Educators, counselors reframing marijuana approach after I-502

The passage of Initiative 502 in Washington State, allowing adults 21 years and older to possess and use marijuana recreationally, sent a shockwave through school and counselor circles trying to reframe discussions with kids about pot.

Up until Dec. 6 (when the law took effect), marijuana was an illegal drug for anyone except patients who received an authorization from a doctor. Today, at least in the eye of state lawmakers and enforcers, marijuana joins alcohol and tobacco in the legal realm for anyone of age.

There is still the issue of where adults are supposed to get it up until the state starts regulating sales out of retail outlets in about a year, but counselors and educators are assuming use will rise – potentially ahead of that system - leading to a need for an updated approach.

From the parents’ perspective
Traditionally, there have been your standard “talks” parents expect to have with their children one day: The birds and the bees discussion, the alcohol and tobacco conversations, and the illegal drug talk.

With marijuana suddenly parsed away from the illegal drug category, the framing of that talk needs to evolve, according to some teen and drug experts.

Leslie R. Walker, MD, Chief of Adolescent Medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital, along with their prevention coordinator Inga Manskopf, has already released a how-to on the subject.

“With the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana and marijuana-infused foods and beverages …, and the development of a commercial marijuana market over the next year, parents are asking what they should say to their children,” they wrote.

Walker and Manskopf start of their recommendations in the traditional vein, suggesting (just as they would before I-502) to talk to your kids about marijuana early on in their teenage years, asking them what they know about the drug (debunking unproven facts, such as “marijuana cures cancer”), and then moving on to what they consider the facts:

- A Washington State Healthy Youth Survey that found 70 percent of Seattle high school seniors reported they do not use marijuana. “What this means is that everyone is not doing it.”
- Citing work from their own Adolescent Substance Abuse Program, where Walker writes, “I regularly see teenagers who use marijuana several times per week and find that they cannot cut down their use despite the problems it causes at home and at school. These are teenagers who are giving up things that have been important to them and spending a great deal of time obtaining marijuana and recovering from its effects.”
- “The still-developing adolescent brain is harmed by regular marijuana use. Regular marijuana use among teens is associated with school failure,” they wrote.

They recommend visiting www.theparenttoolkit.org and www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/marijuana for more information on that front.

Post I-502, Walker and Manskopf have new recommendations:

“If you use marijuana, or plan to start once marijuana shops open,” they wrote, “think about how your use affects your children.”

They recommend having a discussion with other adult friends and family about “the acceptability of using marijuana during gatherings at your home,” “making sure sweet, but THC-infused edibles like brownies are kept out of the reach of children, and locking up pot just as parents are encouraged to do with alcohol and medications.

Roger Hoffman, PhD, a professor at University of Washington’s School of Social Work, wrote an op-ed for the Seattle Times on this very subject.

Hoffman wrote that a father came to see him during the I-502 campaign after his 15-year-old son said he tried marijuana.

“I … said there’s lots of misinformation about pot in the media and on the internet. For example, some do not acknowledge that many who smoke pot do it safely, out of fear that it will send the wrong message to teens.

“Other’s,” he wrote, “erroneously insist that marijuana is harmless, safer than aspirin. Those people don’t’ know what they are talking about.

“When the dad asked for advice, I encouraged him to say, clearly and unambiguously, that he wanted his son not to use marijuana at this stage in his life. Maybe later, but not now.”

From the schools’ perspective
Just as parents wish to keep an eye on marijuana use among their children, area schools are also keen to track it with their student population, especially post I-502.

Administrators and counselors from Cascade Middle School in White Center recently gave a presentation, in part on the subject of marijuana, to the Coalition for Drug-Free Youth, a new community-led organization (funded by a federal grant administered through King County) focused on reducing alcohol, drug and tobacco use with middle and high school students in the Highline School District and White Center community.

Cascade Principal Diane Garcia said, “Especially with the marijuana laws that passed recently, I think that one of the things we are not doing well at our school, and I think at many of our schools, is we are not really educating our kids very well.”

Garcia said she worked in education throughout the years of DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), an anti-drug campaign that was federally funded and brought to schools nationwide, but ultimately lost funding in the late 1990’s due to questions on its effectiveness.

“DARE, while maybe not effective, went away and nothing came to fill it,” Garcia said. “Our kids really aren’t getting a strong message from our schools and we are not educating them.”

To that end, Garcia and her team of counselors said they plan to “hit it hard” in 2013 with in-class information sessions on marijuana use and the realities of the new law. Garcia said she is concerned about her students getting mixed messages – be it from peers, parents, older siblings or the community-at-large – that say “OK, marijuana is OK now,” and her assumption is that some kids will start to see more marijuana use in their homes.

Cascade Assistant Principal Annika Mizuta said the key to combating mixed messages is “educating our whole community” on the specifics of the law and facts on marijuana use.

School counselor Julian McCullough said Cascade uses a data-driven approach to identifying problems – from drug use to bullying. By compiling the data of each incident (when a student is sent to the principal’s office), McCullough said they are able to identify trends by grade, ethnicity, social groups, and so on, then reach out to students who are having chronic problems in hopes of steering them back on track through one-on-one sessions with counselors.

McCullough said while drug use incidents, including marijuana and alcohol, are not as common as issues of tardiness, disruption in the classroom, or bullying and harassment, they are still a major concern with a generally low-income student population (84 percent of their students are on free or reduced lunch).

He said there is a strong connection between low-income populations and higher drug use or, as a financial necessity, “students talk about selling drugs as being a viable solution to their family’s poverty issues …”

Principal Garcia said identifying kids who are using drugs can be difficult in certain cases, as children have varying degrees of coping skills. While some kids’ school performance might plummet once they start using marijuana, others may show no warning signs at all.

“I’m sure that we have kids who are using regularly who come to school and get really good grades, play sports, and just do really well,” McCullough said.

Help from the source of concern
While counselors, educators and parents actively hone their approach to discussing marijuana use with children in the face of a new legal framework, some of the greatest aid may come from the drug itself.

Assuming the federal government allows Washington State to set up a licensing structure for the growth, distribution, retail sale and taxation of pot (the feds could step in with a lawsuit since marijuana possession and use is still considered illegal under federal law), the state stands to make plenty of revenue from the “sin tax.”

One of the promises of I-502 is that tax revenue will be used to fund youth substance abuse and prevention programs across the state.

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