Pubdate: Thu, 28 May 2015
Source: Boulder Weekly (CO)
Column: Weed Between the Lines
Copyright: 2015 Boulder Weekly
Author: Gavin Dahl


When Rocky Mountain Community Radio reporter Bente Birkeland began 
tracking legal marijuana's impacts on Colorado teenagers earlier this 
year, she discovered key data wasn't available.

"The state does not require schools to report marijuana incidents 
separately," Birkeland says. "Alcohol and tobacco are in separate 
categories. But marijuana shouldn't be lumped in with cocaine or 
pharmaceuticals. It's a tough story to report."

Birkeland personally talked to more than a dozen school districts and 
came away with the impression that most officials don't want to 
discuss drugs in schools with reporters.

"In my reporting I always strive for an objective, accurate story 
that reflects various perspectives," Birkeland says. "I told them I'm 
not trying to bash the school district, but I think they were worried 
it would make them look like they weren't doing enough. Boulder was 
the only one that would let me go in there."

Boulder Valley School District was open to talking about their 
approach, including working with a neuroscientist. Odette Edbrooke, 
health education coordinator for BVSD, welcomed Birkeland's interest.

BVSD is already involved in proactive community-facing education 
efforts about marijuana. Pathways to Success is a district-sponsored 
event series aimed at families, led by Boulder Psychological Services.

The series included an opportunity to discuss the impacts of 
legalized marijuana on families at the Meadows Branch Public Library 
in Boulder on May 18. Just one parent attended, a mother from 
Boulder. She and I took advantage of hosts Dr. Leland Johnston, a 
psychiatrist in private practice in Boulder, and local counselor Ryan 
Dawson's undivided attention.

Johnston advocated full sobriety because of the data on adolescent 
brain function.

"The inclination from my generation is to see it as not that big of a 
problem," he said. "Everybody is soft-peddling it. Now, with the 
potency the way it is, the grade of marijuana being smoked routinely 
by middle school and high school kids is much higher than in the '60s 
and '70s. And dabbing pumps up the potency."

He said teens who experiment once or twice probably won't see 
academic decline or accidents. But for both Johnston and Dawson, by 
the time parents bring kids to them, usually things have escalated.

Johnston insisted that concerned parents ought to subject teens to 
randomized drug testing.

But Dawson warned that in his experience with court-appointed drug 
testing, kids try to get around tests with dangerous cannabis 
alternatives like spice or K2. And he suggested that criminal 
outcomes generally are a barrier to treatment for addiction.

Despite Johnston's calls for teen sobriety and drug testing, he is no 
drug warrior. He sees research into cannabidiol, or CBD, for 
treatment of seizures as the most important public health development 
related to marijuana.

"If there's good medical documentation of treatment, it's more than 
likely cannabis will come out of Schedule 1," he said, referring to 
the federal designation of marijuana as a narcotic with no medical value.

Dawson agreed with Johnston that sobriety is the best option, but as 
a psychotherapist he is focused on harm reduction and talks to teens 
about using marijuana in a way that won't derail their lives. He 
added that while brain development stabilizes by age 25, teens using 
marijuana habitually risk permanently lowering their IQ.

"My clients see only the positive impacts of marijuana, not the 
negatives," Dawson said. "In small doses, it can decrease anxiety, 
but heavy dosage increases anxiety and aggravates psychosis."

My fellow attendee, the mother who asked not to be named in this 
article, surmised that the lack of turnout for the discussion 
reflected disinterest among parents in Boulder. She says she felt 
that marijuana does not pose as serious a risk as alcohol, tobacco, 
pharmaceuticals or street drugs.

Nevertheless, Colorado has been awarding grant programs paid for with 
marijuana taxes to select school districts for added mental health 
professionals and counselors. And on the last day of the General 
Assembly, the House and Senate passed a new law, HB15-1273, that 
requires more trackable reporting.

The declared goals of the new law state, in part, "It is the intent 
of the general assembly to ensure that high-level, consistent and 
easily accessible school safety data is available to parents and 
other interested parties..." Principals of each public school in a 
district will be required to submit annual reports to the Board of 
Education. The Board of Education will compile reports and make them 
available to the Department of Education and the general public.

If the law works, parents and journalists alike will have better data 
available for tracking the impacts of legalization on kids. 
Meanwhile, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment 
is expected to release more research on changes in teenage marijuana 
use patterns later this year.
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