Coalition explores link between teen pot use and rise in dispensaries

As medical marijuana dispensaries continue to pop up in West Seattle and White Center, the Coalition for Drug Free Youth (focused on reducing teen drug, alcohol and tobacco use in Highline Schools) spent a good portion of their June meeting discussing the phenomenon and what it means for their challenge in reducing teen pot use.

The conversation, held at Navos in Burien, centered on concern from a Seattle Public Schools survey taken in October of 2012 that found around 40 percent of students who use marijuana said they got it from a medical marijuana dispensary. The survey did not detail whether the students got it through someone else who had a medical card, or whether they possessed a card themselves (there are no laws on the books stating a minimum age to get a medical marijuana authorization, so a teenager can get one if they find a doctor willing to sign off).

White Center Storefront Deputy BJ Myers said staff members at Cascade Middle School in White Center have seen an uptick in student marijuana use and possession over the past year, but noted there is no way to correlate that jump with the rise in dispensaries. He said there hasn’t been a spike in any particular type of crime since about six new dispensaries came into the area over the past year.

In a meeting with the coalition earlier this year, Cascade Principal Ana Garcia said she believed the spike at her school was likely most strongly linked to the passage of I-502, legalizing recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over. She feared the message from that law to her students was that it’s OK to smoke marijuana now.

Chris Cody, owner of the Herban Legends medical marijuana dispensary in White Center, attended the meeting to provide an insider’s take to the group, made up primarily of drug and mental health counselors.

Cody said one of the problems with the medical marijuana industry is the lack of clear guidelines – both for operators and law enforcement. While some dispensaries have stepped up in attempts to legitimize their business model, he said others have not because there simply is no enforcement forcing them to do so. He said some dispensaries (including Herban Legends) collect sales tax, only provide cannabis to minor patients who are accompanied by an adult, and educate patients that their cannabis is only for personal use. Others, he said, do none of those things.

To that end, Cody said he would welcome further regulation of the medical side of things. Currently, as state lawmakers grapple with the budget in Olympia, there is an amendment included in those budget proposals that would require the state’s Liquor Control Board (WSLCB) to regulate medicinal marijuana in addition to recreational, as they have not done in the past. If it passes, it would likely mean a slew of regulations including required taxation and a limit on the number of dispensaries that could operate in a given area. Cody said he understands that change could theoretically mean he wouldn’t be able to get a license through WSLCB, but added it’s worth the risk to see uniformity across the industry.

Deputy Myers said, from the law enforcement perspective, certain dispensary owners are far more open and easy to work with for his department than others, but for those who want to keep the blinds down “we don’t have a whole lot of reason to force them to at this point, because there aren’t regulations on their business that require us to check in on them.”

While regulation of the medical marijuana industry could provide more tax dollars and less variation, there are no guarantees it will have an effect on youth access to marijuana.

Roslyn Kagy, a counselor with New Futures and Navos, added to the conversation, stating, “If young people want to get drugs, they can get drugs and I think the majority of them aren’t doing it going through all these steps and legal, medical avenues.”

Kagy said none of the kids she works with throughout south King County go through a dispensary for their pot.

“We also need to widen out and focus on education and prevention …. (For kids to get an authorization,) that’s just legal and messy and there is paperwork for prescriptions and so, kids are on the street and kids can get drugs anywhere. If we regulate all of this, they can still get drugs,” she said.

Rudy Garza, the coalition coordinator and Navos spokesman, said, ““Marijuana is here to stay, apparently, unless the (feds) decide to crack down on it. So it’s not a matter of how do we get rid of it, it’s a matter of how do we manage it so it doesn’t impact our youth.”

The group agreed their main mission is to teach kids, parents and siblings that using cannabis as a teen, while the brain is still developing, could have negative and long-lasting effects. With Washingtonian's making recreational use for those 21 and over legal, the conversation becomes less cut and dry.

The Coalition for Drug-Free Youth is made up of White Center and Burien community members, counselors, business owners, law enforcement and more, operating primarily through a King County grant. They are taking student and community surveys now to better understand the face and factors involved in underage drug and alcohol abuse, and will take that information to develop a plan for outreach and education in the coming months.

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