Measuring Pot Use in Schools

February 12, 2015

Even after a full year of being able to purchase recreational marijuana – questions still remain for the state of Colorado. Is its use dangerous, should there be tighter labeling on pot edibles – and is its easy access impacting middle and high school students? Recent data compiled by the Department of Education and Rocky Mountain PBS I-News show incidents of student drug use last year hitting a ten-year high, but state officials don’t have a clear picture if the two are related.

Eighteen year-old Mercedes Wisenbaugh is a senior at Miami Yoder high school in eastern El Paso County. Since pot became legal – and shops opened – she said she definitely noticed more of her peers using marijuana.

“They’re not ashamed or ashamed to say I smoke marijuana, or I use edibles,” said Wisenbaugh.  

While the I-News data does show an increase drug use – especially middle schools – it’s only anecdotal – and the uptick cannot entirely be attributed to pot. That’s because schools lump marijuana into the same category as illicit drugs such as cocaine, prescription drugs and ecstasy.   

“It has been proven to be a challenge,” said Representative Polly Lawrence [R-Roxborough Park].  “Part of it is schools don’t want to be turned into law enforcement agencies. “

That’s a concern Colorado Association of School Boards has heard. Some school districts are also weary of state mandates.

“Lets remember school districts have been cut a billion dollars over the last four years,” said association deputy executive Jane Urschel.  “And it may not seem like reporting is expensive, but the more reporting you have to do, the more staff time you have to devote to it.”

But Urschel still thinks school districts will ultimately want to track the impact that marijuana is having on their students.

“People are seeing more behaviors that are not legal, that students should not be engaged in, so I think everybody wants to look at that issue.”

Including Mike Van Dyke with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. He also chairs the retail marijuana public health advisory panel and is a toxicologist.

“We’ve been trying to get people to separate marijuana from that bucket of illicit drugs for almost all data, cause we can’t analyze the impact unless we have the correct data,” said Van Dyke.  

At the capitol, Lawrence is planning to sponsor a bi-partisan proposal to change that. She wants to require schools to classify marijuana incidents separately like they do for tobacco and alcohol.

“We legalized recreational marijuana use, we should at be tracking the trends and understand what impact of that change in law is having on our kids,” said Lawrence. 

Three years ago the state updated its school discipline laws to move away from zero tolerance policies. As a result – school districts and even individual schools within those districts can have different policies when it comes to referring drug incidents to law enforcement.

“It’s consequence awareness and education, putting those two things together,” said Kevin Braney, a former principal and now the discipline coordinator for the Boulder Valley School District.

“You know, high school can be a place to make mistakes and learn from them, whereas once they leave our school system there may not be that opportunity,” said Braney.

As an alternative to suspending students for marijuana violations, Boulder Valley is in its second year of partnering with a local non-profit to offer a focused educational intervention.

“When we were bringing parents and students together for a series of six classes on the impact of marijuana on the young teenage mind, we’re finding that 98% of students are not repeating the same offense,” said Braney.

And even though high school student Mercedes Wisenbaugh is seeing more of her friends use pot, she said her parents play a crucial role in her decision not to use marijuana.

“Going…. you’re still young, you have so much in front of you, just wrecking it with trying to be cool, is what affects me.”

Among a host of other marijuana related bills at the capitol this year, lawmakers are also expected to address its impact to youth. Some see data reporting from schools as just one key to understanding how students are using pot and how schools, parents and the state should respond.