When Pot is Legal and Parents are Users: How Can Project ALERT Educators Respond to Students?
Rising to the Challenge in Coloradoby Andrea Warren
Since 2014 and the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado, Project ALERT teachers have faced a dilemma: how can they effectively help teens decipher confusing messages about the safety and health consequences of marijuana now that it’s legal recreationally and some students’ parents grow and/or use it?
Educators, police, community leaders, and medical personnel—not to mention concerned parents who wish to keep their teens away from marijuana—worry about the drug’s increasing availability and its growing social acceptance. In addition to addiction and the desire to try more potent drugs, possible consequences of early, consistent use of marijuana are many. They can include impact on brain development, interference with memory and sleep patterns, and negative implications for current and long-term mental health problems.1,2
When reporting incidents related to drugs, school districts lump together heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and prescription drugs, but experts suggest that Colorado’s 24% increase in middle school violations this past year is largely due to marijuana. These violations have included students bringing pot-laced edibles to school and sharing them, smoking pot on school grounds, and selling pot to other students.3
Sidebar: Colorado's “Good to Know” Campaign
In an effort to educate residents and visitors about marijuana laws and regulations in Colorado, the state has launched its new and friendly “Good to Know” campaign (www.goodtoknowcolorado.com). Financed by tax money from stores licensed to sell marijuana, it stresses that it is illegal for anyone under 21 to buy or use marijuana and it is illegal to take it out of the state. Officials, who call the campaign an effort to educate without alienating, note that, like everyone else in Colorado, they are in uncharted territory.
Parents can play a key role in keeping drugs out of the hands of children and teens, and most do just that. However, there are a few parents who do not and instead set a permissive example with their own usage. When students defend what their parents are doing, Project ALERT educators must choose their words carefully.
“I can’t tell my students that their parents are wrong,” commented Mikayla Curtis, resource development coordinator for the Eagle River Youth Coalition, which offers Project ALERT free of charge to Vail-area schools, “but I can stress personal consequences. Brain development is a major one since the brain isn’t fully developed until age 25. So what children and teens put into their bodies impacts them differently than it does their parents.”
If students counter that marijuana has medicinal benefits, Curtis reminds them that some people may use it because they believe it helps with symptoms, but it is not a cure for anything. “I also remind them that it’s still illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to possess or use marijuana.”
Curtis’s main goal is to promote healthy behaviors and to prevent, or at least delay, usage. “Don’t do it now. That’s how we’re focusing our message. Because the longer they wait, the less likely they are to become abusers.”
In Calhan, southeast of Denver, Laurie Ochsie has taught Project ALERT for over a decade in her seventh and eighth grade science classes. She agreed that it is more challenging to teach the negatives of marijuana to students whose parents are users. “Since marijuana was legalized, they’re much harder to convince that it can be bad for them. It may be legal, but there’s a reason it’s not legal for young people because it can cause both physical and psychological problems. I remind them that they have a right to say no to drugs, something our Project ALERT lessons help them learn how to do. Once they finish this course, they know the facts and have the tools to help them resist.”
Sidebar: Four States + DC Have Legalized Recreational Marijuana
Along with Colorado, the District of Columbia and the states of Washington, Alaska, and Oregon have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Similar legislation is pending in other states.
Zoe Jackson, a high school senior in Colorado Springs, teaches Project ALERT as a volunteer in a national nonprofit that promotes a healthy, drug-free lifestyle to young people. Jackson took Project ALERT through the organization when she was 13. She found what she learned to be so helpful that she became a certified facilitator. In her class of middle school teens, which meets at a local high school, she discusses marijuana’s effects on the body and brain.
“Kids don’t have much defense when presented with the facts,” Jackson said. “Sometimes they’ll bring up certain celebrities who openly smoke pot and will argue that these people are successful. So we talk about that and how you don’t really know what a person is experiencing away from the cameras. If they’re using marijuana, they’re using it as a crutch for one reason or another.”
She points out to her classes that smoking marijuana can’t help them escape from their problems—that those problems are just going to be waiting until they decide to solve them. “Once students relate this to their own family members, they realize what this drug is doing to them. Because of what they learn in Project ALERT, they don’t have to let it happen to them.”
1 Lisdahl., K. M., Wright, N. E, Medina-Kirchner, C., Maple, K. E., & Shollenbarger, S. (2014). Considering cannabis: The effects of regular cannabis use on neurocognition in adolescents and young adults. Current Addiction Reports, 1, 144-156.
2 Rubino, T., Zamberletti, E., & Parolaro, D. (2102). Adolescent exposure to cannabis as a risk factor for psychiatric disorders. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 26, 177-188.
3 National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. (2015). More Colorado Students Bringing Marijuana to School, Anecdotal Reports Suggest.
Andrea Warren, M.S., is a journalist and author living in Kansas City. She is a long-time contributor to Project ALERT publications.
Director’s note: We are grateful to the interviewees that offered their insights for this article:
Mikayla Curtis has served in the prevention field for ten years. She has been trained as a Substance Abuse Prevention Specialist and has facilitated the Project ALERT program since August 2014, reaching over 50 youth.
Zoe Jackson is a native Coloradan and lives in Colorado Springs. She is a senior at Cheyenne Mountain High School and is planning on a career in the Coast Guard as an officer.
Laurie Ochsie has been teaching middle school science at Calhan Middle School for the past 15 years. During that time, she has been teaching Project ALERT to students in her classes.
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