Cannabis & the Classroom

By Judy Owen

Sarah Collins hasn’t seen a huge increase in the number of stoned students at her Colorado high school.

Nor has she been handing out more drug-related discipline since the American state legalized the recreational use and purchase of marijuana by citizens aged 21 and older four years ago.

What the dean and former teacher has noticed, though, is a shift in attitude by students and their parents.

No longer is marijuana use viewed as a crime or health concern.

“I don’t think we’ve necessarily had an increase in behavioural incidents, but I think usage among our student population is probably up,” says Collins, who works at Northglenn High School in the city of Northglenn just north of Denver.

“For me, the bigger issue than that is of parents and the community; it’s very difficult to have those conversations. They sort of think that because it’s legal for some people, it’s not as big of a deal.

“I’ve had students say, ‘Well, it’s legal, like I’m just not old enough yet.’ When we ask where did you get it, I’ve had students say, ‘Well, my parents smoke so I just took some of theirs.’

“So then the conversation with parents is kind of difficult. They don’t see the negative impact of people using it. They think it’s just an issue because the kid’s younger.”

It’s a similar scenario for Dr. Jason Glass, the superintendent of Jefferson County School District, the second largest school district in Colorado.

“Canadian educators should expect some marginal increase in marijuana use and discipline violations related to this substance in schools, but if it’s anything like what Colorado experienced it’s not a dramatic change,” he says.

“That’s part of the debate or conversation. We just haven’t seen this massive infusion. It’s been marginal and at the edges.”

The conversation he’s had and heard about cannabis has also changed, even though it’s still illegal to use in public.

“I don’t have any evidence to back this up other than my personal opinion just being a citizen in the state, but (legalization) has sort of removed the stigma that comes with a substance being illegal that was there before,” Glass says. “That’s happened across the board in the state with the population.”

Glass oversees about 85,000 pre-kindergarten to Grade 12 students in 157 schools. One difference he’s aware of is the type of pot educators are finding.

“There is still a sort of illegally grown and an illegally distributed marijuana that comes into our schools, but what we’ve really seen the increase in is marijuana brought into our schools that was purchased legally and then resold to minors, much as what you might see with alcohol that’s bought at a liquor store and resold to a minor,” he says.

With the Canadian government planning to legalize the purchase of marijuana by summer 2018, Collins and Glass give a glimpse of what the future may hold for educators north of the border and offer insight into what could have been done better to prepare schools for the new law.

Collins is one of two deans at her high school in the Adams 12 Five Star Schools District. She’s in her third year as a dean, which she explains is an administrative position and  “teacher on special assignment.” It’s her seventh year at Northglenn, where she started as a language arts teacher. She previously taught that subject at a middle school for five years.

The deans deal with school discipline among the 2,100 students from grades nine to 12, including students under the influence of drugs or alcohol, attendance concerns and misbehaviour.

Collins says the attitude change toward marijuana since its legalization on Jan. 1, 2014, makes it more difficult for educators to convince students and their parents about the harmful effects of cannabis on developing brains.

“We talk about the importance of brain development and that they still shouldn’t be using it because they’re young,” she says. “Before it was legalized, the conversations were different because people overall thought it’s not OK, it’s a drug. I think now people kind of justify it a little bit more.

“Teacher union-wise, we took a pretty strong stance against it for a variety of reasons. We’ve all had to come to terms with the uses, that we see positive impact from medical purposes and then the negatives in school.”

The Liberal government’s cannabis tax force recommended a Canadian minimum age of 18 for purchase, but provincial and territorial governments can decide their own age minimum. Manitoba is considering age 19.

The Canadian Medical Association’s submission in 2016 to the task force pointed out that brains aren’t fully developed until a person reaches about age 25. Some of the risks it cited included cognitive impairment, cardiovascular and pulmonary effects (i.e. chronic bronchitis) and increased risk of mental illness. It recommended a minimum age of 21 and a minimum of 25 for “more potent” products.

Collins also flagged the potency of marijuana in her state.

“Because people can get it legally and it’s not the grown-in-the-basement or backyard kind of marijuana, it’s more potent,” she says.

“I think that’s one of the factors that probably no one has really thought of or it hasn’t really been addressed. The potency of the marijuana that kids are smoking is significantly higher than if they’re getting it from somebody that grows it at their house.”

Her school’s police resource officer can look at and smell the pot that’s found and tell its potency, she adds. They’re also finding more containers from dispensaries that sell medical marijuana, revealing someone is buying that pot and likely selling it to the kids.

The impact of drugs on the brain’s development is emphasized when students face drug-related suspensions. If students have three offences during three calendar years, they can potentially be expelled, Collins says.

