Mellissa Fochesato, left, director of community health promotion at Mid Coast Hospital, and Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry. The hospital is receiving new funding for public awareness about the dangers of marijuana use among minors, something Fochesato and law enforcement leaders such as Merry say is badly needed. Courtesy / Melissa Fochesato

BRUNSWICK — Data on the state level is showing a spike in marijuana use among minors in Sagadahoc County, including an increase in the number of kids younger than 13 admitting to trying it for the first time.

“Our kids really got this message that marijuana isn’t dangerous at all,” said Melissa Fochesato, director of community health promotion at Mid Coast Hospital, noting the message comes in part from the legalization of marijuana usage for adults.

Fochesato said the survey data was used to back a request for more federal funding to produce stronger public education to combat the problem, and earlier this month, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, announced on Dec. 16 that the hospital would be receiving as much as $600,000 in new funding from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Fochesato said the hospital will receive $125,000 per year for the next five years. This year’s allotment, according to a statement from both senators, is part of $900,000 being distributed to eight communities, counties and hospitals statewide.

The 2019 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, produced every other year by the state department of Health and Human Services, asks students in grades 6-12 about their use of substances such as tobacco, alcohol and marijuana. The 2019 survey, which breaks results down by county, covered 661 middle schoolers and 1,050 high schoolers in Sagadahoc County and compared results with the 2017 survey, which covered 661 middle schoolers and 1,036 high school students.

The survey showed marijuana use is on the rise in Sagadahoc County. The percentage that reported trying it before age 11 went up from 12.2% in 2017 to 20.4% in 2019. The number of middle schoolers who admitted they smoke pot went up from 8.6% in 2017 to 10.5% in 2019. At the high school level, 35.1% of students surveyed in 2019 said they’d tried marijuana at least once, up from 32.7% in 2017.

Of those responding, 22.6% said in 2019 that they’d tried it for the first time before age 13. That number is up from 19.3% reported in 2017.

Fochesato said she believes that legalizing marijuana use for adults in Maine makes it even more important to drill home the message to local youth that using marijuana is still not just illegal, but dangerous to minors. Regarding awareness of the danger, Fochesato said, “The risk of harm with marijuana, still a little gray.”

The federal funding, Fochesato said, will go toward traditional media campaigning, advertising and social media campaigns. She said the money will also help pay for staff to engage in community outreach, working with schools, other health care providers and law enforcement.

Bath Police Chief Michael Field particularly noted the hospital’s Student Intervention and Reintegration Program (SIRP), an educational program for high school students. Field said youthful offenders who have used drugs or alcohol take part in group discussions and therapy sessions that help educate teenagers about the risks of substance abuse. Field said he has worked for years with the hospital on projects such as SIRP.

“This grant just continues the work they’ve been doing over the years,” he said.

Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry said his department has also worked with the hospital’s SIRP program and other initiatives for the past 10 years.

“It’s a pretty good intervention,” he said. “It’s based on education and decision making.”

Merry said he hopes the new funding will help the community overall prevent younger people from using marijuana.

“I think there’s this kind of permissive attitude in our community,” he said. “Let’s just make sure it’s used sensibly and safely.”

Comments are not available on this story.