A handful of students from Denver’s East High School recently spent a warm January lunch period huddled against a brick home two blocks from the school, passing a joint and discussing the merits of medical marijuana.
It smells better than what you get on the street, they say, and is more potent. The buds are whole, not ground up like oregano.
“I get top shelf,” boasts a 16-year-old boy. “My cousin works at a dispensary. So he brings maybe two zips (plastic bags) a day that they’re just going to throw out.”
Across the street is a medical marijuana dispensary that advertises “a trip to the moon” for customers. It is exactly 753 feet from East, according to the school’s former principal, who has measured it several times. Another dispensary is 1,010 feet away.
“This is not in any sense healthy for our young people,” said John Youngquist, the former principal who has pleaded for years for help in protecting schools from the proliferation of dispensaries.
Federal prosecutors echoed those concerns in January when they targeted medical marijuana dispensaries within 1,000 feet of schools for their first crackdown since hundreds of shops with names like “Dr. Reefer” and “Ganja Gourmet” began spreading across the state in 2009.
U.S. Attorney John Walsh cited a “dramatic increase in student abuse of marijuana” in warning 23 dispensary operators to move within 45 days or face criminal action and seizure of their property. That deadline expires Feb. 27.
Scores of other dispensaries can expect shutdown notices soon. In all, Walsh now says he plans to target over 100 Colorado dispensaries located within 1,000 feet of a school, relying on federal law that creates stiffer penalties for any drug use near schools, playgrounds and places where young people gather.
The federal Drug-Free Schools Act applies to public and private schools from grades 1-12, along with both public and private colleges and universities. For now, Walsh says he is committed only to cracking down on dispensaries near public and private schools and higher education campuses, and not other gathering places.
An investigation by Education News Colorado, Solutions and the I-News Network shows the number of drug violations reported by Colorado’s K-12 schools have increased 45 percent in the past four years, even as the combined number of all other violations has fallen.
The statewide data do not distinguish between marijuana and other drugs but interviews with school and district officials, health care workers and students across Colorado depict marijuana as the overwhelming cause of the increase.
Some school officials used descriptions such as “drowning” and “under siege” to portray their battle with the increase in drug violations and what they view as a seismic shift in student attitudes about marijuana.
“When I grew up, it was horrible if you got caught with pot,” said East teacher Matt Murphy. “Now there are little green medical signs everywhere. It seems healthy. We’re at the front lines of this huge shift where kids think it’s OK.”
Among other findings of the investigation:
- Suspensions for drug violations in Colorado schools rose 45 percent between 2007-08 and 2010-11 while expulsions for drug violations increased 35 percent and referrals to police increased 17 percent. In contrast, the overall suspension rate for all other violations was down 11 percent while expulsions and police referrals for other violations dropped 25 percent.
- In Denver, the increase in referrals to law enforcement for drug violations was particularly high, spiking 71 percent in four years. Denver police in 2010 began listing marijuana arrests at city schools separately from other drug incidents, their records show 179 arrests for marijuana possession or sale at 43 Denver Public Schools between Aug. 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011, with a third of those arrests occurring at elementary, middle and K-8 schools.
- Suburban and rural areas are not immune. Grand Junction schools saw a 55 percent increase in drug violations in four years while they’ve doubled in the St. Vrain Valley district. Thornton High School in Adams 12 Five Star reported three drug violations per 100 students in 2007-08 and eight violations per 100 students in 2010-11 while Cherry Creek’s Overland High School saw its rate per 100 students rise from two to more than five in four years.
- Up to 53 medical marijuana dispensaries are within 1,000 feet of Colorado public schools. Statewide, 95 elementary schools are within a half-mile of a dispensary while 27 middle schools and 23 high schools are that close.
Located along downtown Denver’s busy Colfax Avenue, a hotspot for marijuana businesses, East is among the schools statewide surrounded by multiple dispensaries. But East is far from alone.
Disagreement on effect of dispensaries near schools
The investigation found some of the schools with the biggest increases in drug violations have multiple medical marijuana dispensaries within a mile or closer.
East, seen by many as Denver’s premier public high school, has had up to five medical marijuana dispensaries within a three-block radius of its campus. The number of drug violations at the school has tripled since 2009.
Palmer High School in downtown Colorado Springs is within a mile of as many as eight dispensaries. The school reported one or two drug violations in 2007-08 and 2008-09, then 75 violations in 2009-10 and 45 violations in 2010-11.
But not all schools with nearby dispensaries saw an increase in drug violations and some reported their numbers of drug-related incidents declined.
Brian Vincente, director of Sensible Colorado, an advocacy group pushing for the legalization of marijuana for adults, said dispensaries are not to blame for increases in student drug violations.
