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Worry: The effect on kids | Schools concerned by marijuana plan

by Kayla Friedrich   | News & Citizen

    “My concern is the idea that little kids, not even necessarily kids in our schools, are going to be negatively impacted by this type of proliferation of marijuana,” said Jim Brochhausen, a Stowe School Board member, at a meeting last week.
    A proposal to legalize recreational marijuana use has been winding its way through the state Senate, and could be passed along to the House late this week. 
    Because the bill has been fast-tracked through the Legislature, school organizations are only now raising concerns over how it will affect children.
    If passed, S.95 would permit anyone age 21 or older to possess limited amounts of marijuana for recreational use. 
    The state would establish a marijuana control board within the Department of Public Safety; it would be responsible for overseeing the structure, cultivation, production, testing and sale of marijuana, and would also handle registrations for dispensaries. Smoking joints would be prohibited in public spaces.
    Taxes on marijuana sales would be funneled toward public education about the safety risks of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, evidence-based criminal justice programs, substance-abuse treatment services, law enforcement, municipalities that host marijuana establishments, the Youth Substance Abuse Safety Program, and academic and medical research on marijuana. 
    Are the measures in the bill enough to protect children?
    “When the bill talks about kids, it talks about having safeguards so kids can’t buy it,” Brochhausen said. “What they don’t discuss, which is the real issue, is secondhand smoke. When you take a step back and look at the issue of secondhand smoke, for years Vermont has villainized Big Tobacco because of it. What’s lacking in the talks about legalization of marijuana is the impact secondhand smoke could have on kids in particular.”
    A health impact study conducted by the Vermont Department of Health recommends that marijuana use not be allowed in public places to protect children. However, the bill does not limit marijuana use at home when children are present. The study also favors a ban on marijuana use by anyone under age 25, rather than 21.
    According to the study, people don’t know the exact effects that marijuana use has on a developing brain, and the brain is still developing until age 25. 
    Setting that age restriction would protect children, youth and young adults during rapid brain development and academic involvement. 
    Brochhausen believes that the Vermont School Boards’ Association, which has a vision of “ensuring that the futures of all Vermont children are driven by their aspirations, not bound by their circumstances,” should take a much tougher stance on the marijuana legislation. He wants it to say oppose legalization of marijuana, to take care of every child in the state.
    The school boards’ association is taking no position on the recreational marijuana bill, particularly because it doesn’t want to be cut out of the conversation. 
    The association “decided that they had to take some sort of stance on this bill,” said Stuart Weppler of Elmore, one of the association’s directors. “So, we discussed three options: We could say no, and essentially do nothing; we could oppose the legislation, which is what the Vermont League of Cities and Towns has done; and then the third one was to adopt a resolution that was similar to the Vermont Superintendents Association, which didn’t take a stand on the rights or wrongs of marijuana use in the general population, but set some parameters. 
    “It said if it’s going to be legalized, these are the issues that are going to affect our children and our school systems, and they need to be addressed in any bill that comes out of both the Senate and the House.” 
    The school boards association decided to take option three, and came up with a draft resolution that looked at nine factors of legalizing marijuana that would affect children. The resolution, if approved by the association, would call on the Legislature to address all nine factors.

Taking the same stance
    The Vermont Superintendents Association started looking at marijuana legalization when it became apparent that the Legislature was looking at it. 
    “It’s sort of a complicated issue,” said Jeffrey Francis, executive director. “What we concluded is that we needed to seek assurances on the issue, rather than take a narrow stance. Proponents of the bill look at the regulation of marijuana as a way to gain control. Opponents don’t buy into the argument. The (superintendents association) is largely occupied by a complex array of policies specific to keeping it out of schools.”
    If marijuana is legalized, Francis says, the bill must reduce marijuana access for kids, because Vermont schools already struggle with marijuana use by kids and families.
    According to the health impact study, marijuana is the No. 1 substance for which Vermont students are suspended from school. In a sample of 130 Vermont educators, half reported they had not noticed an increase in marijuana use from the 2013 school year to 2015, but two-thirds expect to see an increase under a regulated system. 
    “Are we really better off, are kids better off, with a regulated system and more control over access? I don’t know, but our effort is to make sure that important issues get addressed if the legislation is passed,” Francis said.
    Those issues, according to the superintendents association resolution, are reducing access for individuals under 21 years old; assuring that child protection is at the forefront of actions taken by the Legislature; assuring that state agencies have the capacity to implement and respond to the legalization; assuring that the Agencies of Human Services and Education have enough resources to respond to challenges associated with marijuana use by students and their families; and assuring that the state will pay for any new obligations for schools associated with the legalization, such as education and prevention activities. 
    Brochhausen made a motion that the Stowe School Board tell the school boards association that it is adamantly opposed to the bill, and wants the role of secondhand smoke included in the legislation.
    The Vermont Principals Association took the same stance as the superintendents association. 
    Likewise, the Vermont Agency of Education believes the approach to marijuana legalization must be deliberate and cautious, and its foremost concern is to protect and support Vermont’s youth.
    “We recognize that Vermont currently has one of the highest rates of teen marijuana use in the nation,” said Rebecca Holcombe, secretary of education, “and we know using marijuana negatively affects the physical health, mental health and academic achievement of adolescents. For those reasons, we appreciate the governor’s efforts to find a smarter approach that will allow us to address this critical issue.

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