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When Pot Goes From Illegal To Recreational, Schools Face A Dilemma

Schools in Colorado are trying to find effective ways to teach the health effects of marijuana use. "When it's legal for your parents to smoke it or grow it," says one educator, "that changes the conversation."
David Zalubowski
Schools in Colorado are trying to find effective ways to teach the health effects of marijuana use. "When it's legal for your parents to smoke it or grow it," says one educator, "that changes the conversation."

Like many schools across Colorado, Arapahoe Ridge High School in Boulder has seen an increase in overall drug incidents since recreational marijuana became legal.

While public schools aren't required to report marijuana incidents separately from other drugs such as cocaine, evidence compiled by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News suggests more students are using marijuana.

"Especially since we use the phrase 'recreational marijuana,' " says Odette Edbrooke, health education coordinator for the Boulder Valley School District. "Recreational implies it's fun, and it's something you do in your spare time."

And as with other Colorado schools, Arapahoe Ridge is grappling with how best to discuss the health consequences of pot use. Edbrooke says the state's changing attitudes about marijuana send students a mixed message.

"When it's legal for your parents to smoke it or grow it, that changes the conversation," Edbrooke says.

This year the Boulder Valley School District is bringing in a neuroscientist to talk to health classes about the impacts of marijuana on brain development.

The Colorado Department of Education has not changed its statewide health curriculum guidelines since voters legalized marijuana. Up to this point, it has used money from marijuana taxes to put out a series of public service announcements on pot's negative effects.

Albert Amaya, 16, says no education campaign, either in school or on TV, could change his opinion. Amaya is a sophomore at Miami Yoder high school, east of Colorado Springs.

"I feel like, in comparison with things like alcohol and cigarettes, marijuana has far fewer long-term side effects," he says. "I saw one of the smoking commercials, and this guy couldn't start a barbecue because he was high. That's taking it to the extreme, I think. I don't think that just because you're high, that you can't function."

Senior Mercedes Wisenbaugh says what she learns in school isn't as effective as what she experiences in her own life.

"I've seen my family members, I see how lazy they get, I see how unmotivated they get," Wisenbaugh says. "I see how they're not tuned in to reality. They're in a different fog than everybody that does not smoke marijuana."

The Colorado Department of Public Health is developing a science-based marijuana education program that takes a more holistic approach, says Mike Van Dyke, section chief for environmental epidemiology and toxicology.

"Marijuana is unique, because ... this is a substance where you have a large community of people that really claim that it has a lot of health benefits," says Van Dyke. "You don't see that with tobacco."

"The messaging that probably I give my son, and that I would like the school to pick up on: I would like them to be given better coping skills," says Carol Gibbs, mother of four.

Gibbs says she's most concerned about the loss of drive among pot users. She wants her 16-year-old son to learn the best ways to deal with the stress of adolescence.

Colorado recently awarded grants, using marijuana tax revenue, to help school districts hire nurses, psychologists, counselors and social workers — addressing some of the concerns of parents like Gibbs.

"When things get tough, I want these kids to have more options than relaxing with a joint, or getting lost in their electronic devices," Gibbs says.

Copyright 2015 KUVO

Bente Birkeland has covered Colorado politics and government since spring of 2006. She loves the variety and challenge of the state capitol beat and talking to people from all walks of life. Bente's work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, American PublicMedia'sMarketplace, and she was a contributor for WNYC's The Next Big Thing. She has won numerous local and national awards, including best beat reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. Bente grew up in Minnesota and England, and loves skiing, hiking, and is an aspiring cello player. She lives in Lakewood with her husband.