As medical and adult use cannabis legalization efforts spread across the country, the concept of “just say no” to drugs has become blurred, especially for high school students. Some school administrators have found themselves faced with a new challenge: teach the negative effects of a drug that is considered a potential medicine and also deemed a relatively safe intoxicant for adults.
While cannabis has been legalized for non-medical use in four states and Washington, D.C., cannabis is only legal for adults 21 and older. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “When marijuana users begin using as teenagers, the drug may reduce thinking, memory, and learning functions and affect how the brain builds connections between the areas necessary for these functions.”
Jill Doty, a counselor at Loveland High School in Loveland, Colo., recently shared her experience dealing with cannabis, suggesting that every time a state votes yes for legalization, it becomes harder to persuade students not to try cannabis.
“It feels like a salmon swimming upstream,” Doty said. “The downstream is all the messages that it’s fine and especially when it’s voted into law to be legalized.”
For some students at Loveland High, Doty believes cannabis has become an outlet to deal with their emotions. But, she says, students who use are more likely to have side effects such as loss of motivation and a decline in grades due to lack of studying.
“It’s not a make-you-feel-good and everybody singing Kumbaya at all,” she said.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2014 Monitoring the Future survey, a tool that is used to measure the attitudes of 8th, 10th and 12th graders, perceived risk of cannabis use has declined in recent years. To prevent a rise in use, states like Colorado and Washington have allocated tax revenue from cannabis sales for expanded prevention and education efforts.
According to Elle Sweeney, the deputy director of marijuana coordination at the Colorado Governor’s Office, millions of dollars of cannabis tax revenue has been distributed to the Department of Education and to the Department of Human Services to support behavioral health treatment and for a school health professionals grant program. The grant “intends to increase the availability of school-based prevention, early intervention, and health care services and programs to reduce the risk of marijuana and other substance use and abuse by secondary school students.”
In the state of Washington, cannabis tax revenue helps fund survey work that has been used in school districts since 1988. The survey seeks to determine drug use prevalence among 6th, 8th, 10th, and 12th graders.
“That’s been going on for a long time and the revenue from marijuana allows us to stabilize the funding for it,” said Michael Langer, the behavioral health and prevention chief for the Washington State Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery.
Survey work via social media aimed at young adults is also being conducted with the help of the University of Washington. Additionally, funds and resources will help open two 16-bed treatment facilities for young people in Spokane and Vancouver. The facilities are slated to open by late summer and will accept patients from across the state, said Langer.
In the District of Columbia, medicinal and adult use cannabis legalization have also led to the perception that cannabis is harmless, according to Bruce Points, public health analyst at the District of Columbia Department of Behavioral Health.
“We want people to know that there are effects,” he said. “The idea that marijuana is okay, the perception that marijuana is good for everyone to use, it’s a constant battle.”
In December 2015, D.C. launched a prevention initiative aimed at underaged youth. The “Blunt Truth” campaign emphasizes that cannabis use and possession is illegal for those under 21. The homepage reads, “The DC laws and the effects of marijuana vary for adults and youth.” (The voices of the campaign are cartoon characters Reggie and Mary Jane, and their dog, Kush.
“It’s rough because when it comes to schools you have to keep in mind that not everyone is using so you don’t want to create a culture where those who are not using feel as though they are being looked at as users,” Points said.
Adult use sales are not permitted in D.C., so no such tax revenue has been dedicated to this effort, which is funded through a contract the Department of Behavioral Health has with Octane, a local public relations company.
Similar to D.C.’s “Blunt Truth” campaign, Colorado and Washington have launched projects that stress the legal age for cannabis use and detail the dangers of consumption for minors. In Colorado, cannabis tax revenue helped launch the “Good to Know” campaign, which helps parents, coaches, and teachers speak with those under 21 about cannabis; another campaign called “What’s Next” involved a Buzzfeed partnership. The Washington Healthy Youth Coalition put $375,000 from cannabis tax revenue toward the “Start Talking Now” project to encourage parents to discuss underage cannabis use with their children.
While students in states without legalization are aware of what’s happening in other parts of the country, there isn’t a rush in their schools toward more nuanced messaging.
New York legalized cannabis for medical use in July 2015; the decision to allow the adult use of cannabis is a discussion point in the state, but unlikely in the next election cycle. For many high schools in the state’s capital city of Albany, dealing with that change is not yet a top priority.
“When it does get legalized we are probably going to have to scramble to figure that out, but I think we will be okay,” said Jack Grogan, the director of safe schools and violence prevention for the Albany City School District.
New York State does not have a specific drug prevention program designed for high schools students, nor does Albany High have any programs of their own, but schools are required to provide instruction on the subject matter from kindergarten to 12th grade.
Currently, students are taught in health classes that cannabis is a gateway drug and can be as dangerous as heroin or cocaine.
“We want you to understand the danger of marijuana because as we know kids who are starting out with marijuana the next step is something harsher,” Grogan said.
But, in the opinion of a former student of Guilderland High School, located about 20 minutes from Albany High, that lesson does not stick with teenagers.
“The notion that pot is a gateway drug doesn’t sit with the average high schooler. It’s considered normal to smoke, just as it is to drink,” said Cydney Palmatier, who graduated from the school in 2014. “I’ve heard excuses like ‘it’s just an herb so it’s okay’ and ‘weed was in the bible’.”
Research confirms that the gateway message, or other past anti-drug tactics, may have lost their effectiveness. Colorado health department research at schools involving hundreds of students found that “young people want credible information to make their own health decisions and don’t respond to ‘preachy’ messages or scare tactics from traditional media sources. They do respond to messages they can shape and share across mobile platforms — messages that talk about marijuana’s impact on goals such as landing a job, getting and keeping a driver’s license, or doing well on a test.”
As some youth continue to view cannabis as harmless–increasingly so as states move toward legalization–the discussion against youth cannabis use may need to improve before students will listen.
“It won’t kill you, but it will get in the way of what’s next,” Doty said. “You might get kids to listen to that, you just gotta hope.”
This piece was updated to add the exact amount to cannabis tax revenue put toward Washington state’s “Start Talking Now” effort.