Editor’s note: This is the first part in a two-part series about the effects of legalized marijuana on children and law enforcement agencies.
EAGLE COUNTY — Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo hugged Silverpeak Apothecary owner Jordan Lewis just before the store made its first recreational marijuana sale on March 5.
“I’m glad you’re doing this,” DiSalvo told him. “This is a big deal for all of us. You’re doing this the right way — this is the model.”
It was a sight that might have seemed normal in Aspen, but it was still a sight that made you scratch your head a little bit. A sheriff hugging a pot shop owner — you don’t see that every day.
Colorado’s recreational marijuana laws, which were written, rewritten and revised throughout 2013, took effect Jan. 1 of this year. Since then, law enforcement agencies around the state have been adjusting to the times, with many chiefs and sheriffs reacting with less enthusiasm or optimism than DiSalvo has.
But DiSalvo feels he has no reason to respond any other way. The two dispensaries that were the first to open in Pitkin County for recreational sales — Stash and the Silverpeak Apothecary, both on March 5 — were responsible throughout the entire application process, DiSalvo said.
“I think they waited to do it right, and I think that’s a big part of why I feel a little more comfortable,” he said. “I just want it to be done right.”
A right to weed
“Nobody wakes up at 9 a.m. to buy weed.”
That’s what Bryan Welker, of Carbondale, said after becoming the first person to buy legal recreational marijuana in Pitkin County on March 5. It was 9:30 a.m., and Stash, located in the Aspen Business Center in unincorporated Pitkin County, had been open for recreational sales for 30 minutes. Only a handful of customers had walked through the doors by mid-morning, though.
Welker handles marketing for the business and arrived that morning to snap a few pictures. When he saw no one in line, he immediately realized he had the opportunity to become a part of Pitkin County history.
“So, I took that opportunity,” he said with a smile.
It was an exciting time for the store’s owners and employees. The guy checking IDs in the foyer area struggled to get his ID swipe machine to work, but other than that it was smooth sailing. Customers, most of whom did not look like stereotypical potheads, trickled through the doors all morning to buy marijuana.
A couple in their 60s came in, donning designer ski gear including a Descente jacket and a Gucci belt. They curiously looked at the display cases and quickly asked a staff member for help choosing the right marijuana products to smoke through an electronic smoking device.
The Texas couple has a second home in Aspen and wanted to stock up before skiing Aspen Mountain for the day. They didn’t want their names published, because “you never know who, of your friends up here, would be totally against this,” the woman said softly in a Southern accent.
Her husband said they hadn’t tried marijuana in 35 years and wanted to experiment again. They chose the electronic device because they don’t like the smell of weed or the idea that it might coat their clothing or furniture when smoked.
Weed on the brain
An Aspen mother of two, Jenn, came in around 9:45 a.m. after dropping her kids off at ski school for the day. The 40-something mom, who didn’t want her last name published, said she used to protest for marijuana legalization 20 years ago while attending college in Northern California. She made her purchase and was thrilled to finally exercise her right, she said.
While her children are not old enough yet, Jenn knows that she’ll someday be the one to educate them about substances like alcohol and marijuana. She admits she feels more guarded about legal marijuana than others might because she’s a mother. She questions whether the legal purchase age of 21 is too young since research shows that brains are still developing up to 25 years old.
That’s a point that DiSalvo and the Valley Marijuana Council, a group organized by DiSalvo made up of community and business leaders, want to drive home. The group has been working to promote marijuana education for children in the Roaring Fork Valley as legal recreational marijuana integrates into the community.
“The main message is, ‘It’s not for (children) — delay, delay, delay; put this off as long as you can,’” DiSalvo said. “If you can make it past 21, you’ve done yourself a big favor. … This is not a product for children. We have to keep hammering that home like we do with alcohol, driving, coffee — all the things we don’t want kids to do when they’re developing.”
In a study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin about the impacts of alcohol and marijuana on the young brain, early marijuana use points to severe cognitive consequences.
“Converging lines of evidence suggest that regular use of marijuana, starting before 18, is associated with increased deficits in poorer attention, visual search, reduced overall or verbal IQ and executive functioning,” the report states.
