A 10-year-old Colorado Springs student this year traded a knife at school for marijuana.
High schoolers are using their lunch breaks to smoke weed and drink liquor, according to photos shared by the Colorado Springs Police Department. A 15-year-old girl smoking from a large pink bong captioned her photo, "Hell yeah" with tiny pink hearts.
All are recent examples of how marijuana affects Colorado youths, Colorado Springs police Sgt. Lisa Cintron said at a SmartColorado conference addressing fallout from recreational legalization of the drug. The photos had been turned over by 19 area school resource officers that week, she said.
"These are selfies, because they're proud," Cintron said.
The examples bolster a national and state narrative that more youths are using marijuana than ever.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse released a study last year showing daily marijuana use among high school seniors surpassed cigarette use, though the study noted the switch was more the result of a decrease in tobacco use than an increase in marijuana.
A September report from the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program said national youth marijuana use has increased 20 percent from 2011-12 to 2013-14. Colorado teens were the worst, it said, with youth use 74 percent higher than the national average.
From the perspective of the area's 19 school resource officers, marijuana use at schools is "rampant," Cintron said. What's less evident is how to stop it.
"You'll see in the photographs a cored-out apple to smoke with," Cintron said. "I mean, come on. How are we supposed to address that?"
One of the main issues driving drug use in teens is education, officials said.
Drug Abuse Resistance Education programs that once taught elementary and middle school students to "say no" to drugs have been dropped from Colorado Springs schools and almost all other districts in the county. Fountain still maintains a program.
Instead, students learn about drugs - particularly marijuana - from the internet, parents, peers, and, inadvertently, from the law, officials said. They're coming up with one answer: Marijuana can't be that bad.
A NIDA study confirmed that fewer adolescents view the drug as risky.
The latest Pew Research Center polls also show 57 percent of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana. Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational sales. Nine other states have forms of legalizations on their ballots this year.
Students are watching
School resource officers surveyed as a part of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area report ticked off defenses they've heard for marijuana use: Namely, the drug isn't harmful because it's a plant; it's legal, so it must be OK; and family members do it.
"Hardest part (is) telling kids that marijuana usage at an early age is detrimental to brain growth, but some tell me that my mom and dad say it's OK," an officer wrote in the anonymous survey. Some students "smoke marijuana at home with parents while watching TV at night," another officer said.
One school counselor surveyed wrote, "Their justification was it's fine because it's legal. If it's legal it's not as bad as what adults say about the risks."
Locally, Cintron said students defend school teachers who have been caught in classrooms with marijuana.
When DARE reconfigured its curriculum and removed the lesson on marijuana, students took it as another sign adults must be lying about the drug's harm, Fountain DARE officer David Langfels said. The program's makers said it wasn't appropriate content for kids that young and to only talk about it if asked.
They always do, Langfels said.
"The kids start asking if marijuana is OK to use because it's not in the book," Langfels said.
A Colorado Springs issue?
Still, only one local school district recently admitted to rising drug problems.
Gregory Ecks, director of student discipline for Colorado Springs School District 11, said during the drug conference they've seen a "sharp" increase in marijuana use.
Reports turned into the state by law enforcement - a requirement through House Bill 15-1273 - showed D-11 had between 26 and 50 marijuana incidents at its high schools last year; between six and 25 incidents mainly at middle schools; and fewer than five incidents at the elementary level. It was the only district included in the report.
Other schools face the same
Of the 103 school resource officers surveyed in the 2016 High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area report, 82 percent said they have seen an increase in drug incidents at their schools, including students coming to class under the influence.
The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area report also said 62 percent of drug expulsions and suspicions nationwide during the 2015-16 school year were related to marijuana violations. (The report is not comprehensive. It is reliant on agencies voluntarily submitting statistics.)
"When we ask the kids why (they're using) . they're self-medicating: I have a big test coming up; I need to mellow; I've got to study; I've got to focus," Cintron said.
Four Colorado Springs-area school districts, though, told The Gazette drug use is less prevalent than reports claim.
Matt Meister, spokesman for Falcon School District 49, said the district saw an immediate spike in marijuana-related incidents in its secondary schools after recreational marijuana was legalized, but "only a handful of incidents" have been reported this year.
Samantha Briggs, spokeswoman for Widefield School District 3, said officials there have only just started separating out marijuana-related incidents, so accurate data wasn't available. What has gone up, though, is the number of parents presenting medical marijuana cards for their child, she said.
Harrison School District 2 also started collecting data on marijuana use only last year, spokeswoman Christine O'Brien said. Those numbers "aren't significant," she said.
Academy School District 20 had the most comprehensive data.
It's been surveying drug use since 1990, spokeswoman Allison Cortez said. The district's survey this year showed the percentage of sixth-, eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students who tried alcohol or marijuana has declined since 2014. Drug use in seniors is the lowest since 2002, Cortez said.
The two areas where drug use increased had nothing to do with marijuana, she said. More eighth-graders reported using inhalants, and 10th-graders were experimenting with heroin or sedatives.
A holistic approach
Schools say they're not giving up the fight.
Even without DARE, many schools have implemented other anti-drug programs to combat use, such as Communities That Care in D-11 and Project Alert in D-20.
Most of the programs also support student-led campaigns against bullying. Some place counselors in elementary schools to talk about being resilient and making good choices, which they hope translates to a "say no to drugs" attitude in high school.
All of the districts weave drug talks into health classes, and invite school resource officers to speak, officials said.
But drugs aren't the top concern anymore, the schools say. With the growing number of youth suicides reported across the districts in recent years, schools are switching focus to mental health.
The hope, officials say, is that the effect will be circular, indirectly impacting drug use because healthy students make healthy decisions.
"DARE was the days of 'Just say no.' That's not an option anymore," Cortez said.
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