Legal marijuana creates pressing need for education
October 16, 2013
Editor's note: This is the final installment of a three-part series.
There's a reason why Buddy Sims is against the legalization of marijuana — he says it nearly destroyed the life of a relative.
"My whole life, I've seen what it does to families and to kids," Sims said.
Sims, of Edwards, is one of the most vocal opponents of marijuana in the mountains. He writes letter after letter to government officials and to the newspaper, and he's at as many public meetings about marijuana as he can fit into his schedule.
He says he does it because he's worried about local children.
"I don't want the kids in our county to think marijuana is medicine or that it's OK to smoke," Sims said. "I think there's going to be a huge impact on families. Eventually, when Vail and Beaver Creek are known for Rocky Mountain high, there will be people who won't bring their children here. I wouldn't move here with my family knowing retail marijuana is rampant here."
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Medical marijuana dispensaries are open in Eagle-Vail, Edwards and Eagle, but Sims is worried that jurisdictions in northern Eagle County are going to allow retail recreational stores to open next year. He is trying his hardest to stop that from happening.
Sims cites scientific studies showing that marijuana damages young brains. A July report by the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, for example, says regular marijuana use during adolescence, but not adulthood, may permanently impair cognition and increase the risk for psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia.
Minors have historically been able to get marijuana in mountain communities, though, regardless of its legality. Some minors buy it from illegal drug dealers, and some have sources much closer to home.
"I grew up in Aspen in the '80s. I doubt it's any harder to get weed up here today than it was then," said Jesse Miller, owner of Aspen medical marijuana dispensary Leaf Aspen. "I stole (marijuana) from my parents when I was younger. I knew where they kept it."
Miller has a 14-year-old daughter and said the last thing he wants her doing is running around town getting stoned. He believes that most dispensary owners, and hopefully all future retail marijuana business owners, don't want their marijuana getting into the hands of minors. The legal age to buy retail marijuana is 21.
"Obviously we're not going to be selling this to kids," Miller said. "But when I was 18, I knew 21-year-olds. When I was 21, I knew 18-year-olds. Once it leaves my front door, I cannot track it — there's just no way."
Marijuana becoming too normal
The staff at Youth Zone, a nonprofit in Glenwood Springs that deals mostly with minors sent there by the court system, sees concerning trends.
"Most of the kids we see are stealing their parents' medical marijuana," said Youth Zone Executive Director Lori Mueller.
Legalized recreational use has Mueller and her staff very concerned. The passing of Amendment 64 is creating a social normalization of marijuana in Colorado, she said.
According to an independent study conducted by Youth Zone, the Roaring Fork Valley has a higher rate of teen marijuana use than anywhere else in Colorado, Mueller said.
"We've seen it since medical marijuana — there was a dramatic increase once medical marijuana became available," she said. "The bigger thing is that it's so normal for kids. They're believing there's nothing wrong with it."
Mueller is already talking with local schools and other community organizations about putting together education programs for local children. They want to make sure kids get the message that using marijuana is dangerous and that it's not socially acceptable.
That's what Avon schoolteacher Jake Wolf wants to happen in Eagle County, too. He's an Avon town councilman who supports medical and recreational marijuana stores in town, but he's also a dedicated and passionate elementary school teacher who said he'd jump in front of a bullet for any one of his music-class students.
"The kids are only as smart as we let them be," Wolf said.
Education about drugs has to begin at home, he said, adding that when parents and teachers do their jobs right, kids have all the right tools to make good decisions. Unfortunately, Wolf said teachers are often bogged down with teaching mandated curriculums that don't have time for education about life outside academia.
"There are two kids at Berry Creek — eighth-graders — who have children," Wolf said. "That is a lack of education all across the board, but it starts at home."
Wolf cringed when he recently heard a young student ask a substitute teacher what Ecstasy does. The teacher told the student that it makes you feel really good but not to do it.
So how could a teacher like Wolf want what's best for local children yet still support retail marijuana shops? It's easy — it's all about the education, he said.
"My belief, firmly, is that the kids are the future of our community," he said. "If you take Amendment 64 — I believe a large portion of that revenue should go back to educating children."
Writing the future
Some of it will do just that if voters approve Proposition AA next month. The ballot question will ask voters to approve a 15 percent state excise tax on wholesale marijuana, with public school construction receiving the first $40 million of any annual tax revenues collected. It also asks for a 10 percent state sales tax, in addition to the existing 2.9 percent sales tax plus any local sales taxes, that would increase the funding for marijuana regulation and enforcement. Part of the revenue would "fund related health, education and public-safety costs," according to the ballot question
And there's money to be made, according to an economic-impact report by the Colorado Futures Center at Colorado State University. The report, "Fiscal Impact of Amendment 64 on State Revenues," estimates $130.1 million in state tax revenue in fiscal year 2014 through 2015 should voters approve the state's tax increase question next month. The report also predicts that the 15 percent wholesale excise tax won't reach the $40 million goal for school construction.
The report that predicts the legal marijuana industry will generate significant revenues but that the money won't solve the state's economic woes. The money "may not" cover the incremental state expenditures related to legalization and "will not" close Colorado's structural budget gap.
That's what Jerry Olson, owner of Frisco's Medical Marijuana of the Rockies, has been saying all along. He thinks the state is overreaching with the November tax questions, and he's extremely doubtful the money will go to anything other than enforcement.
Wolf thinks there's an amazing opportunity right now to write the rules the way a community wants to see them. He points to Avon's voters overwhelmingly supporting Amendment 64 last year, so he feels it's his duty to write the rules the community wants.
He doesn't agree with opponents who call marijuana a gateway drug.
"It doesn't matter what the gateway drug is because if there's no education in place, it could all be a gateway drug," Wolf said. "My kids — I see them every year of their life for their first six years of school, every week for 45 minutes. I'm very passionate about protecting them, and I don't want them to be misguided or uneducated or miseducated. It would kill me."
When Avon votes on the issue again, Wolf will be in favor of it, and he'll also be in favor of working with groups like the Youth Foundation or the Eagle River Youth Coalition to make sure legal marijuana doesn't harm children.
Mueller sees the interest in Glenwood Springs for education. Every school she has talked to about putting a program in place is very interested. She hopes more organizations step up to keep marijuana out of children's hands.
"It'll be interesting to see what happens," she said. "There's no time like the present to start responding and be proactive."
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at email@example.com or 970-777-3125.