“There’s never been a recorded case of dispensaries selling marijuana to high school kids,” he said. “That is not the problem. Dispensaries are a highly regulated industry.”
Vincente says students are getting marijuana the same way they’ve gotten it for the past 50 years illegally.
Others see a clear link between the dispensaries and increased student use of the drug.
“Of course there’s a correlation,” said Rebecca Hea, executive director of the Denver Children’s Home, which provides a drug and alcohol counselor at East.
“It’s a lot easier to get access to marijuana,” she said, noting the number of referrals to the East counselor “is growing so astronomically, she’s unable to meet the need.”
“There is a perception that if it’s medically sanctioned, it can’t be that bad,” Hea added.
“It seems condoned because the name medical is in front of it.”
Nicole Veltze, principal at Denver’s North High School, which also has a number of dispensaries nearby, said the actual location of the dispensaries doesn’t matter as much as the fact they’re widespread.
“The kids aren’t going to the dispensaries,” she said. “The kids have access to other people who have access to dispensaries. So whether you live near or far from a dispensary, if you have a friend, you can get it.”
Veltze is particularly concerned about long-term repercussions for kids.
“When marijuana is found on students, we have to call law enforcement,” she said. “Due to the rise in availability of marijuana, we’re making more and more calls to law enforcement for this, and so we’re contributing to the criminalization of our kids.”
Students say medical marijuana cheaper, easier to obtain
Youngquist, who was principal at East for five years until getting a promotion in December, is convinced that dispensaries near schools increase use.
“They create a context for students that is all about marijuana, a context that says this is healthy,” he said. “There’s just a very, very large amount of marijuana present in our community and there’s easy access for young people.”
The school has taken a proactive stance, with administrators frequently patrolling nearby Colfax Avenue during lunch. It’s then, and driving to and from the school, that Youngquist noticed students hovering near some dispensaries.
“It’s as easy as standing outside,” he said. “If you keep your eyes open and drive by, kids will be out front waiting for the possibility” to buy.
Some East students have a term for it. They call it “shoulder-tapping.”
“You stand there and when someone goes in, you say, ‘Hey, will you get me some weed in there?’” explained a 17-year-old boy.
Some older students, older siblings and recent graduates have medical marijuana cards, the boy said. There are even coupons to sweeten the transaction.
“Buying through dispensaries is cheaper than buying on the streets,” he said. “You call people who have a card. There are buy-one, get-one free deals.”
Managers of dispensaries near East did not return calls for comment.
East students are divided over whether nearby dispensaries are fueling an increase in marijuana use.
“The fact that they’re close by makes it easier for it to happen at school,” said one 16-year-old girl, but she added, “If kids really want to do it at school, they’ll find a way to do it.”
Another boy, 16, said he thinks the sheer number of dispensaries may make the drug more attractive.
“That’s probably the effect that dispensaries have,” he said. “It’s like Starbucks. You think what’s so good about Starbucks? And you’re going to go try some.”
More than a dozen students interviewed said they see a growing number of their classmates using marijuana.
“It’s become more of a thing to do at school, to rebel or if you don’t like a class,” a 16-year-old girl said. “It’s a way to not skip class, but not be there in a way.”
Some communities ban dispensaries, others disregard school buffer
Schools are singled out in contradictory local, state and federal regulations governing the use of marijuana.
While Colorado voters have approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and voters will consider an initiative this fall to legalize it altogether in this state, federal law still views it as illegal.
State laws regulate medical marijuana businesses to some extent, including creating a 1,000-foot buffer around schools, but they also allow leeway for local authorities. So while 85 municipalities have banned dispensaries altogether, others have allowed them as close as 400 feet to schools.
In Denver, City Councilwoman Jeanne Robb said city officials acted only after the dispensaries began proliferating, so they compromised in allowing dispensaries already less than 1,000 feet from a school to continue operating.
Robb supports the federal crackdown but isn’t sure it will make a difference.
“Once medical marijuana was accepted in the dispensary form, it can be 1,000 feet from a school or 1,005 feet from a school. The youth who are inclined to find it will find it,” she said.
“Our society has said it’s medicine. I’m afraid it removes the idea that it’s still a drug. Now the question is how do we deal with the fallout on our youth? I’m not sure we can really go back.”
Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown, a key sponsor of city’s medical marijuana regulations, said he was “shocked and disappointed” by the increase in drug violations in schools.
“We need to get the people out of the business who shouldn’t be in the business,” he said. “Our job is to clamp down and make sure they don’t abuse it and if they are, we’re going to close them down.”
The federal action is likely to shut down only one dispensary near East. But for Youngquist, that’s a start.
For years, he said he felt nobody was listening as his staff struggled to respond to the growth in medical marijuana dispensaries around the school.
