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Education

Legal Pot Linked To Higher School Drug Use? Colorado's Not Sure

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Even after a full year of being able to purchase recreational marijuana, questions still remain for the state of Colorado. Is cannabis use dangerous? Should there be tighter labeling on pot edibles? Is easy access impacting middle and high school students?

Recent data compiled by the Department of Education and Rocky Mountain PBS I-News show incidents of student drug use in 2014 hitting a 10-year high, but state officials don't have a clear picture if the increased drug use and marijuana legalization are related.

18-year-old Mercedes Wisenbaugh, a senior at Miami Yoder high school in eastern El Paso County has noticed more marijuana use among her peers since pot became legal and shops opened.

"They're not ashamed or ashamed to say 'I smoke marijuana,' or 'I use edibles,'" said Wisenbaugh.

While the I-News data does show an increase drug use – especially middle schools – it's only anecdotal and the uptick cannot entirely be attributed to pot. That's because schools lump marijuana into the same category as illicit drugs such as cocaine, prescription drugs and Ecstasy.

State Representative Polly Lawrence (R-Roxborough Park) said that has proven to be a challenge<, that> part of it is "schools don't want to be turned into law enforcement agencies." That's a concern Colorado Association of School Boards has heard. Some school districts are also weary of state mandates.

"Let's remember school districts have been cut a billion dollars over the last four years," said Colorado Association of School Boards deputy executive Jane Urschel. "And it may not seem like reporting is expensive, but the more reporting you have to do, the more staff time you have to devout to it."

But Urschel still thinks school districts will ultimately want to track the impact that marijuana is having on their students.

"People are seeing more behaviors that are not legal<, that> students should not be engaged in so I think everybody wants to look at that issue."

Count Mike Van Dyke with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as one of those who wants to look at that exact issue. He chairs the retail marijuana public health advisory panel and is the branch chief of toxicology.

"We've been trying to get people to separate marijuana from that bucket of illicit drugs for almost all data, cause we can't analyze the impact unless we have the correct data," said Van Dyke.

At the state capitol, Rep. Polly Lawrence is planning to sponsor a bipartisan proposal to change that. She wants to require schools to classify marijuana incidents separately as is done for tobacco and alcohol.

"We legalized recreational marijuana use, we should at least be tracking the trends and understand what impact of that change in law is having on our kids," Lawrence said.

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Credit Joe Mahoney / I-News

In 2012, the state updated its school discipline laws to move away from zero tolerance policies. As a result school districts and even individual schools within those districts can have different policies when it comes to referring drug incidents to law enforcement.

Kevin Braney, a former principal and now the discipline coordinator for the Boulder Valley School District, said that it's about "consequence awareness and education, putting those two things together."

"You know, high school can be a place to make mistakes and learn from them, whereas once they leave our school system there may not be that opportunity," said Braney.

As an alternative to suspending students for marijuana violations, Boulder Valley is in its second year of partnering with a local nonprofit to offer a focused educational intervention.

"When we were bringing parents and students together for a series of six classes on the impact of marijuana on the young teenage mind, we're finding that 98 percent of students are not repeating the same offense," said Braney.

Even though El Paso County high school student Mercedes Wisenbaugh is seeing more of her friends use pot, she said her parents play a crucial role in her decision to abstain.

"Going…. you're still young, you have so much in front of you, just wrecking it with trying to be cool, is what affects me," Wisenbaugh said.

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