the Mid-West. Was raped at the end of a date. She told her friends about it a few days later, and they told her she hadn’t been raped. “Those kind of things happen,” her friends (all females) told her. A few weeks later, she realized she had been raped. She didn’t tell her friends. She didn’t go to see a counselor or a police officer. Years later, she told me that, “I felt stupid for taking so long to work out what happened.”

(2) Jane Doe #2: Attends school at a major public university. Was raped on four different occasions by four different men that she considered friends. She didn’t report any of them to the police. She did tell two of her female friends. She is currently experiencing major academic, social and physical problems (none of which pre-existed the first rape). She will only leave her house during the day if someone else accompanies her. She will not go out at night.

(3) Jane Doe #3: While at an off-campus fraternity party, she was cornered into a bedroom by a “giant.” She reported that he threw her down on a bed, choked her and raped her. He told her that if she ever reported him that he would kill her. A year later, her PTSD was causing her so many problems that she sought counseling. She declined to inform the authorities.

(4) Jane Doe #4: A woman in her early 20’s met a 29 year old man at a self-help group for people with alcohol problems. They hung out twice after a meetings: they got coffee after the first meeting; he raped her in his car after the second meeting. “I felt so stupid and ashamed. It was my fault,” she told me.

Think for a moment about how difficult it is to tell someone about a problem. Think what it took for these young women to tell a man in his late 30’s about this (research states that women have an easier time talking to other women about these issues). Most never go to the police or even a counselor. Less than 5% of sexual assaults are every reported.

To my knowledge, none of the aforementioned women ever told any of their family members. Read that last line again. If there is a female in your life under the age of 30, there is almost a 25% chance that she was sexually assaulted and never told a family member. If it is your daughter, sister or grand-daughter, you might have no idea of the hidden wounds that she has been carrying around.

Their stories are not unique. They are just examples of cases that are all too common. Many of the women I’ve talked to or worked with:

– are afraid of people

– are afraid of the dark

– jump when touched

– get alarmed at loud or sudden noises

– have difficulty being intimate with someone

– have problems in relationships

– were not believed by friends, boyfriends, family members or the authorities

– ….as a result, they trust people less

It seems like sexual assaults have been reported more frequently in the last dozen years. Colleges and the military have had national scandals and leaders called onto the carpet for the failures of reporting and treating women that have been sexually assaulted at those institutions. And yet on Friday, an article appeared on 538.com about how College Presidents Appear Delusional about Sexual Assaults on Their Campuses. Those in power are acknowledging, more than ever, that sexual assaults are on the rise and that they are a significant problem. They just don’t believe it is happening in their backyard or is their responsibility. Most of those in power that aren’t properly addressing this are men. To sum it all up: these sexual crimes are being committed by men, and then other men are glossing it over or disregarding it. It’s time that we educate men on these issues, rather than just focusing on what women can do to prevent them.

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This is a great site for information regarding sexual campus policies, reporting, activism, and alcohol and drug use. I urge you to learn more and tell others.

15Mar/15

For the parents of young adults with a substance use disorder

According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (the most recent survey available to us) and the latest findings by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), these are the percentages of young adults, aged 18 – 25, that do the following:

– 39% of full-time college students report engaging in binge drinking within the last month (this number is 33% for those in not in college or part-time)
– 19% report using marijuana within the last month
– 22% report using illicit drugs (Molly, heroin, opiate painkillers, methamphetamine) within the last month
– 13% report abusing prescription drugs within the last month

People who abuse alcohol and/or drugs are more likely to get injured, have a mental health disorder, be involved in sexual assault, have legal problems, and attempt suicide. It’s a huge risk factor that can also lead to school, work and family problems. If you are a parent of someone aged 18 to 25, you may have already seen your child experience some of these issues. At the very least, you probably have some concerns. I’ve worked as a therapist with this population for 12 years and I’ve run programs at high schools, universities, in-patient and out-patient treatment centers. Here are some simple tips, based on those experiences:

– be a role model -> young adults with a parent who abuses alcohol/drugs are much more likely to have substance use disorder themselves
– talk to your young adult about school, friends and substance use
– engage in activities outside of your home with your offspring (too many relationships get bogged down by the business of housekeeping (shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry) and not enough families engage in fun or recreational pursuits

If you suspect or know that your young adult has a drug or alcohol problem, here are some further actions that you can take:

– get your young adult into counseling immediately
– accept that everyone who lives with someone with a substance problem is affected
– do not have alcohol or drugs in the house
– abstain from alcohol and/or drug use while your offspring is in treatment or trying to stay clean
– attend at least six Al-Anon meetings (Al-Anon is for the family, friends & lovers of someone who has an alcohol or drug problem)
– attend an open AA speaker meeting alone
– set clear rules & boundaries
– make sure that you have some time each week to spend with other family members (to take the focus off of your young adult that is using and to make sure that others have not been ignored)
make sure that you have some time each week for your own fun activities
– consider individual therapy for yourself

With treatment, young adults with a drug and/or alcohol problem can still reach their utmost potential. This gets harder and harder to do once your offspring hits their mid-20’s, 30’s or 40’s. Without treatment, your young adult’s drug and/or alcohol problem will get worse. There are many people in the United States that are paying the rent of their 30-something child and/or are raising their grandkids. To borrow a term from Charles Dickens, you can change your “ghost of Christmas future.” After reading this article, you can never say that you were not told.

24Jan/15

Frank Greenagel Answers Your Questions About Marijuana

Last month, I presented “The History of Marijuana Policy in the United States” on a national webinar for the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC). You can find the link to watch it for free here. The webinar is about 90 minutes long. It was well received, and I posted the participant ratings of it here. A number of people sent in questions, and I spent a little bit of time this evening answering them. I’ve listed them here for your benefit (enjoyment?).

