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Young Adult Council aims to reduce youth marijuana use

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Members of the Young Adult Council, from left, Jasmin Contreras, Vanessa Alvarez and President Paulina Alvarez, are working to help prevent marijuana use among Roswell’s youth. (Juno Ogle Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Working from proven models for substance abuse prevention, a team of young adults and behavioral experts want to reduce youth marijuana use in Roswell.

In 2019, La Casa Behavioral Health, 110 E. Mescalero Road, and Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell were awarded a five-year, $300,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with the goal of reducing substance abuse in Chaves County through the formation of a Young Adult Council.

The pandemic prevented much public work from being done, however. They have met only about four times, but the council members are now ready to get started on their goals. The Young Adult Council made its public debut at the Aug. 12 Roswell City Council meeting with three members speaking during a public hearing on the city’s new cannabis regulations.

“It’s been a rush, but hopefully, now that we had the public hearing we can slow down and we can begin recruiting members and just working more on improving the community,” said Paulina Alvarez, president of the Young Adult Council.

Paulina, her sister Vanessa and Jasmin Contreras have worked with their sponsors at La Casa, Prevention Coordinators Kim Rutley and Teresa Nicholson, since last year. Their early projects can be seen around town on billboards and on advertisements on social media site Snapchat with the slogan “What the fact.” They also have a website at www.giveafact.org.

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All of the young women are out of high school — Paulina and Jasmin are attending ENMU-R and Vanessa works at a job — but they realize teenagers are the age group they need to focus their efforts with.

They know it could be difficult, though.

“It’s not popular to be part of a group that’s against something so popular amongst teens,” Paulina said.

The three women said they have never used marijuana themselves, nor had they ever been offered any while at Roswell High School. But they saw its effects. Both Jasmine and Paulina said between their freshman year and graduation, the size of their classes shrank significantly as students failed or dropped out.

They weren’t aware of just how prevalent marijuana use is among the state’s youth, though, until joining the Young Adult Council.

New Mexico has the highest rate of youth reporting current marijuana use, according to the 2019 New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey.

The survey of middle- and high-school students is conducted in the fall of odd-numbered years and is used to assess behaviors concerning a variety of health-related subjects such as alcohol and drug use, violence, sexual activity, physical activity and nutrition. It is part of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the 2019 state survey, 28.4% of New Mexico ninth through 12th graders reported using marijuana in the previous 30 days. Chaves County was close to that, at 26.7%. The national rate in 2019 was 21.7%.

To the question if they had ever used marijuana, 47.5% of New Mexico high-schoolers said yes, as did 43.7% in Chaves County. Nationally, 36.8% said yes.

About 14% in the state and Chaves County said they had used marijuana before the age of 13 compared to 5.6% nationally. 

“I felt like that made me more motivated to start this group and recruit because we really need to take care of our kids,” Paulina said.

The legalization of recreational marijuana is of great concern to the Young Adult Council and La Casa.

“Youth use is an unfortunate consequence of adult use,” La Casa’s Rutley said at the Aug. 12 Roswell City Council’s public hearing on its cannabis regulations. She cited an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found marijuana use by a parent was associated with increased risk of marijuana use by adolescent and young-adult offspring.

“Environment is what influences you the most,” Rutley said in an interview with the Roswell Daily Record.

“Marijuana is taking the same exact course as tobacco over time, and the strategies that we used to reduce tobacco use among youth and young adults are the same strategies that can be employed here,” Rutley said.

She cited the campaign for the Roswell Smoke Free Air Act in the early 2000s and a campaign discouraging adults from providing alcohol to minors as making a difference in the use of those substances by local youth.

A youth focus group on marijuana suggested they think marijuana does not pose any risks, Rutley said. Among the beliefs they expressed was that if it was legal, it must not be harmful; that marijuana is not addictive; and that it helps relieve anxiety.

Rutley said the focus group — which consisted of a dozen youth that included those who had never used marijuana, those who had experimented and regular users — also gave insight into how to get the message across that those beliefs are all myths.

“They were very bright and they said to us ‘There’s so much information out there. Don’t tell us what do, don’t try to convince us, just tell us the facts.’

“Thus was born Give a Fact,” she said.

That message is being delivered where teens are most likely to see them, from billboards near schools to ads on social media.

The No. 1 platform for the target age group is Snapchat, Rutley and the Young Adult Council members said, so animated ads with messages — such as colleges can deny admission because of marijuana use or that driving high doubles the chance of wrecking — are placed there.

One thing that concerns the council members is the possible influence of cannabis businesses close to schools and their homes. The city’s regulations say that such businesses can locate no closer than 300 feet from a school or residential area, but the women advocated to the city council to change that to at least 1,000 feet. The 300-foot rule was set in state statute, however, and the city could not change it.

The women said they were surprised at how close that would allow a cannabis business to a school, such as Roswell High. They measured the distance from the northeast end of the parking lot near the cafeteria.

“It’s literally a one-minute walk,” Paulina said. “It’s just crazy how close it was. It was so surprising that it would be so accessible to teenagers.”

They’re also concerned about the zoning regulations allowing cannabis businesses in the city’s C2, or Community Commercial, Zone. It is located throughout the city along major streets, predominantly Main Street to the Roswell Air Center and Southeast Main.

The portion of that zone in south Roswell is especially of concern, Paulina said.

“That whole C2 is mainly populated by minorities. I feel like that’s my neighborhood, that’s where I live,” she said.

“I feel like we’re cut so short out of the things that the north is able to value and have the privilege of doing, so I just want to make sure that our voices are heard. I think especially me being from down there (south Roswell) and being a Hispanic minority, I just want to have a big voice and be out there and speak for our side of the community,” she said.

She wants to make that voice bigger with more members for the Young Adult Council, so the group will focus on recruitment. They plan to reach out to Roswell’s youth through visits at the high schools, setting up tables in the cafeterias and gym, places where students usually gather, to talk to them as peers or role models about the facts about marijuana use.

They also hope to recruit more young adults as well. With a larger membership, the council can do some fundraising to conduct events as another way to combat drug use, Paulina said.

“We’re hoping we can raise money, have dances, we can have events with the water slides and things like that so we can get the youth doing something other than turning to drugs out of boredom. I feel like that’s a big factor, that’s why they use,” she said.

“We want to get people out there and doing things other than drugs in school,” she said.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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