GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Marijuana use among adolescents has been a concern for many decades, but never more so than since the advent of Colorado's medical marijuana industry in recent years, according to a panel of speakers at a community forum Tuesday night.
Debbie Wilde, executive director of YouthZone, which deals with at-risk youth from Aspen to Parachute, said 10 percent of their youth clients surveyed report using marijuana at least once a month.
That's 50 percent higher than for youth across the United States. Locally, the number of youth using marijuana daily has increased 50 percent in recent years, she said.
And, by and large, she said they admit getting the drug from medical marijuana patients.
"Medical marijuana has increased access for youth, and created a perception that it's OK," Wilde said.
The informational forum on medical marijuana and its impact on youth was sponsored by YouthZone, local health and business organizations and the Roaring Fork School District.
More than 200 people, including several parents who brought their children to hear the discussion, packed the Glenwood Springs Community Center meeting room.
In addition to representatives from YouthZone and substance abuse programs, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers was invited to speak.
Suthers offered harsh words for the state's medical marijuana policies, which he believes has made the drug more accessible to youth.
"In my opinion, the medical marijuana regime in Colorado is nothing more than a state-sanctioned fraud on the part of several thousand patients and a few dozen doctors, in violation of federal law," he said.
Of the roughly 130,000 authorized medical marijuana patients currently in Colorado, he said the vast majority are males in their 20s and 30s.
"Folks, that is precisely the demographic profile of recreational drug users in the state," Suthers said.
"I'm tempted to support legalization in an effort to get away from the government hypocrisy," he said. "But I won't do that ... because it would only increase the perception that there is no risk with this drug."
Dr. Paul Salmen, a Glenwood Springs family physician and founder of the Youth Recovery Center at Valley View Hospital, said marijuana affects teens differently than adults.
"I'm not here to condemn medical marijuana as an evil substance," Salmen said.
But, "marijuana in the brain of a teenager is a very different drug," he said, noting that it affects the reward center of the brain at a time when the brain is still in a very formative stage.
"Teenagers are not using marijuana for chronic pain or for cancer, they're using it for pleasure," Salmen said.
Shelley Evans, who founded the Red Mountain Adolescent and Family Center in Glenwood Springs four years ago, said 100 percent of the program's youth clients admit to marijuana use.
"Alcohol is still a problem among youth, but what we're seeing is they're drinking on the weekends but they're smoking marijuana on a daily basis," Evans said. One-fourth of the young people in the program also have parents who are medical marijuana patients, she said.
Glenwood Springs Police Chief Terry Wilson said marijuana arrests involving juveniles rose from 19 in 2008, before medical marijuana became prominent locally, to 48 last year and 31 through October this year.
Just in the last year, state and local regulations were put in place to enact controls on the medical marijuana industry, including safeguards to try to keep the drug out of the hands of teenagers and others not authorized to use it. No representatives from local dispensaries or industry associations spoke at the Glenwood Springs forum.