Colorado Teen Weed Brain is another group that formed in the Roaring Fork Valley to tackle this very subject. The group hosts educational forums to spread the word to parents and children in the community that marijuana, although legal, is not OK for kids. Their next meeting features a panel of medical and industry professionals on April 17 at Carbondale Middle School.
Roaring Fork School District spokeswoman Sheryl Barto said school principals have been reporting increased use and availability of marijuana since the legalization of recreational marijuana.
“Much of this is what students are reporting and what adults are observing; we haven’t yet seen statistical confirmation,” she said. “It will be interesting to see if we find spikes when we do our annual health surveys.”
School district officials had tried to examine discipline data during the past few years to determine whether there were changes in disciplinary action since medical marijuana was legalized, but data samples were too small, she said.
The 2011 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, a risk behavior survey of middle and high school students in Colorado done every two years, shows that marijuana use had not increased among high school students since medical marijuana became legal. Results from the 2013 survey are not yet available.
While things are running pretty smoothly in Breckenridge, where Police Chief Shannon Haynes said there hasn’t been an increase in marijuana-related issues since recreational shops opened in town at the beginning of the year, she still has concerns about local children and teenagers.
Still illegal for children
“That’s my only fear, I think, in this whole big picture,” she said. “Sometimes we lose sight of the education piece that is so important for our youth. Because of the medical piece and being around that for a couple of years, I think our youth starts to think of this as not an intoxicating substance like alcohol. We have to work hard to ensure we’re educating our young people about the risk.”
Haynes said that’s happening in Summit County — that schools, social services and nonprofits are partnering together to spread the message. She’s encouraged by results in the community, too. Between the start of ski season and the end of December, she said Breckenridge issued 15 tickets to minors openly consuming marijuana.
“But it’s dropped off drastically since Jan. 1,” she said.
The Eagle River Youth Coalition, a nonprofit in Eagle County that works with schools and youth throughout the region on reducing substance abuse, has multiple efforts underway to prevent marijuana use. A program in its pilot stage at Berry Creek Middle School, called Project Alert, was so successful this past fall that it will be growing this year, the coalition’s executive director Michelle Hartel Stecher said. For high schools, a similar program called Project Towards No Drug Abuse is also successfully underway. Both programs teach students about drugs during health classes at school.
There are no recreational marijuana stores open yet in Eagle County, but the coalition is already well prepared for challenges relating to the new industry.
“The biggest shift we’re seeing is that kids are reporting that marijuana is less harmful,” Hartel Stecher said. “When less harm is perceived, typically kids will start doing that behavior more. … Another shift we’re seeing is that they’re reporting it’s easier to get, so that’s concerning for us.”
In Eagle County, surveys show that kids report that “someone gave it to me” as the most common way they access marijuana, she said.
The news has prompted new programs for parents, such as parent education workshops that teach parents how to handle conversations about drugs with their teenage children. The next program is six sessions, spread throughout six weeks, beginning April 7.
At the Eagle County School District, which also works closely with the Eagle River Youth Coalition, lessons about drugs focus on the consequences of drug use so students can make the right decisions, said spokesman Dan Dougherty. Instruction has also adapted with the times as educators see new issues to be concerned about.
“The legalization of marijuana has elevated the sophistication of the drug culture — vapor cigarettes can be adapted for marijuana, prescription inhalers, the odor is being reduced and/or eliminated to make it harder to detect — so our instruction is responding to include these new techniques,” Dougherty said. “This has a two-fold effect: it conveys that we know what is going on (and how to catch wrong doing), and warns them of what to be leery of.”
Glenwood Springs Police Chief Terry Wilson likes the community collaboration he’s seeing in response to legalized marijuana, but he’s not so sure the true effects of legalized marijuana will be known for some time. When medical marijuana was legalized, he was pleasantly surprised that his department saw a lot less trouble with it than anticipated. He said there was, however, “a proliferation of 16-year-olds showing up at high school smoked out of their gourds.”
“I truly don’t believe we’re going to understand the consequences for 10 to 20 years,” Wilson said. “Are we going to raise a generation of people less developed and less productive because of allowances we’re making? The answer scares me.”
Read tomorrow’s paper for part 2, which looks at the law enforcement side of legalized marijuana.
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-777-3125.