By Jessica Portner
Californians voted to legalize adult use of marijuana last November, but the change in law has introduced a quandary for health educators who teach teens about drug use.
What’s the best response to students’ questions about pot, which will be legal for those 21 and older in 2018? Soon enough, teens may have older siblings getting high at home or see Mom and Dad smoking or eating edibles as routinely as they may have enjoyed wine or dessert.
“When the larger community says, ‘Hey, this is OK to do, you’re not going to get into trouble for it,’ it complicates a basic discussion that is held in classrooms,” said Mathilda Graham, a former health teacher who now works at the National School Safety Center in Los Angeles.
Graham advises teachers to tell students to think about the consequences of any drug use beforehand. Students should “make your decision now and hold onto it … don’t decide on Friday night at a party when everybody is shoving it in your face,” she said.
Mixed messages for teens?
The legalization ballot measure, which passed with more than 57 percent of the vote, will decriminalize recreational use.
The cultural acceptance of what was once an illegal drug may make it more difficult for teens to abstain, school health officials worry.
While overall drug use has been declining among teens nationally, pot use by minors has been relatively stable. The University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Study, an annual survey tracking teen drug abuse among approximately 45,000 eighth, 10th and 12th graders, shows that almost a quarter of high school seniors in 2016 reported past-month marijuana use and 6 percent report daily use, about the same in 2015.
But, since Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012, use among Colorado teenagers has slightly decreased, according to a survey by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In 2015, twenty-one percent of Colorado youths had used marijuana in the past month, down slightly from the 25 percent who used marijuana in 2009, before legalization.
Health risks, despite perception
Many teens don’t perceive pot use as dangerous, the University of Michigan study reports. For example, 44 percent of 10th graders said regular marijuana smoking was harmful. A decade ago, however, 65 percent of 10th graders said marijuana was harmful.
The health risks of marijuana to the developing teenage brain are well documented. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, marijuana can impair memory and concentration, and interfere with learning. It can alter motor control, coordination and judgment. Regular use is also linked to psychological problems, poorer lung health, and a higher likelihood of drug dependence in adulthood, an AAP statement said.
In Bill Schrier’s Advanced Placement Government and Politics class at Carmel High School, the teacher and former narcotics prosecutor discusses the new marijuana law with his students. They talk about regulations and state rights and the fact that marijuana use is still illegal under federal law.
Schrier said he believes the legalization of marijuana will challenge parents who are trying to keep their teens away from drug use.
School administrators are also reviewing drug use policies because of the law change. Daniel Thigpen, director of communication and community engagement at Folsom Cordova Unified School District, said the district’s codes of conduct will need to be reviewed, particularly for students in an alternative school extension program, who can be as old as 22.
“This is a really important conversation piece that we are now just starting to wrap our heads around,” he said.
Although the law has changed, the goal of prevention programs — to teach students responsibility and safety — has not, Thigpen said.
“We recognize that kids are surrounded by adults in their lives, friends and peers who use tobacco and alcohol, for example, and some use responsibly and some do not,” he said. “We see our role as helping them develop healthy habits at an early age.”