Marijuana legalization and its impact on schools

Superintendents want legal clarity, and more health research
By: | December 9, 2016

Superintendents in states that passed referendums legalizing marijuana in November are pressing for more clear legal guidance on how to best address issues like drug possession. They also say more research is needed on the possible impacts of marijuana legalization on K12 academic achievement.

“I don’t think anyone has any clear answers at this point—there’s a lot to learn” says Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “What are the rights schools have toward students or personnel who might have used during the day or prior to the school day? Is it treated the same way as alcohol? What are the legal options?”

Scott’s organization opposed marijuana legalization last spring, voicing concern that increased access to the drug could impact students’ brain development and exacerbate the number of youths requiring behavioral and mental health interventions.

Colorado: The guinea pig

Although marijuana use among teens has remained relatively constant since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2012 (according to the 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey), administrators say it’s too soon to know how legalization may or may not impact test scores or graduation rates.

Tom Turrell, superintendent of Byers School District in Colorado, says he’s seen an increase in student marijuana use over the last three years, with school staff finding the drug hidden in campus restrooms more frequently. While recreational marijuana use is legal in the state for adults over 21, it remains illegal for minors and schools forbid its use or possession during school hours. The only exception is for medical marijuana treatments, but doses must be administered by guardians, Turrell says.

Marijuana possession on campus was cause for automatic expulsion before the 2012 law, Turrell says. Now it’s treated more like alcohol possession—students face suspension before expulsion.

Byers does random searches on campus with a drug-sniffing dog, but local police are limited in how they can test whether a student is under the influence of marijuana, Turrell says.

Monitor use

And some K12 leaders question how to monitor school staff. “How do we ensure a sense of righteousness for employees and for students?” says Richard Lyons, superintendent of Maine’s RSU #22 School District.

In Maine, educators have a range of concerns about marijuana legalization — from students showing up to campus high to the impact of parents smoking at home. For example, Lyons says children of parents who smoke at home could influence peers whose parents are less permissive about marijuana consumption.

Also, some parents might grow their own marijuana plants at home, so their children would have easy access. The new legislation will also impact schools if implementation of the law doesn’t ensure keeping pot out of kids’ hands, Lyons says.

Lyons hopes the new law can be addressed in a way that reduces teenager use through strong oversight. But he emphasizes the need for state and local officials to monitor student use and then work to develop strong early intervention programs. Specific solutions have yet to be created.

“Once we see the protocols and bylaws that give us guidance in how to adhere to this new law, then we can see what will be appropriate” Lyons says. It’s not clear when that might occur.