Chicago’s acting health commissioner concerned pot use by young will surge after legalization

Dr. Allison Arwady also wants to focus on reducing the nine-year gap in life expectancy between black and white Chicagoans.

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Dr. Allison Arwady

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health is interviewed by reporter Fran Spielman Friday, Nov. 8, 2019.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Friday she’s concerned about a surge in marijuana use among young people when recreational weed becomes legal on Jan. 1 — and the time to start preparing for it is now.

“All substances — marijuana included — have major impacts on brains that are still developing. And brains are still developing up until ... the age of 25,” Arwady said.

“Our big focus, as it’s been for tobacco, is going to be on youth and making sure that kids, their families, their teachers, their pediatricians understand some of the risks.”

Arwady said she was on a call with the Chicago Public Schools this week about education campaigns and school services that must be put in place in case there’s a surge of CPS students showing up at school high — or, even worse, driving after smoking or ingesting marijuana products.

The acting health commissioner noted young people are well aware of the dangers of drinking and driving, but they need to be educated about the fact that marijuana and driving don’t mix, either.

“For tobacco, we have done ... lunchroom takeovers, where you come into a high school lunchroom. It’s not officials from the Health Department coming. You’re identifying youth who want to be health advocates within schools who can talk about some of the concerns related to marijuana,” the acting commissioner said.

Arwady said she is especially concerned about marijuana products that can be eaten — not smoked. They’re more potent, and the market for those products is younger.

“If you think about edibles being in gummy candies or brownies, those are things that can be very attractive to young children. ... We’re interested in ways to use legal methods, enforcement methods and other methods — not just education — to make sure that, as much as possible, these products are not near young children,” she said.

“It’s gonna be a lift. ... It’s a new approach. This is a big industry with money behind it,” Arwady said. “But we’ve done this well in the tobacco space in Chicago. We were down to 6 percent of our teenagers cigarette smoking. Now this increase in vaping is also part of this conversation.”

In the weeks and months leading up to Jan. 1, Arwady said CPS has done “a lot of work thinking about screening and how to refer kids to treatment if there are issues” with recreational marijuana.

The Department of Public Health is busy putting “systems in place to monitor any health effects” by adding questions to its surveys and monitoring data from people who come in through emergency rooms.

Still, the acting commissioner said she’s worried about the impact.

“I’m concerned that we’re gonna see a lot of use of it, potentially in youth. I want to make sure also that the things that we’ve put in place around smoke-free workplaces around tobacco — I want to see those in place around marijuana use. I want to limit potential harm,” she said.

In another area, Arwady said the Health Department’s “primary focus” is on reducing the nine-year life expectancy gap between black and white Chicagoans.

To combat infant mortality, one of the five driving forces behind that gap, the city plans to begin a pilot program to have a home nurse visit the homes of inner-city mothers three weeks after they give birth.

“Ninety-four percent of families who have a new baby have ... some need in those first few weeks. [The goal] is connecting them to those other resources,” she said.

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