Jan 26, 2015
The News Tribune - The superintendent of Prosser’s school district isn’t naive about marijuana.
Ray Tolcacher attended a Southern California public high school during the counterculture movement of the mid-1960s.
Timothy Leary, the ex-Harvard psychologist who advocated the use of psychedelic drugs, spoke to Tolcacher’s classmates while he attended what is now California State University at Northridge. Tolcacher’s alma mater is also that of actor Cheech Marin — half of the 1970s acting duo of Cheech & Chong, known for its stoner schtick.
That background, Tolcacher says, informs his perspective on the state’s legalization of marijuana two years ago and the opening of retail shops this past summer.
It also tells him the impression that more students are trying to bring marijuana and related products into Prosser’s schools, or are coming to class high, isn’t a coincidence.
“I grew up in an era where I’m not a stranger to this kind of stuff,” he said.
School officials throughout the Mid-Columbia report that they are having more issues with students using marijuana and related products this school year. That includes more students trying to sneak the drug into buildings but also school nurses having to provide medical attention to affected students more often.
“The use, at least anecdotally, is considerably up,” said Carl Hamilton, a security guard at Kennewick’s Kamiakin High School.
Not all schools are seeing the trend, though, and those that are don’t yet have hard numbers on how this year’s incidents compare to the past. And law enforcement officials said there aren’t more juvenile offenders being brought in on marijuana-related charges.
But the state’s transition to decriminalized recreational marijuana has largely ignored how to keep it out of the hands of children, some school administrators said, and they are struggling to adapt to a society that no longer fully prohibits the drug.
‘We’ve seen the edibles, we’ve seen the vaporizers ...’
Hamilton saw clothing, pill bottles and even calculators used by Kamiakin High students this past fall to sneak marijuana into the school.
If a student wasn’t willing to risk smoking marijuana at the school, he said, it was still easily within reach during the school day. Hamilton noticed a number of students appeared high after coming back from off-campus lunch breaks.
Kennewick police were involved in two different incidents involving minors with marijuana at Park Middle School over two days in early December. A student admitted to smoking pot at school and had drug paraphernalia on him when searched, police reports said. He was expelled by the district and referred to juvenile authorities. The next day three students were caught smoking marijuana in a restroom and one had more in a small baggie. All three were also referred to the joint Benton and Franklin counties juvenile department.
Richland’s two high schools have reported more disciplinary issues involving marijuana, said district spokesman Steve Aagaard. The Sunnyside School District saw more students possessing marijuana this fall, said counselor Cathy Kelley, and more students are being expelled for bringing in large quantities or having repeat offenses.
“To me, it’s an embarrassment,” Klippert told the Herald, noting the incident is one of the reasons he’s drafting a bill to prohibit recreational marijuana in the state.
The Kiona-Benton City School District recently hired a private drug dog and handler to search its high school’s parking lot and lockers for contraband. Two students were disciplined after the dog found something in their cars on Jan. 12, but district officials declined to say what was discovered.
“Most of the (parent) comments I’ve received were thank yous,” said Ki-Be Superintendent Wade Haun.
More stores, more problems?
School officials noted that students have brought marijuana into schools for years, just as tobacco and alcohol also have had a presence on school grounds or at events. Sunnyside in particular has struggled with marijuana in its schools since the drug was approved for medicinal purposes in the late 1990s, school officials said.
But the number of incidents this year is too coincidental to not be related to the opening of recreational pot stores, they said. What’s more, many students who are caught tell authorities they are getting it from people who purchased it legally.
That’s consistent with data presented at a recent conference for school attorneys by the National School Boards Association. The report, “Through The Haze,” cited a 2014 survey of school resource officers in Colorado, after the state allowed recreational marijuana sales and possession. Most of the 100 officers surveyed reported an increase in marijuana-related incidents at school following legalization.
That’s also being seen by juvenile officials for Benton and Franklin counties.
“When I asked around, the one observation that was provided is that it appears kids are more comfortable sharing that they took it from their parents,” said David Wheeler, interventions services manager for the juvenile department, in an email. “Not sure if that means they have more access to parents’ stash, or if they’re more comfortable disclosing this since it’s now legal.”
There were 224 documented medical cases of children being exposed to marijuana in the first 11 months of 2014, up 40 percent compared with all of 2013, according to the Washington Poison Center. Benton and Yakima counties were in the top 10 for number of incidents, though only Yakima saw more cases in 2014 and both had fewer than 10 reported incidents.