Q: Are the statistics presented similar in other countries that have decriminalization or legalization of marijuana (ie: Holland, Canada)?

A: Canada has very similar rates to the United States when it comes to marijuana use and abuse. Holland has lower rates of use and abuse than the United States. When Holland lowered the legal age to 16 and allowed for easier access, rates of use and abuse increased.

Q: Alaska’s new legalization of marijuana will be interesting as marijuana has been a privacy issue for generations in Alaska. It appears (though research is HIGHLY needed) that the attitude in Alaska has historically been positive toward marijuana is a personal decision/issue. Thoughts?

A: I can’t speak with any authority on the culture in Alaska. I drove to Alaska after I graduated from Rutgers in 2001, and I spent the month of August there. From reading and talking with hundreds of people, I learned that Alaska attracts a lot of people from the lower 48 that are highly individualistic and less interested in rules and regulations than the average US citizen. That would seem to jibe with the thoughts behind this question, but again, I am not certain.

Q: Did the studies regarding marijuana’s effects on the lungs/respiratory system address whether the issues were because of marijuana or the act of smoking?

A: Both. There are chemicals in marijuana which are damaging to the lungs. Smoking, of course, is bad for them as well. There needs to be a lot more research done on vaping (for e-cigs too), but most researchers tend to agree that both marijuana and smoking are bad for the respiratory system.

Q: How do we debunk the myths associated with marijuana while at the same time promote responsibility and acknowledge that marijuana has benefits?

A: It depends upon what myths you are asking about. Some myths state that marijuana is comparable to heroin and causes people to instantly go crazy and attack people. Other myths report that marijuana is not addictive and doesn’t cause physical dependence. All of those aforementioned myths are wrong.

I’m wary of a person, company or institution that wants to promote “responsible marijuana use.” Does anyone talk about responsible tobacco use? I know that there are lots of PSA’s and programs that promote responsible alcohol use, but that is an attempt to address the widespread binge drinking culture that is rampant among younger people and that also leads to drunk driving. I think that the idea of promoting responsible marijuana use suggests that many people use it irresponsibly or even dangerously.

Q: Why is recreational use of marijuana considered abuse?

A: Partly because “recreational use” has a wide range of definitions, depending upon who is using the term. Some people define recreational use as once every two weeks. Another person may define it as smoking after dinner every day at 6 pm. A third may say that they recreationally smoke whenever they are not working.

Q: How long does marijuana will stay in someone’s system?

A: If you are asking about how long will marijuana metabolites appear in someone’s urine sample, it depends upon how long someone has been using it, how strong their marijuana was, how often they smoked and their individual physiology. That answer is most likely anywhere from 2 to 90 days.

Something a little more daunting…THC attaches to fat in the body. White blood cells are made of fat. The neuron walls in the brain are also made of fat. It can take FAR longer for the THC that has attached to fat, especially in the neurons, to leave the body. It won’t be detected in a urine screen, but it will affect the body.

Q: Can nanogram levels go up and down without new use?

A: Only down. The half-life of marijuana is about a week in most people, but because of our different physiologies and variation within the species, it can probably range from 2 to 10 days.

If you test someone and her nanogram levels went up from a previous test, she used. Unequivocally.

Q: It is clear that Americans continue to be uninformed as to the real risks to our children and our society that will increase as we continue to legalize marijuana as both medicine and recreational use. As mental health professionals, we need to decide what we are going to do to educate the public in our communities, and our political leaders, to keep this from continuing. Positions statements are not enough – we must carry the message to the public or accept the consequences that we know will only get worse. Are we going to take any meaningful action?

A: Kevin Sabet and SAM are doing an excellent job about presenting information about marijuana and providing policy suggestions.

These are fascinating and scary times: some states have made marijuana completely legal, others have allowed for medical use only, a few have decriminalized it , while many other states continue to make the use and possession of marijuana a criminal offense. Over the next several years, we will be able to collect and observe how the use and abuse of marijuana has been affected by the varying policies. We will also see if there are real tax benefits, or if marijuana is revenue negative. We will see if marijuana legalization leads to less arrests, more arrests or similar rates of arrest (you might be wondering why legalization would lead to more arrests – well, there may be more driving while under the influence and we might see an increase in use among people under 21, which is still illegal). We will also see if it does anything to address the fact that minorities get disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession.

I am on the record as being in favor of decriminalization and against both legalization and criminalization. I have suggested to the powers that be in several states that they should not change their policies for the next few years and just watch what happens in different states. I am hopeful that we will have a sound grasp of these issues by 2020.

Q: Does the move of marijuana from schedule I to schedule II impact the international drug treaties which in my opinion will always be a reason for federal government to continue to keep marijuana illegal at that, the federal level?

A: Just to be clear, marijuana is still a DEA schedule I drug. It is there along with heroin and MDMA (ecstasy). Schedule I drugs are considered highly addictive and without any medical value. I have suggested that marijuana should be moved to schedule II in order to allow for true medical research so that we can determine if marijuana is helpful for people with cancer, AIDS, glaucoma and/or serious chronic pain.

I would guess that it would have little to no impact on our international drug policy. Take that last sentence with a grain of salt though, as that is not an area of my expertise.

Q: What would be a good resource to monitor Colorado’s impact of legal marijuana use?

A: SAM will provide balanced data, but their opinions will probably skew against legalization. The CATO institute is a libertarian think tank serves as an interesting counterpoint. I also believe that the New York Times will continue to do an excellent job reporting on this issue. While it is my newspaper of record, I disagree with the editorial board’s pro-legalization stance.