Her school district’s policy is suspensions for three to five days, depending on each case. The district holds drug and alcohol classes for those students, as well as some attended with parents, and online classes. If completed, suspensions can be decreased.

Glass says one popular form of marijuana is a growing concern.

“One of the things that we know has increased is the use of marijuana that’s coming in via edibles, so things like candy or brownies or cookies or something like that,” he says.

“It makes it really hard for us to monitor when it comes into the school. We suspect that there’s been an increase in usage just because it’s coming in in forms that make it much harder for us to detect, but we really don’t have any evidence to support that.

“Certainly when a kid brought in a marijuana cigarette or joint, we could tell pretty clearly what that was. But a gummy bear looks like a gummy bear so it’s much more difficult for us to enforce. I wouldn’t say that we’ve seen a massive infusion of students sort of slipping them to one another. That occurs, but it may not occur at any greater rate than it did before.”

A U.S. federal law limits the location of retail marijuana stores to a minimum of 1,000 feet from schools, but local governments can decrease that distance or grandfather existing, closer businesses.

Collins says there’s a store across the four-lane road in front of her high school, but it hasn’t caused problems and the owner has talked with school officials.

“He’s trying to be a very positive community member,” Collins says. “(Store staff) also monitor the parking lot really closely.

“During our lunch period or frequent high-traffic times, they actually have a security person that comes out into that parking lot to make sure kids don’t come in. I don’t think we’ve had anything as far as that goes.”

If Collins has one message for Canadian educators, it’s be better prepared before marijuana becomes legal.

“I would say going back, if we could do some parts of this over, I think just the education piece would be helpful,” she says.

“Our freshman students or our seventh grade, eighth grade, probably in our health classes there should be some curriculum about what happens to your brain when you do these things.

“I think education for parents and students on what the negative impacts are, and then resources for parents and students when they find themselves in those positions, that would be the big thing, to set up resources and classes and things prior to it being legalized.”

Weed Revenue that Goes to Schools

Millions of tax dollars from the sale of retail and medical marijuana has been pumped into the Colorado education system since legalization in 2014. Colorado has a population of 5.5 million.

Here’s a breakdown of the tax revenue and the amounts that have gone to public and charter schools, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue (CDR) and Colorado Department of Education (CDE).

School Funding

In 2017-18, the CDE’s state education funding was a total US$5.6 billion. It received $90.3 million from marijuana tax revenue for that school year.

Marijuana Revenue

The CDR releases reports of tax and fee revenue from the state-wide sale of medical and recreation marijuana by calendar year. It was:

  • 2017 – $226.1 million (January through November)
  • 2016 – $193.6 million
  • 2015 – $130.4 million
  • 2014 – $67.5 million

Changes were made to the tax structure on July 1, 2017, boosting the total of taxes to 30 per cent from 28 per cent. Fifteen per cent comes from an excise tax and 15 per cent from a special sales tax.

Excise Tax

The 15 per cent excise tax is on wholesale retail marijuana related to sales from cultivation and product manufacturing facilities. Medical marijuana is exempt.

The first $40 million of the excise tax goes into a Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program assistance fund for school capital construction. Revenue above that amount is funneled into the treasury department’s public school fund. The excise tax is one of four funding sources for BEST.

In the fiscal year 2015-16, an additional one-time payment of $40 million went to the BEST fund. Since then, it’s been $40 million per year.

Special Sales Tax

When the special sales tax on retail marijuana and related products was bumped up to 15 per cent from 10 per cent on July 1, 2017, it became exempt from the 2.9 per cent state sales tax. However, that state sales tax still applies to medical marijuana and its products.

Ten per cent of the 15 per cent marijuana retail tax revenue is allocated to local governments and distributed according to the percentage of marijuana sales within city and/or county boundaries.

The remaining 90 per cent is a state government share divvied up three ways in the fiscal year 2017-18 with:

  • 28.15 per cent (minus $30 million) going into a general fund
  • $30 million into a state public school fund the CDE distributed to rural school districts, with 55 per cent for large rural districts and 45 per cent to small rural districts
  • 71.85 per cent into the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund.

However, for 2018-19 the 90 per cent will be split differently by:

  • 15.56 per cent staying in the general fund
  • 71.85 per cent credited to the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund
  • 12.59 per cent going to the state public school fund and distributed to all school districts

Marijuana Tax Cash Fund

Money in the cash fund must be spent the following year on health care, monitoring marijuana health effects, health education, substance abuse prevention, treatment programs and law enforcement.

The CDE has used revenue from this fund for four programs. In 2017-18 that was:

  • $11.9 million for a school health professional grant program to address behavioural health issues in schools
  • $2 million for school bullying prevention and education grants
  • $2 million for drop-out prevention programs
  • $4.4 million for early literacy competitive grants to ensure reading is “embedded” into kindergarten to Grade 3 curriculum.

