Giving Thought: Glenwood Springs invests in its teenagers using pot tax money

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Aspen Community Foundation, Lauder event, Aug. 13, 2018.
Steve Mundinger

When Colorado voters approved Amendment 64, the recreational marijuana law, in 2012, there was a lot of concern about how this product would impact our community, particularly for youth and children.

Shortly before legal sales began in 2014, leaders in the Roaring Fork Valley began working together to ensure the safe, responsible integration of recreational marijuana into the community. Initiated by Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, the Valley Marijuana Councils (VMC) are groups of community stakeholders representing public safety, health, youth services, education and business owners. The two groups, one in Pitkin County and one in Glenwood Springs, have taken action to educate the public as well as advocate for investment in youth prevention.

Communities across the state have taken various approaches to marijuana sales, from prohibiting retail marijuana shops entirely to welcoming the businesses and adding their own local taxes to the state’s. Glenwood Springs falls into the latter category, and has been particularly creative with its marijuana tax collections.

In 2017, Glenwood added its own 5% tax on marijuana sales, and set aside $100,000 of the revenue to specific youth-oriented programs. One was counseling support at local schools ($75,000) and the other was free passes for youth in grades 6 through 12 to the Glenwood Springs Community Center, known informally as the “rec center.”

“It’s a wonderful use of the funds and the proof is in the pudding,” said Dan Sullivan, president and CEO of The Green Joint and a member of the Glenwood Springs Valley Marijuana Council. “We’re seeing great feedback from kids and school administrators.”

First in a 2018 summer-break pilot program and later during Thanksgiving 2018, winter break 2018-19 and spring break 2019, Glenwood youths have been able to enter the rec center at no cost and swim in the pool, lift weights, climb on the wall or shoot hoops with their friends. And they show up by the hundreds.

“It keeps us from getting in trouble,” said Rayleen Jensen, a sophomore at Yampah Mountain High School. “It’s a good place to go when you’re bored.”

Several other Yampah teens echoed Jensen’s sentiment, saying that the rec center is a healthy place to go during their unscheduled hours. They tend to go with friends and they walk away feeling physically fit, less stressed and more in command of their lives.

“I’m 17 and I have to support myself,” said 11th-grader Harlee Bell. “I have rent, I have car bills, I have all this stuff to do. Being able to have a rec center pass has helped me lose weight and be more confident.“

Interestingly, the idea for the rec center passes wasn’t hatched in City Hall. It came from youth who were surveyed about the possible uses of the marijuana tax money.

“One of the top things they said was, ‘We want healthy places to go,’ and one of those was the rec center,” said Yampah Principal Leigh McGown. “Something like 85% of the kids said, ‘We want rec passes.’”

And the City Council listened. Council members also heard the VMC’s plea for mental-health counseling and education at four schools that didn’t have access to state funding for those purposes. Yampah was one of the four, along with Riverview K-8 School, St. Stephen’s Catholic School and Two Rivers Community School.

Mind Springs Health is the chosen provider and customized its program for each school according to the school’s particular needs. Each school has a counselor on campus for eight hours per week.

Specifically at Yampah, an alternative high school for students who haven’t thrived at other schools, the mental-health program consists of regular classes that help teens develop life skills, avoid drug and alcohol abuse and generally stay on a healthy track. Junior Eli Sweeterman said the classes, among other things, have broadened his mind and helped him understand his peers.

“Gabby (the counselor) knows what I’m thinking and can help me understand other people’s stories,” he said. “She gives me a different viewpoint.”

At St. Stephens, the Mind Springs counselor has provided small group sessions to support friendship, communication, self-regulation strategies and bullying prevention. Glenda Oliver, St. Stephen’s principal, said this support has been a “game changer” for students and teachers.

“The teachers feel supported because the students are being supported,” Oliver said.

Soon the Glenwood City Council will consider whether to continue these programs. Advocates expect that the demand of the rec center passes will rise in the coming year, simply because the word is out and more teens want them.

“This is the right thing to do,” said the VMC’s Sullivan. “We need to give back to our kids and help educate them.”

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.