Poison center officials also noted slightly more of the state’s marijuana exposure incidents involved children younger than teenagers. Edible marijuana products may be partly to blame, they said, particularly for a spike in cases in October when authorities warned parents about the possibility of marijuana edibles ending up in kids’ trick-or-treat bags
Availability of the drug isn’t the only problem, though, school officials said. Law enforcement is no longer actively training drug dogs to search out marijuana, Gates said, which means they can’t help track it in schools.
Tolcacher has sought documentation of what edible marijuana products are available for sale so it’s easier for teachers and administrators to identify but has not been provided any information, he said. He also protested when the marijuana plants of a grower on the Old Inland Highway grew above the 8-foot fence surrounding them, putting them in view of the school buses that drove by it twice a day, but no action was taken.
“No one seems worried about the kids,” he said.
Setting the stage
State voters approved Initiative 502 in November 2012, legalizing the growing, processing and sale of marijuana for recreational use for adults 21 and older. It decriminalized possession of up to one ounce of usable marijuana and also allowed the sale and consumption of marijuana-infused products, ranging from oils to chocolates.
The first 24 marijuana retailers, including stores in Prosser and Union Gap, opened in July after the state’s liquor control board finalized rules and policies and carried out inspections.
But federal law still prohibits the drug. Schools must be drug-, alcohol- and tobacco-free places, a requirement to receive federal dollars, state education officials said. Even those with medical marijuana cards may not bring the drug onto school property.
“Students need to be engaged and prepared for school,” state Superintendent Randy Dorn said in a release in the days after the vote on I-502. “Marijuana doesn’t allow them to be either of those things. Marijuana dulls the brain. It can lead to paranoia, short-term memory loss and depression.”
No perfect system
Officials with the state’s liquor control board said the state’s recreational marijuana system is highly concerned with keeping the drug from minors.
Retailers face severe penalties if they are found to have sold any of their products to youth, said Mikhail Carpenter, spokesman for the liquor control board, and none have been cited since they opened.
I-502 included a health component that requires a campaign for reaching out to minors about the effects of marijuana and resources for parents to talk to their kids. Packaging guidelines for edible marijuana-infused products are strict and must clearly identify what is in them.
“What we’ve created here is a tightly regulated and controlled system,” Carpenter said.
School officials likely have shared concerns about the availability of the drug with the liquor control board, though Carpenter said he wasn’t familiar with those conversations. Youth also may be getting a hold of the product from people who did purchase it legally, but that is not the fault of the retail stores or the state system, he said.
“We are implementing the will of the voters of Washington state,” Carpenter said.
Prosser-based marijuana retailer Altitude, Marijuana Retailers Association and Northwest Producers and Processors Association did not return requests for comment.
Health officials noted the increase in cases of marijuana intoxication aren’t necessarily tied to the availability of recreational marijuana — the October spike reported to the state’s poison center was largely attributed to medical marijuana dispensaries, which aren’t tightly regulated. And most calls to the poison center came either from health care facilities or residences. Three, or 1 percent of all calls, came from schools.
The increase in incidents at schools may not necessarily mean more kids are using, but are just becoming more brazen. Wheeler said Benton and Franklin counties were actually on track to have fewer marijuana-related juvenile referrals for 2014 compared with 2013.
The state will conduct a survey of students this spring asking about marijuana use, said Don Moyer, spokesman for the state health department. Similar past surveys often provide candid, good information, he said. But marijuana use, while reportedly up, isn’t the biggest health risk facing youth.
“Actually, it seems e-cigarettes are a bigger issue,” Moyer said.
And not all schools are seeing more problems with the drug. Columbia School District’s three schools in Burbank haven’t reported more issues this school year compared to prior years, said Superintendent Lou Gates.
Chiawana High School administrators haven’t seen increased issues with marijuana this school year, either. Pasco School District officials said the district was on track at the end of December to have slightly fewer marijuana-related disciplinary cases compared to the 2013-14 school year.
“Our students know we’re pretty good about finding it,” said Chiawana High Assistant Principal Ryan Baker.
In the end, though, marijuana is still taboo for minors. That alone may drive its continued prevalence among some students.
“If they want it, they’re going to get it,” Baker said.