Q&A: A Young Adult Perspective on Substance Use Prevention

Q&A: Kate Nugent (Executive Director, Winooski Partnership for Prevention) & Lily Deware (UVM Student, Class of 2021)
A young adult perspective on substance use prevention & preventing underage Cannabis use

Kate: When you started as an intern with us this year, you said that you were concerned about how substance use among young adults, especially in a higher education setting, has become more normalized. Several towns and cities in Vermont are voting on March 2 about whether to allow retail Cannabis. What do you think should be in place before Cannabis (what we are now calling Marijuana) is allowed to be sold in stores?

Lily: Universities could start by working with establishments that sell products, supporting the enforcement of age regulations, and by focusing on members of this younger generation through implementing prevention programs informing this population of the severity and risks of underage substance use. Things like creating informational pamphlets, videos, and articles for underaged populations about the risks and harmful effects of substance use would be extremely beneficial.

Kate: How do you think you might be able to make a difference as a college senior?

Lily: Most people may assume that because I am over the legal age, this matter does not affect me. Although I am no longer a minor, I am still close in age to many of the underaged people affected by substance use and could relate to them on levels that others may not be able to. I, like many, was made aware that “drinking and drugs were bad,” but exposure to the information detailing the actual effects using substances has on vulnerable, developing brains was never available. In these times it is hard to have personal connections, but sharing voices like mine in the community [of peers], even if not in person, could only have positive outcomes.

Kate: How did you learn about the health impacts of substance use?

Lily: [I became aware through my studies as] a psychology student the effects that substance use can have on a person's brain, and how severe these effects can be on a young, developing brain. These facts alone have molded my personal choice to avoid substance use, but most people my age don’t have the chance to learn these in the same way. Substances such as Cannabis have the potential to negatively change the structure and efficiency of a developing person’s brain, as well as impair their cognitive development. The little education available to younger populations about the harmful effects of substance use seems to be overshadowed by the current rise [in use and ads] in social media and television/movies. For example, although I, like many, enjoyed watching the television show Gossip Girl, it revolves almost entirely on middle and high school parties in which underage drinking is prevalent - the characters’ use seemed to glamorize drinking and using substances throughout the series.

Kate: You mentioned social media. Could you say more about how you feel social media may be influencing the behaviors of youth and young adults, especially in regards to substance use?

Lily: Social media has taken today’s world by storm; younger people are constantly comparing themselves to others online. Although these comparisons can be along the lines of, “I wish my hair looked like this girl’s,” posts with substances are not uninvited and it is very easy for an underage person to see these images and the popularity of the people in them and assume that because the people in the images are cool, what they are doing is cool as well. Along with this, it seems as though every movie with high school or college aged people has at least one party scene displaying a variety of underage substance use. Through this internship, I’ve seen that the Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported that 27% of Vermont high school students frequently use marijuana, 15% report monthly binge drinking, and 7% of the students smoke cigarettes monthly. I think that youth are getting the wrong impression from social media that what is “realistic” is exaggerated substance use; substance use on social media has created expectations and standards in the minds of younger populations of what high school and college-aged people are doing. This ultimately further normalizes underage substance use.

Kate: Thanks for talking with me today about your experiences and what you’ve learned. Is there anything else you’d like to share before we wrap up?

Lily: If information on the negative effects substances can have on developing minds (under 21) was more readily available and dispensaries and establishments that produce these types of products aided in making sure only those 21+ were able to buy and use them, the potential of prefrontal cortical damage and issues later in life would be reduced for these young consumers. The minimum purchase age for alcohol and tobacco in Vermont is 21. If retailers and parents also helped this law be followed by youth and young adults, we could reduce the impact of underage substance use on the individuals and communities they live and study in.