Bob Ward
Aspen Journalism

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February 12, 2014
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Pitkin County school officials ‘anxious’ about legal marijuana

The advent of legal marijuana in Colorado has prompted local public school officials to revisit their policies and procedures regarding substance abuse, but they’re mostly waiting to see how things play out.

Under the law, recreational marijuana became a legal commodity on Jan. 1, but at this point most local marijuana retailers are selling just the medical variety to certified customers. In the Roaring Fork Valley, only Carbondale presently has a licensed, operating recreational marijuana outlet, although more are expected to open soon in Aspen and Glenwood Springs.

Local public school administrators, all of whom have marijuana-free policies on their campuses, know there’s been a major legal and social change, but the effects won’t show up till the market is established and recreational marijuana becomes broadly available.

“I am anxious,” said Aspen High School Principal Kimberly Martin, “because we truly don’t know as this continues to unfold where it’s going to head.”

Before the winter break in December and January, Martin said her schedule was packed with meetings and discussions about marijuana — with faculty, parents, law enforcement officers and more. But there isn’t a whole lot that she and other school officials can do just yet.

Approved by Colorado voters in November 2012 by a 55-45 margin, Amendment 64 legalized marijuana in Colorado but only for adults 21 and older — minors can legally acquire medical marijuana with parental permission, but it’s uncommon. Thus, the vast majority of school-age kids are not allowed to possess recreational or medical marijuana, let alone bring it to school. Most Colorado municipalities that allow recreational marijuana sales also have prohibited such stores from locating within specified distances of schools.

The state recommended a minimum distance of 1,000 yards between any school and marijuana retail location, but the city of Glenwood Springs, for example, settled on 500 yards. Aspen, too, settled on a 500-foot buffer zone, though the schools’ out-of-town location makes the rule mostly inapplicable.

So there is a broad understanding statewide that schools and marijuana shouldn’t mix. Martin expects that once pot shops are open locally, they will be careful not to sell to underage consumers. However, school officials know that Aspen teens acquired pot on the black market long before Coloradans had even heard the term “medical marijuana.” And just as minors routinely get their hands on alcohol, they’ll surely succeed in procuring Paonia Goo, Sour Diesel or Twirling Hippy edibles, whether the products are medical or recreational in origin.

Martin’s chief concern, which is shared by school officials across the state, is not so much the availability of legal pot, but teen attitudes about the substance. Aspen teens are well aware of the health risks posed by cigarettes, for example, but they seem to view pot either as harmless or a so-called “healthy alternative” to tobacco or alcohol.

Paul Hufnagle, school resource officer for Aspen High School and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, said legalization has led many kids to make a risky presumption.

“I’ve seen the attitudes of the kids change,” Hufnagle told an audience of parents at a recent Aspen High School panel discussion on recreational marijuana. “They’re already saying, ‘If voters voted for it and we’re the No. 2 county in the state to pass marijuana, it’s got to be OK.’”

Pitkin County approved Amendment 64 by a margin of 75-25, the second-highest in the state behind San Miguel County, which voted 79-21 in favor.

In Eagle and Garfield counties, where most Roaring Fork School District students reside, Amendment 64 won by lesser margins. Eagle County voted 67-33 in favor, and Garfield went 57-43 for Amendment 64.

Diana Sirko, superintendent of the Roaring Fork district, says her administration will deal with legal marijuana just as it has with alcohol, tobacco and other substances prohibited on campus. Recreational marijuana presents its own set of potential problems for educators, Sirko said, but the policies and procedures are already in place to handle it.

Roaring Fork administrators also want to ensure that faculty and other staff members know that, while they may legally be allowed to use marijuana, they still may not bring it on campus.

“Just as we would expect them not to have a beer or tobacco product in their car or even present on campus, we are treating pot the same way,” Sirko said.

Of course, the chief risk that legal marijuana presents to school officials is to the students. And the main message to those students, as stated by AHS principal Martin, is “delay, delay, delay. The reality is that marijuana is harmful for the developing teenage brain.”

Research shows that marijuana affects the parts of the brain that control memory and decision-making. The risk of introducing marijuana into a teenage brain — essentially a brain under construction — is that those cognitive functions could be diminished permanently.

“The effects are quite significant on the developing brain,” said Jonathan Birnkrant, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Aspen who spoke at a recent Aspen High School forum.

While acknowledging marijuana’s beneficial effects for those with conditions such as intractable pain or vomiting, Birnkrant said pot can cause adverse effects on the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory.

“The use of marijuana, in the hippocampus in particular, accelerates cell death,” he said. “Studies have shown twice as much cell death in a person who is using marijuana.”

Furthermore, the psychiatrist added, if a person suffers from virtually any mental disorder, marijuana tends to aggravate the problem.

“Marijuana very clearly worsens the course of any mental illness, whether it’s depression or anxiety or you name it,” he said.

So while school officials are responsible for local children only during school hours, they’re nonetheless trying to push the broader message that marijuana may be legal for adults but is neither legal nor healthy for youths.

Data is inconclusive

The data is mixed as to whether local teens are getting this message already. Last year a survey of Aspen High School seniors found that 41 percent had used marijuana in the previous month, a rate roughly double the national average. At the same time, Aspen students report that there’s little if any peer pressure to drink, smoke or party, and the availability of medical marijuana has not appeared to increase overall usage.

“Even with medical marijuana having come on board in 2009, we’d had a slight downward trend for four years, and then there was a little uptick last year,” said Michael Connolly, of the Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention. “It wasn’t alarming. With a relatively small population like Aspen High School, you can have a 5 to 10 percent swing, and it doesn’t represent all that many students.”

Connolly says pot has been easy for teens to find in Aspen for years, regardless of legality. He is concerned, however, that passage of Amendment 64 and the anticipated proliferation of recreational pot essentially will “normalize” the substance and create a perception among teens that it’s harmless.

In communicating with students about drinking and drugs, the Valley Partnership has tried to emphasize the number of kids making healthy choices, Connolly said, as opposed to the number who don’t. After all, the non-drinkers and non-smokers are still the majority.

“If you feel you’re part of the majority, then you’re much more likely to make healthy choices,” Connolly said.

Another potential problem for school officials is experiential-education classes, many of which leave Colorado for states with their own, stricter marijuana laws. Martin expects Aspen High to prohibit students from bringing any baked goods with them on so-called “ex-ed” trips, and school officials may have to search every child’s bag before departure.

School officials have the right to search and interrogate students when they have a “reasonable suspicion” of substance use or possession. This gives administrators broad latitude in order to keep unwanted substances off-campus.

Law officers, on the other hand, must have “probable cause” to search a person or their property. That is a much higher standard designed to protect citizens from unreasonable search or seizure by government authorities.

Aspen Journalism is an independent nonprofit news organization working in the local public interest. More at www.aspenjournalism.org.


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The Aspen Times Updated Feb 12, 2014 11:59AM Published Apr 2, 2014 09:30PM Copyright 2014 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.