The first months of legal recreational marijuana in Colorado saw a jump in drug policy violations in the state’s public schools, a Rocky Mountain PBS I-News analysis of Department of Education data has found.
Alarmingly, the biggest spike in violations came in the state’s middle schools, according to the analysis. The first months of legal recreational marijuana coincided with the winter and spring of the 2013-14 school year.
“Middle schoolers are most vulnerable to being confused about marijuana,” said Dr. Christian Thurstone, attending physician for the Denver Health Adolescent Substance Abuse Treatment program. “They think, ‘Well, it’s legal so it must not be a problem.’”
In many cases, marijuana is simply more available to younger teens, officials say.
“We have seen parents come in and say, ‘Oh that’s mine, they just took it out of my room,’ and that sort of thing,” said school resource officer Judy Lutkin of the Aurora Police Department. “Parents have it in their houses more often, and the kids just can take it from home.”
The hike in drug violations came as overall suspensions, expulsions and referrals to police for other transgressions decreased between the year of legalization and the previous academic year, 2012-13.
The I-News analysis found:
- Middle schools had the highest percentage increase in drug violations, rising 24 percent in the school year ending last spring. This lead to a decade high of 951 drug incidents in middle schools.
- Drug incidents reported by all public schools hit a decade high last school year, rising 7.4 percent to 5,377 incidents. There are more drug violations in high schools, but those numbers stayed flat during the first year of legalization.
- Statewide, since medical marijuana stores opened widely in 2010, drug incidents are the only major category of conduct violations that rose in Colorado school districts, according to the data.
Still, it’s hard to discern the specific types of drugs involved in the increased number of reports as statewide policies to measure and extrapolate teen use of marijuana and other drugs are often inconsistent and unreliable.
In fact, the data collected by the Colorado Department of Education does not identify any specific drugs. Instead, this data lumps prescription drugs, heroin, cocaine and marijuana all into the same category of disciplinary cases.
“I would say that at any given time, any day of the week, there are probably about 10 percent of kids in the high school that are under the influence of something,” said school resource officer Susan Condreay of the Aurora Police Department.
Marijuana is second only to alcohol in teen substance abuse, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, an annual survey from the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.
“Alcohol is by far and away the most used substance by middle schoolers, then it goes down for marijuana and tobacco is just below that,” said Dr. Thurstone. “Prescription drug use is number four, and it’s increasing, so that’s been an alarming increase, as well, that we need to pay attention to.”
The Department of Education wants to address the lack of specificity in its drug reporting, according to Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Littleton. She said she was asked to carry a bill that would require schools to be more transparent with their drug reporting, particularly about marijuana.
“We are still continuing with stakeholder meetings, but I am hoping to have a bill drafted and ready to go (this month),” Rep. Lawrence said. “If we don’t start now, we are not going to have a baseline to compare to in the future.”
She hopes that potential new requirements will not only show how legal marijuana is impacting students, but also provide more data on other potentially harmful drugs.
“Colorado ranks I think second in prescription drug abuse in the country and that is something we need to keep a constant eye on,” Lawrence said. “And I think starting to monitor the marijuana use is very important so we need to make sure that we are collecting the best data we can.”
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health ranked Colorado as the second worst state in the country for prescription drug abuse in 2013. That year, 598 people of all ages in the state died from unintentional drug poisoning, according to the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health. That’s nearly four times the number of deaths that were caused by drunk driving during the same period.
Still, marijuana remains a top priority for school resource officers and treatment providers, especially in middle schools.
Denver Public Schools hired a district substance abuse treatment coordinator this school year, who will focus greater attention on middle schools.
“According to our data, middle schools are where most people begin to experiment,” said John Simmons, DPS executive director of student services. “It’s much easier to stop someone from using in the first place than it is to stop it once it’s started.”
The Denver district saw a 7 percent increase in drug incidents, from 452 in 2012-13 to 482 in the 2013-14 year. Simmons says that marijuana accounts for almost every drug incident.
But legalization supporters point out that kids aren’t coming in and buying from stores, and packages that leave the stores do not market to children.
“We have gone above and beyond to make sure that we are not marketing to children,” said Meg Sanders, owner of MiNDFUL, a cannabis company that operates in several cities in Colorado. “We feel it’s our responsibility as a responsible business to card not just once but twice for any recreational customer, and medical patients have to show several documents before they can purchase marijuana.”
Some say that legalization might help provide resources for addressing underage consumption of marijuana using tax revenue generated through legal sales.
“The fact is that we had a significant number using marijuana then and now (before and after legalization),” Simmons said of public schools in Denver. “We are hopeful that these changes will provide more resources.”
The Colorado legislature set aside $2.5 million in grants for schools from marijuana tax revenue. As of November 2014, the Department of Education had awarded $975,000 to 11 districts to hire more health professionals to help address student behavior regarding marijuana, sometimes as an alternative to traditional punishment like expulsion or suspension.
But alternative or non-punitive methods currently dealing with drug incidents by districts or individual schools are not tracked by state data.
“We have a lot of different things that we will do for kids who have gotten involved in drug incidents in school,” said Kenlyn Newman, the student engagement initiatives director for Adams 12 Five Star School District. She says that different behaviors require different responses and schools will try to intervene and work with parents to address inappropriate behaviors.
Adams 12 schools are in five different municipalities, and each of those schools have different agreements with the local government. This means that police involvement can vary from school to school, with similar incidents being reported differently to the state. But the Department of Education has no means to measure these differences in reporting.
“There is no manpower to audit the data; we can’t go back to the districts to check what they say,” said Annette Severson from the Colorado Department of Education. “We just have to trust that what they report to us is accurate and then they have to sign off and say that it is accurate.”
Even as Colorado has been launched into the national spotlight as the first state to legalize and commercialize the sale of marijuana for adult use, the state has yet to begin collecting comprehensive and consistent data to describe how it is impacting Colorado’s teens.
“I was against legalization,” said Doris Cooper, while waiting to pick up her 7th grade granddaughter from North Middle School in Aurora. “If you legalize it, you know it’s just going to make them want to use it that much more, that’s what I figure.”
Chalkbeat Colorado brings you this report in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Learn more at rmpbs.org/news. Contact Katie Kuntz at firstname.lastname@example.org. I-News reporter Burt Hubbard contributed to this story.