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Experts in Colorado have a warning for New Mexicans, advising parents to keep a close eye on their children. When Colorado legalized marijuana eight years ago, they set the age at 21 hoping to keep it out of the hands of teenagers.
Lawmakers commissioned a study to track the changes in Colorado during the first five years of legalized marijuana. When it comes to children, there are some bright spots in the state’s report: when marijuana became legal there was no increase in the number of middle or high schoolers using it. However, the people at Denver Public Schools charged with keeping those kids safe say there are some dangerous problems that the report doesn’t show.
The percentage of high schoolers using marijuana, about 1-in-5, did not change, according to the report. What did change was the marijuana. “It is a vastly different product now because the concentration level is so much higher,” said Michelle Holien, head of Prevention Services for Denver Public Schools.
To put it mildly, the marijuana for sale in Colorado dispensaries is not your run-of-the-mill marijuana. “What was out there in the 80s, 90s was 3-5% potency. Products now in terms of what some of the concentrates that are available go all the way up to 90-95% concentration.”
With real consequences for middle and high schoolers smoking it, mental health is just one of Holien’s concerns. “The frontal lobe is the last part of the brain to develop and that’s the part that controls judgment, critical thinking, and long-term planning,” said Holien. “So people that are using substances before their brain is developed have the potential to actually impact it permanently.”
The state’s report also shows that discipline cases in schools jumped by more than 40% when marijuana was legalized. “The research shows that the more students are suspended or expelled, the greater their likelihood that they’re going to end up in the juvenile justice system and potentially down the road in the prison system,” said Holien.
George Brauchler served as the district attorney for Colorado’s 18th Judicial District for the first eight years of legal marijuana. Brauchler’s office deals with middle and high schoolers charged with crimes. He fears the worst is yet to come. “We don’t know yet. We just don’t know yet what the impact on our children is going to be moving forward. We’re going to see that later,” said Brauchler.
One thing that we do know is that marijuana usage in Colorado took off among college students. “We can see that across the board, youth use of cannabis doesn’t look a lot different but that script gets flipped when we start looking at college students in particular,” said David Arnold with the Coalition for Colorado Campus Alcohol and Drug Educators.
A 2018 survey of college students showed that daily and near-daily use of cannabis on Colorado college campuses was 2-to-3 times higher than on campuses across the country.
Holien says research shows programs like DARE, with big assemblies that talked about drugs and all the scary things that can happen, didn’t actually work. Instead, she says if you want effective prevention you need to help young people build coping skills, strategies, and resistance skills. She also added that the earlier parents talk to their children about marijuana the better.
Holien adds one final note for perspective: despite eight years of legalized marijuana in Colorado, alcohol, she says, is still the leading substance abuse problem among Denver Public School students.