Pot Cash for Schools a ‘Drop in the Bucket’

If Canadians believe weed will provide a windfall for school funding, that’s a pipe dream.

At least, that’s been the case for public schools in Colorado since the American state voted to legalize cannabis in 2014.

A portion of revenue from taxes on marijuana goes to schools, but it’s a “drop in the bucket,” a Colorado school superintendent says.

“I think like most sin taxes, which is what this would be like gambling and cigarettes and alcohol, they always sound great on paper,” says Dr. Jason Glass, whose Jefferson County School District (Jeffco) is the second largest district in Colorado.

“There’s this belief that lotteries or things like this are going to deliver all these tax dollars that we can do all these wonderful things with. To some degree there’s some truth to that.

“Yes, dollars have come into schools because of marijuana funds, but really this was marketed in Colorado as a solution to our school funding issues but it really hasn’t delivered at that level.”

According to a Colorado Department of Education (CDE) marijuana tax revenue and education fact sheet, the state’s total education funding in 2017-18 was $US5.6 billion for public and charter schools.

However, the CDE only received $90.3 million from marijuana revenue in that school year, including $40 million that went into the Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program assistance fund from an excise tax.

The BEST fund distributes money through grants for new construction and renovations. School districts usually have to match BEST funds.

Glass put that $40 million into perspective for Jeffco, which has 157 schools.

“(The) $40 million is about enough to build a good-sized middle school with athletic fields – one,” Glass says. “That’s the amount of dollars available for the whole state.

“In my district alone, we have a billion dollars in deferred maintenance. So even if we got all of the money from this for our capital construction needs, it would just be a drop in the bucket.”

A Marijuana Tax Cash Fund that receives money from a special sales tax provided $20.3 million to the CDE in 2017-18 for grants related to a variety of school programs.

Jeffco, which has nine per cent of the state’s students, applied for some of the $11.9 million of school health professional grants and received $825,164.

“Eleven million dollars for health prevention sounds like a lot of money…” Glass says. “(But) Jeffco schools probably has $500 million alone in staff costs, so $11 million across the whole state is a drop in the bucket.”

He added it’s actually more difficult now to raise awareness around school-funding issues “because people believe that marijuana money has solved all of our school finance problems when that really is not the case.”

He expects Canada’s education system will face some of the same issues when marijuana becomes legal in July 2018.

“I think sometimes the proponents oversell the benefits that it’s going to bring, especially the tax dollars that it’s going to bring in. At least our experience here in Colorado is that was an illusion.”

Rules and Regulations in Colorado

Recreational marijuana use became legal in Colorado four years ago amid plenty of debate by those for and against the new law. Here’s a look at some of the rules and regulations, according to state government documents.

  • In 2012, Colorado voters (54.8 per cent) passed Amendment 64 to make the purchase, possession and use of marijuana legal. The commercial sale of cannabis began on Jan. 1, 2014. Towns and cities can opt out of allowing recreational pot stores.
  • Only adults aged 21 and older can buy, possess or use marijuana. It’s a felony to give, sell or share cannabis with anyone under 21.
  • Those adults can possess up to an ounce of marijuana and can gift up to an ounce to another adult.
  • Starting Jan. 1, 2018, residences will be limited to a maximum of 12 marijuana plants in an enclosed, locked area that can’t be viewed openly or accessed by minors. Counties and municipalities can pass stricter laws. Homegrown weed can’t be sold. Laws are different for medical marijuana users.
  • Marijuana use – smoking, vaping or eating – isn’t allowed in outdoor or indoor public places, including streets, parks and school grounds.
  • Cannabis remains illegal at the United States federal level so Colorado citizens can’t possess or use it on federal property such as national parks and ski slopes.
  • A ban against the sale of marijuana edibles in the shape of animals (i.e. gummy bears), fruit and people came into effect in October 2017 in an effort to stop children from mistakenly thinking it was candy.
  • A federal law requires stores that sell medical or recreational pot to be at least 1,000 feet from schools, although there’s flexibility and shops can be grandfathered if schools are new or relocated.
  • A state bill passed directing the Colorado Department of Education to create and maintain a free resource bank for public schools by July 1, 2017. It would include materials and curricula about marijuana use. Upon request of a public school, technical assistance would be provided in designing age-appropriate curricula on marijuana use.
  • Students could lose federal financial aid opportunities for any marijuana use or possession charges.
  • Employers can test for marijuana and make employment decisions based on drug test results.
  • It’s illegal to drive while under the influence of cannabis. By law, drivers with five nanograms of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) per millilitre of whole blood can be prosecuted for DUI. Passengers also can’t use marijuana.

— This story was originally printed in the January-February 2018 issue of The Manitoba Teacher Magazine