Stevenson teens rally against 'ridiculous' pot industry ads
Part 1 of 2
By Marie Wilson
The evidence of Vrushali Thakkar's concern is abundant the moment she logs onto social media.
The ads for marijuana -- in the form of catchy quizzes -- are beyond prevalent, the Stevenson High School senior says.
"You're only allowed to smoke weed if you can pass this quiz. Weed BuzzFeed. We know how often you smoke weed. This birthday cake with a pot plant. What's your pothead percentage? What strain of weed are you?," she says, reading just a few of the quizzes that pop up from a simple search.
"They're all the same," she says. "'Do you actually know what weed looks like?' Here's one that's actually against it: '23 pictures that show the true danger of smoking weed.' That's our first one out of 15. It's ridiculous."
That's why she and fellow members of the Catalyst club at Stevenson in Lincolnshire are working to discourage their peers from using pot, even as the drug becomes legal for recreational use Jan. 1 by those 21 and older.
It's why she and Carson Ezell, a Stevenson junior from Buffalo Grove who leads the club's anti-marijuana committee, plan to petition communities to prohibit shops that would sell the drug for recreational use. And it's why they're distributing research they say proves marijuana's addictive potential and health risks -- especially for teens with still-developing brains.
Supporters of the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act have cautioned marijuana use already is occurring across age groups and said a regulated market -- including sellers who verify customers' ages -- would decrease teens' ability to buy the drug and increase public health and safety.
In pushing for legalization, state Sen. Heather Steans and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, both Chicago Democrats, cited a Colorado health department report that found stable adolescent marijuana use before and after adult-use legalization. The report, called "Monitoring Health Concerns Related to Marijuana in Colorado: 2016," found "past-month marijuana use has not changed since legalization either in terms of the number of people using or the frequency of use among users."
With this in mind, Cassidy said prevention programs should be fact-based, trusting the intelligence of teens to understand why marijuana use at their age is not legal or safe.
"We can talk to them about frontal lobe development and neuro-receptors and addiction pathways and equip them to make good decisions," Cassidy said. "And, frankly, we've seen that work in other categories. That's why teen smoking is down. That's why they don't litter. That's why they think drunken driving is the dumbest thing in the world."
While data from the 2018 Illinois Youth Survey show the majority of teens do not use marijuana -- 26% of high school seniors across the suburban region said they had used the drug within the past 30 days and 35% within the past year -- perception can be as important as fact, teen pot opponents say.
Thakkar said she fears the perception that marijuana is not dangerous. She said some students believe it's safe to use before driving and many believe it is not addictive, despite research that proves it can be.
"Do you not know how adverse this is for high schoolers using it?" the Vernon Hills resident said. "It's annoying."
Marijuana has a higher likelihood of becoming addictive for people who start using it younger, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health. The agencies cite studies that found 17% of people who use marijuana as teens eventually become dependent on it, compared with 9% of people who begin using as adults.
Despite those stats, teens don't seem to know the risks, Thakkar says.
In Lake County, for example, high school seniors were split nearly evenly among four response options on the 2018 Illinois Youth Survey when asked how wrong it is for people their age to use pot. Twenty-five percent said it's not wrong at all; 29% said it's a little wrong; 21% said it's wrong; and 25% said it's very wrong.
Packaging and marketing could contribute to the belief marijuana is safe and just for fun, Thakkar said, especially "if it's dressed like alien rock candy or some kind of Girl Scout cookie."
In other states where recreational dispensaries are open, it is -- at least as far as creative naming goes. A look at the menu of one randomly selected shop in Colorado shows products called "Cosmic Railway," "Gelato 41, "Glass Slipper," or "Jewish Apple Cake."
Still, Ezell said he predicts the effects of marijuana legalization and sales will be more pronounced for students who grow up after the drug's illegal days in Illinois.
"They're going to have a much lower perception of risk than we do," he said.
Keeping pot shops out of their hometowns is another focus of Catalyst club members, who recently attended a Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America conference in Texas for a refresher course on best practices in the prevention playbook.
"What we're hoping to do," Ezell said, "is kind of prevent the commercialization aspect of marijuana from reaching our communities by keeping recreational dispensaries out."