Legalized Marijuana and an Education Conundrum

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3min 52sec
Arapaho Ridge High School in Boulder
Credit Bente Birkeland / RMCR
Arapaho Ridge High School in Boulder

It has been more than a year since recreational marijuana stores opened in Colorado and retail sales began. Schools are grappling with the best way to discusses marijuana in the classroom amidst changing attitudes. 

While schools aren’t required to separate out marijuana incidents from other illicit drugs such as cocaine, anecdotal evidence compiled by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News suggests more students are using marijuana.

“Especially since we use the phrase recreational marijuana. Recreational implies it’s fun, and it’s something you do in your spare time,” said Odette Edbrooke, the Health Education Coordinator for the Boulder Valley School District. The last upsurge in school drug incidents happened several years ago after medical marijuana exploded. She said changing attitudes around marijuana use are giving students a mixed message.

“When it’s legal for your parents to smoke it or grow it, that changes the conversation,” said Edbrooke.

This school year Boulder Valley is bringing in a neuroscientist to talk school health classes about the impacts of marijuana on brain development.  

“During that time period from 12 to 17 their mind is changing and growing as much as when they 3 years and younger, so there are some incredible things that are happening when they’re learning how to make decisions,” said Kevin Braney, a former principal and now the discipline coordinator for the Boulder Valley School District.

Up to this point, the state has used money from marijuana taxes to put out a series of ads on the negative impacts of smoking marijuana with mixed success.

“I feel like in comparison with things like alcohol or cigarettes, marijuana has far fewer long term side effects,” said sixteen year-old Albert Amaya. He’s a sophomore at Miami Yoder in eastern El Paso County. He said the ads he’s seen use scare tactics and are ineffective.

“I saw one of the smoking commercials and this guy couldn’t start a BBQ because he was high, that’s taking it to the extreme I think. I don’t think just because you’re high you can’t function.”

For his classmate, educational campaigns aren’t as effective as her own real life experiences. 

“I’ve seen my family members, I see how lazy they get, I see how un-motivated they get, I see how they’re not tuned into reality,” said Mercedes Wisenbaugh, a senior at Miami Yoder high school. “They’re in a different fog than everybody who does not smoke marijuana.”    

State officials say the long-term cognitive impacts of regular marijuana use need more research and have allocated more money for those studies.

“To develop science based messages that can go into public health campaigns,” said Mike Van Dyke with the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. He’s a toxicologist and is working on marijuana education.  

“Marijuana is unique because, this is a substance where you have a large community of people that really claim it has a lot of health benefits. You don’t see that with tobacco.”

For mother of four Carol Gibbs of Greenwood Village, marijuana education in the classroom can help students begin to sort through the confusion.

“The messaging that probably I give my son and that I would like school to pick up on is I would like them to be given better coping skills.”

Her youngest son is 16 years old and attends Littleton public schools.

“When things get tough, I want these kids to have more options than relaxing with a joint, or getting lost in their electronic devices,” said Gibbs.

The Colorado State Department of Education did not change its health curriculum guidelines after voters legalized marijuana, but the state recently awarded grants allowing school districts to hire nurses, psychologists, counselors and school social workers. Other states that have legalized marijuana such as Oregon, Washington, and Alaska are also leaving health curriculum decisions up to individual school districts.