New report outlines the impacts
By Julia Purdy
At its Town Meeting in Killington recently, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns came out in opposition to the legalization of recreational marijuana in Vermont. Apparently they have read the latest report, “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: the Impact Vol. 3,” issued in August by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA), charged at the federal level with documenting both illegal—and now legal—drug activity. This document is available at www.rmhidta.org.
The RMHIDTA has been tracking Colorado’s experience since the retailing of “social” marijuana began in 2014. It should be required reading for anyone seriously debating this issue—particularly our state officials and legislators who seem naive at best and almost cavalier at worst around this issue.
The concern that is voiced most often is the effect of legalization on children. Every law and/or bill to date has promised to prevent access of the drug by children, similar to alcoholic beverages and tobacco (in Colorado the age is 21). So, what does this report have to say? In particular, the RMHIDTA report describes the failure of regulation to keep marijuana away from children, with disturbing results. Quite the opposite: the drug has become more attractive and “cool” to children, who believe that legalization is a signal that the drug is harmless. In addition, it is now ubiquitously accessible as parents, older siblings and the general public can acquire it with ease.
In case some might dismiss the report as frivolous, the report thanks the following sources of case examples and data (among many others): Colorado School Counselors Association; Colorado Hospital Association; Colorado Children’s Hospital; Colorado Association of School Resource Officers (school-assigned police officers); Chema-Tox Laboratory; the Salvation Army; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; Colorado departments of education, human services, public health and environment, and transportation; Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center; Colorado probation division; Colorado State Patrol and police departments; Colorado offices of revenue,planning and budgeting; the Marijuana Enforcement Division; and the City and County of Denver.
It’s important to note that the marijuana in the market today is not your grandfather’s marijuana. High-tech methods of extracting and genetically modifying THC is producing a drug as much as ten times more potent. In addition, the ways of using it are limited only by the creativity of the user. And far from being used alone, it is very often combined with other substances including alcohol to deliver an ever more exciting high. Finally, the effect on the individual user can vary from mild to a near psychotic episode, especially with vulnerable children or first-timers.
Section 2 in the report is titled “Youth Marijuana Use.” The data refers to “current use,” that is within the past 30 days. Here are some of the high points:
In 2014, 16 children under 12 were admitted to Colorado Children’s Hospital for consuming marijuana, compared with two in 2009, when medical marijuana was introduced.
Exposures of young children, 0 to 5, tripled in 2013-2014, over the pre-commercialization period.
Colorado now ranks third in the nation for marijuana use among kids 12 to 17, compared to 14th in 2006. 11.16 percent of kids 12 to 17 had used marijuana in the 30 days before reporting.
Between school year 2008-2009, when medical marijuana became available, and 2013/2014, there was a 40% increase in drug-related suspensions and expulsions from school.
Since 2011-2012, the incidence of referrals to law enforcement by schools for drug violations has continuously risen, spiking to almost 40 percent of all referrals in 2013-2014, while alcohol violations have steadily declined.
In the summer of 2015, RMHIDTA interviewed 95 school resource officers (SROs—police officers detailed to schools) and 188 Colorado school counselors. Ninety percent of the SROs reported an increase in marijuana activity among students on school grounds, including bringing edibles to school, sharing or selling marijuana to other students, being stoned or possessing marijuana during school hours.
When asked where the students were getting the drug, SROs reported that about one-third get it from their friends or parents, followed by buying it on the black market, and to a lesser extent buying it at retail outlets or from medical marijuana users.
SROs reported sixth-graders toking before class and boys using marijuana as a dating tool; one 18-year-old had been given a marijuana card for her birthday by her parents. Several students became combative in class when they were searched.
School counselors reported similar observations. Students arrive in the morning or come back from lunch openly stoned. The counselors report that the attitude among students is that it’s fine because it’s legal, and it’s “not a drug, it’s just a plant.” In the words of one respondent, a school superintendent, “I didn’t think [legalization] would affect things any more than alcohol does, but we’ve been impacted more than we thought. Because of the fact that [marijuana] is now legal, it’s viewed differently by kids. . . . It’s the availability and overall mindset that leads to problems.”
The RMHIDTA report on student marijuana use includes a definitive study by Dr. Muiris Houston in Lancet Psychiatry that finds that daily users of marijuana under age 17 are 60 percent more likely to drop out of high school or quit college without getting a degree, that the same demographic is seven times more likely to commit suicide, and eight times more likely to move on to other drugs later on. A number of other sources are quoted in the report for easy reference by those concerned about the health effects on young people.
Finally, the report quotes an article in Clinical Pediatrics (June 10, 2015), which found that young children under the age of six are increasingly exposed to marijuana nationwide, and that these children in states where marijuana is legal “face significantly elevated risks of exposure and poisoning.”