ASPEN - When Colorado voters approved Amendment 64 in the November election, they sent a loud message that they believe the recreational use of marijuana should be legal. What they also sent was a message to Colorado's youths, according to a panel of experts in substance-abuse prevention.
"Students are under the impression that because Amendment 64 passed, the majority of adults are smoking weed," said Babette Stewart, prevention specialist with the nonprofit Freedom from Chemical Dependency, during a recent forum for parents at Aspen High School. "Kids don't really consider that people may have voted for that amendment for other reasons. They just figure everyone's smoking pot.
"It really sends the wrong message."
Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention, a local nonprofit organization that sponsors substance-abuse-prevention education in local schools, among other things, states that marijuana use among Aspen High students is on the decline. According to a study conducted by Valley Partnership, from 2009 to 2012, marijuana use among ninth-graders went down 9.4 percent, 12.2 percent among 10th-graders, 6.7 percent among 11th-graders and 4 percent among 12th-graders.
The decline is "great news," said Michael Connolly, executive director of Valley Partnership, but kids are still smoking pot. A survey conducted in spring 2012 showed that 60 percent of high school seniors had smoked pot at some point in their lives. Thirty percent said they used marijuana within the past 30 days.
"Marijuana use remains a concern, and Amendment 64 adds another layer to this," Connolly said. "But our response is that this isn't an issue of legal versus illegal, moral versus immoral.
"Smoking marijuana - as a teen or an adult - is risky. All use equals risk. And there is more risk with teenagers."
According to experts in the field of substance abuse and addiction, the brain continues to develop well past a person's teens years. The detrimental effects of marijuana on the growing brain are myriad, so postponing use is key to teens' health. In addition, studies have shown that each year a teen does not have his or her first drink or smoke, his or her chances of becoming addicted goes down by 14 percent.
"I see some real problems with marijuana, especially for the adolescent brain," said Rodney Poole, a prevention specialist with Freedom from Chemical Dependency. "But it's hard to get that message across with legalization for medical or recreational use."
"What you say is going to be less persuasive than what you do," Stewart said as advice to parents wondering how to counsel their confused teens. "Modeling healthy, appropriate behavior is really important.
"Kids need to realize that not everyone is smoking weed. They need to understand that it is not OK for them to smoke pot."
Fortunately, Stewart believes in Aspen's ability to get the message across to its younger residents.
"This community is a model community. You've done it right at Aspen High School," she said.