Lawmakers Grapple with Medical Marijuana in Public Schools

· Apr. 14, 2016, 8:03 pm
Families and children who use medical marijuana took a picture outside the hearing room after the measure cleared the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee 10-3.Credit Bente Birkeland / RMCR
Families and children who use medical marijuana took a picture outside the hearing room after the measure cleared the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee 10-3.

Colorado schools may soon be forced to allow students to use medical marijuana in a non-smokeable form while on school grounds. It's already allowed under state law, but so far no districts have created policies to enable students to take the medicine, which has left many families frustrated.  

Fifteen year-old Jack Splitt is a freshman at Wheat Ridge High school near Denver.  He has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheel chair. He told his story to state lawmakers on the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources committee using his eyes to speak through a computerized talker. 

"With my cannabis medicine I feel good in my body and my mind. Then I can concentrate on school rather than wondering when the pain will stop," said Splitt.  "I can't stand the old medicine, it makes me so sleepy. I can't think, makes me a zombie."

Splitt's school won't let him reapply his cannabis patch while he's on school grounds. Medical marijuana has been legal in some states for two decades. But in many places like Colorado, the thorny issues about student use of a drug that is still illegal under federal law is just now being grappled with.

"Let's make sure they have the medication they need, and do it in an appropriate way," said Representative Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont) the sponsor of House Bill 1373. It would require all school districts, even those without policies, to allow parents or caregivers to administer the drug on school grounds, typically in the nurse's office. Students would not be allowed to take the cannabis tablet or put on the patch or oil themselves.

"He lost his therapies, he was punished, and he didn't do anything wrong. I'm the one who made the mistake," said Jenny Stormes. Her son was suspended one day last spring for inadvertently bringing medical marijuana with him to his school near Colorado Springs. He has Dravet syndrome, a condition that produces constant seizures.

"If I bring cannabis on school I risk being arrested, his seizures risk increasing and since I can't give the cannabis on school grounds, my son has to miss a lot of school," she said. 

Falcon School District 49 is now developing a policy to allow students like Stormes to take medical marijuana. If adopted, it would be the first such policy in the state. While lawmakers passed a bill last year making it legal for schools to allow medical marijuana use, so far none have. Legislators in both parties expressed dismay.

"Our school boards are deciding for the parents and the children between education and their medication. It's inexcusable, absolutely irresponsible. I'm absolutely appalled," said Representative Steve Lebsock (D- Thornton).

The Colorado Association of School Board Executives testified against the bill.

"We do not lack compassion for individuals with disabilities," said Chief Counsel Kathleen Sullivan. "I've spent the last twenty years of my entire legal career working around issues of providing special education to students with disabilities in public schools."

"There is no way around the fact that federal law still recognizes marijuana as a as a controlled substance…" - Kathleen Sullivan, Chief Counsel for the Colorado Association of School Board Executives

But Sullivan said schools fear passing the law could jeopardize federal money that public schools rely on.

"There is no way around the fact that federal law still recognizes marijuana as a as a controlled substance under Schedule 1. Our local boards are afraid to gamble on that federal money without reassurances that they will be protected.  Please don't make us do that. We have so much at stake already." 

Representative Singer dismissed the possible loss of federal funding, and blasted school districts for being hypocritical, by denying medical marijuana to students while receiving other pot money.

"Since we have legalized marijuana, and we have legalized marijuana tax dollars, schools have been accepting those tax dollars," he said. "I'm always curious as to whether or not the schools are concerned about state sanctioned money laundering. That's another unknown but so far I haven't seen any school districts turn down those dollars for fear federal sanctions."

Governor John Hickenlooper also weighed in on the issue and said he would personally try to make sure schools lost no federal money.

"I will call the Department of Education and ask them, is there any way you could possibly contemplate taking away funding without warning and at least letting schools figure out their error? That's so hard for me to imagine, that that would happen without warning."

It's estimated that about 300 students would be helped if the measures passes. While it easily cleared the committee, lawmakers in both parties have questions and concerns. Some want mandated policies, others said the state shouldn't tell school districts what to do and there should be opt-out provisions for school districts that don't have students who need medical marijuana.  

You care!

Southern Colorado is changing a lot these days. We can help you keep up. Sign up for the KRCC Weekly Digest here and get the stories that matter to Southern Colorado, delivered straight to your inbox.