“I’ve gone and spoken with members of city council and state legislators and asked the question regarding the impact on youth,” Youngquist said. “They told me, ‘It’s not something we thought about.’”
“I’m disappointed that young people weren’t considered when our government decided to implement a law and make medical marijuana legal.”
“The stakes are a lot higher than you think.”
The call came last fall while the young single dad was at his construction job.
“It was the hardest day of my life,” he said.
The man’s son, an East High School freshman, had been busted with baggies of marijuana at a Colfax Avenue parking garage adjacent to the school.
His arrest was one of 18 at East for marijuana possession last year and among the 179 arrests for marijuana possession or sale at 43 Denver schools during 2010-11, according to Denver police records.
The boy said he purchased the marijuana from a senior at school. He was naïve enough to divide it into smaller bags and write friends’ names on them.
“His whole intention was to sell it and make some money. There are quite a few kids there with a lot of money. He was trying to fit in and make some money,” the boy’s dad said.
The names of the father and son are being withheld because the boy is still a juvenile.
While Colorado schools report an increase in drug-related incidents and both national and state surveys show a rise in marijuana use among young people, this father has a message to other parents and kids.
“The stakes are a lot higher than you think,” the dad said. “You’re doing something illegal and you’re playing with fire. Sooner or later, you’re going to get burned.”
He believes young people are confused by mixed messages that bombard them. On the one hand, medical marijuana dispensaries are located near schools and advertise their products as “healthy” on storefronts, online and on radio stations with young audiences.
On the other hand, East officials are taking a proactive stance against the use of marijuana by students and federal law enforcement officials in January announced a crackdown on medical marijuana shops within 1,000 feet of schools.
The 36-year-old father said he never had a strong opinion on the marijuana debate before, but now thinks medical marijuana dispensaries should be illegal.
“Nobody thought about the kids,” the dad said. “How do you tell your kids this is wrong when you’ve got a guy with a sign dancing around and saying, ‘Come get this’?”
On the day the boy was caught, school resource officers hauled the 15-year-old back to East, arrested him, and charged him with two felonies: attempted distribution and attempted distribution to a minor.
The dad couldn’t bear to watch as the officers loaded his son into the police car and drove him to the Gilliam Youth Detention Center.
Because of a holiday, the boy ended up spending four days locked up before a judge in Denver’s juvenile court could hear his case. He experienced some bullying that led to a fight and some minor injuries.
Ultimately, he was confined to house arrest for two weeks, expelled from East and later harassed online for being a snitch. He had rocks thrown at his car and had to miss weeks of practice for his elite club sports team.
“It’s been devastating for him,” the dad said.
The boy transferred to another Denver high school and his grades plummeted.
“He had never been in trouble before. He had great grades. He went from a 4.0 to a 2.5” grade point average, the father said.
The boy is now on probation. If he can stay clean for two years, the felonies will be expunged from his record. He returned to East this year and is doing well again in school.
“I don’t want to see other kids go through that,” the dad said. “You don’t realize how this impacts the rest of your life. It impacts him getting into college and getting jobs. This has affected both of us pretty heavily.”
Timeline: Evolution of medical marijuana in Colorado
- 2000 – A majority of Colorado voters, 54 percent, approve Amendment 20 allowing caregivers to provide medical marijuana to patients who suffer from specific conditions. Patients must have recommendations from a doctor and register with the state.
- 2009 – Medical marijuana dispensaries proliferate across the state after a new U.S. attorney general signals the federal government will not prosecute medical marijuana in states that allow it and the state health board considers but declines to limit the number of patients a caregiver can serve. With no state law in place to regulate dispensaries, some municipalities begin approving their own regulations.
- 2010 – Local authorities continue their own efforts to govern medical marijuana dispensaries. Some, including Denver, approve a 1,000-foot buffer around schools but allow those already there to continue operating. State lawmakers enact legislation, effective July 1, to regulate and tax medical marijuana businesses. It includes a 1,000-foot buffer around schools but allows local officials to make exemptions.
- 2012 – Federal prosecutors on Jan. 13 notify 23 dispensaries operating within 1,000 feet of schools that they have 45 days to move or face criminal prosecution. The deadline is Feb. 27. Federal law, which continues to see marijuana as an illegal drug, carries enhanced penalties for drug possession or distribution near schools. State records show more than 700 dispensaries located throughout Colorado.
Source: Research by EdNews, Solutions and the I-News Network
Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a reporter for Solutions. This report is part of a collaborative investigation by three nonprofit news organizations: Solutions, Education News Colorado and the I-News Network.
Burt Hubbard, of I-News, and Rebecca Jones, of Education News Colorado, contributed to this story, which was a collaboration of three Colorado-based nonprofit news organizations: Education News Colorado, Health Policy Solutions and the I-News Network.