Ed Shemelya

Ed Shemelya, a 30-year Kentucky State Police veteran who is now the director of the National Marijuana Initiative, a drug control effort, speaks at Think Again: A Conference Addressing Today's Marijuana, a one-day event organized by the local chapter of Kentucky Allies for Substance Abuse Prevention that took place at the T.J. Health Pavilion Community Center on Thursday. The teen in the photo projected beside him is his cousin's son, who nearly died from a marijuana overdose.

GLASGOW – One of the primary messages at a one-day conference in Glasgow addressing “today's marijuana,” is that the drug is not the same as it was decades ago.

Through genetic studies and other sophisticated advancements, the weed's drugging effect is more potent, and it is definitely not the benign, relatively safe substance many think it is, multiple speakers said.

One of the other key points was that a ton of misinformation and flat-out lies are floating around that are perpetuating the ideas that marijuana is not harmful and that legalizing is helpful.

Of the 56 who attended the “Think Again” conference, close to half were law enforcement officials, and others ranged from health educators to youth service and family resource center coordinators. Besides a handful of people from the Glasgow Police Department and Barren River Drug Task Force, six Kentucky State Police posts were represented. People came from at least five of the Barren River Area Development District counties, and the Barren River and Green River districts health departments attended, as well as people from Webster, Bullitt, Jessamine and Pulaski counties.

When the Daily Times caught up during the lunch break with Marilyn Sink, project director for Kentucky Allies for Substance Abuse Prevention, the area chapter of which hosted the one-day conference at the T.J. Health Pavilion Community Center, she said the turnout of approximately 56 people across a range of disciplines was excellent.

“I think the speakers have been great, and I hope people are learning a lot,” she said.

Her primary takeaway from the morning sessions regarding what needs to happen here was that people need to come together better on this issue.

“I think just we need to talk to one another. I think a lot of times, we, or our professions, we kind of keep things to ourselves, and I think we need to talk to our neighbors and let them know what's really going on in some of these communities,” Sink said.

She and Monte Stiles, a former federal and state prosecutor in Idaho who supervised the Organized Crime/Drug Enforcement Task Force there and the final speaker for the conference, she said, had actually just returned from speaking with eighth-graders at Glasgow Middle School about making positive choices, Sink said.

“That was a win,” she said.

Lt. Jimmy Phelps, who serves as public information officer for the Glasgow Police Department, said the first speaker, Sgt. Jim Gerhardt, discussed the effects of marijuana legalization in Colorado on law enforcement and the communities. Phelps said one of his takeaways from Gerhardt's comments was that those who voted to pass laws for recreational and medical use were told that the taxes would benefit the community, go to schools, things of that nature, but very few of those tax dollars had gone for that purpose.

“It was supposed to free up law enforcement to work on 'more serious crimes,'” Phelps said, “but most of your crimes are drug related, so just because you're legalizing marijuana, it doesn't mean it's going to have less of an effect by stopping crime. If it's legalized, more people are going to have access to it.”

Shirley Morgan, an anti-marijuana community activist from Oregon, emphasized getting residents involved in working together to combat the issues that arise, including multimillion-dollar grow houses in rural communities that affect their neighbors in multiple ways.

Debbie Romance, and Melissa Poynter, coordinators at the Family Resource and Youth Service Centers for a total of four Hart County schools, Wilma Bunnell, coordinator of the Caverna FRYSC, and Alex Hancock, the tobacco program coordinator and a health educator at Barren River District Health Department had joined each other at one table.

Romance said she had learned a lot already at that point.

“A lot of students, because of the legalization in some states, think that marijuana is safe, it's not problematic, so I hope to take away today information to take back to my schools to counter that attitude,” she said.

Poynter said she had that same goal.

“I've learned a lot of the different things that can happen because of marijuana, because it's been legalized, how crime has spiked, emergency room visits, all different types of things, not just simply smoking marijuana causing problems but it affects a lot of other things,” she said.

She said a lot of her kids think smoking pot is no big deal, but she wants them to understand it's not OK, even it were to be legalized.

Bunnell said she wished more legislators had been at the conference to learn about it and see the consequences legalization could have on their children and their futures.

Hancock said she had learned a lot about how THC, the primary mind-altering component of marijuana, is being used in electronic cigarettes that are available all over the country. The THC is in a more concentrated amount in those e-cigs, the sales of which are on the rise. This is among the tidbits of information she and other BRDHD educators will use in their programs with schools and elsewhere in the communities around the district.

Brenda Chaney, the Youth Service Center coordinator for Barren County high and middle schools, said the conference had been a real eye-opener for her about what has happened in other states and was likely to happen here if legalization occurred.

She said she would share the information she was gathering with the BCHS Students Against Destructive Decisions for them to use with their efforts.

Darren Allen, a detective who has been with KSP for 20 years and with the Special Operations Cannabis Suppression Branch since 2011, said Morgan demonstrated that, “You'd better not mess with little old ladies, because they are a very powerful component in American society.”

“She's resilient, she doesn't quit, she keeps coming back, and she [hopefully will] motivate some people here today that we really are all citizens and we need to take a stand,” he said. “They're trying to get it here, and if we don't stand up and be unified and bring out all the negatives ….”

Morgan had reminded the crowd, hardly any of whom raised their hands when she first asked who all were citizens, that that is their first role, not just the ones they have in their jobs.

He said the pro-marijuana jobs have done a good job marketing their position.

“A lot of it's based on lies, but they've done a good job marketing that, so it's up to us to educate the folks,” Allen said. “Yeah, it will bring in some revenue, but at what cost?”

While there may be some useful medical components that can be derived from the plant, “Nothing medically can be positive about smoking or inhaling anything,” he said.

The American Cancer Society, American Medical Association and American Pediatrics Association all say marijuana is no good. Those are the experts, the people whose opinions should be trusted, not the drug's dealers who just want to profit from addiction, he said.

Other than perhaps more networking among agencies like what was occurring at the conference, the most important thing that needs to happen here is education to counter all the misinformation from the proponents.

“We need to do more about educating our children,” he said.

Ed Shemelya, director for the National Marijuana Initiative, spoke in the afternoon. A 30-year KSP veteran, he emphasized that people need to be aware of the marijuana-legalization legislation proposed for the 2017 Kentucky General Assembly and keep on top of its progress.

Every state says it's going to do a better job of regulating it than the ones before it.

“They haven't,” he said. “We think we're going to be different …. There is no controls with the bill that [has been] filed.”

Shemelya said the potency of what is being sold legally in Colorado is two to three times greater than what is normally available in Kentucky.

He showed a photo of teen in a hospital with breathing tubes and such; it was his cousin's son, Will, who had overdosed in Kentucky with marijuana cookies purchased from Colorado and then a hit off the heated, vaporized version of the drug. He said he talked with the paramedics who took him to the hospital and learned that Will had stopped breathing and was already starting to turn blue around his mouth when they got to him. THC in a massive quantity was the only drug found in his system, Shemelya said.

“This is an everyday occurrence in Denver,” he said, adding that a hospital there was seeing three to four “kids” a day like this. … This is what we're really fighting for – your children and your grandchildren, my children and grandchildren, the future of the commonwealth. … There's no excuse for us not banding together and fighting this [bill] in January.”


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