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Gatepost Interview: Joy LaGrutta, Coordinator of Alcohol and Drug Education

By Jesse Sannicandro

What is your educational background and work history?

I received my bachelor’s degree from St. Michael’s College in Vermont and my M.Ed. in adolescent risk and prevention from Harvard University. ... Before coming to FSU, I spent a few years as the alcohol and drug prevention specialist at Wentworth Institute in Boston.

What drew you to the field of substance abuse prevention?

After I finished my undergrad, I did a year of AmeriCorps service ... I was stationed at a youth service shelter for teens, and I worked with a lot of kids who were in foster care and in the custody of the state. A lot of them had substance abuse issues. It was my first job, and I had a lot of idealism and energy at the time – I was right out of college, and it really shaped the jobs that I wanted to get after that.

What, in particular, is your area of expertise?

In terms of substance abuse, I think that my expertise is really in marijuana. I’ve spent a lot of time learning about a lot of the new marijuana products, the laws changing in Massachusetts and how marijuana affects teenagers, in particular.

What effects do you think the new Massachusetts law could have?

I’ve looked a lot at the other states that have passed recreational marijuana laws – Colorado,

Washington and Oregon, in particular. If you look at what has happened in those states, I think it’s a fairly good measure to predict what it might look like here in Massachusetts. I think the biggest thing to be concerned about is that marijuana does have a different impact on young people, yet young people are the ones who seek it out the most. So, as it becomes recreationally legal in our state, I think what we’ll find is the people who want to use it are younger people.

Do you think there could be any positive effects?

I am interested in the research. Up until recently, marijuana has been unable to really be researched because the federal government has had a pretty tight hold on allowing doctors and researchers to have access to the actual product to do research to find out if, perhaps, there are any medical benefits. There’s some preliminary data right now to show that there could be some benefits for some debilitating diseases, like M.S. and epilepsy in children. ... I’m certainly open to learning about whether or not there are any other benefits.

Can you tell me about the clinical research studies to which you have contributed?

One study I worked on we looked at people in treatment for alcohol, and whether or not the treatment that you get through your insurance, which is typically a very short amount of treatment, like four days, what would happen if we offered people longer treatment. So, for example, if you have a drug or alcohol problem and you come through your insurance ... if you were to provide them with say, 20 days of treatment, would they have a higher chance of sobriety? Another study I worked on, which is more relevant to what I’m doing right now, was a project at the University of Rhode Island where we were looking at college students who were brought in through the judicial system for alcohol incidents – typically that involved binge-drinking, hazing, some sort of violation of the code of conduct around alcohol, and looking at whether it was more beneficial for the student, with better outcome data, if

instead of just doing a quick intervention and then sending them on their way, if it made more sense to stick with that student for two years. So, you would meet with them periodically and then also, check in with them on the phone. What we found was the students who you did stick with longer had a lot of signs that the intervention actually helped them. ... The insurance doesn’t cover a lot and it’s just a lot more money, usually, to provide someone with thorough care.

What do you look forward to accomplishing at FSU?

I look forward to genuinely helping students the most. Part of my role here is to work individually with students who get sanctions for violating campus alcohol and drug policies. I hope to have open and honest conversations with students about alcohol and drugs. I hope students see me as someone they can talk to, and someone who wants to help them succeed and graduate. I recognize that experimentation can be a normal part of growing up. But I also know that alcohol and drugs can really impact your academic success and your motivation when you’re in college. ... No matter what you might have gotten a sanction for – you can always turn it around if you want to. Another part of my role here is education and prevention across the campus. I look forward to participating in a variety of wellness programming that promotes health and resilience to the entire student body. The best way to prevent drug and alcohol abuse is to teach and promote grit and resilience – traits like perseverance, optimism,

confidence, endurance and leadership. If you can get students exposed to programs that encourage these traits, the hope is that they will have the skills necessary to make good choices far beyond their four years of college. It seems like there is a lot of that type of programing already happening at FSU. I am excited to be a part of it and contribute.

What advice would you give to students?

I was reading an article the other day that made mention to the fact that the average college student spends over five hours a day looking at their phone. Five hours a day. I thought, “Wow – that is a lot of time to be looking at a tiny screen.” My advice to college students is to spend more time face-to-face and less time on a screen. Everything in life is about relationships and feeling connected to other people. These connections can be with friends, family, classmates, professors – there is such a large vibrant community here on this campus.

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