Smoking marijuana became a lifestyle choice for adults in California over the age of 21 on Jan. 1. For minors and adults under 21, however, the consumption of cannabis remains illegal.

As a result, K-12 school administrators, including those at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School (SYVUHS), are taking a proactive approach to education and enforcement, but aren't changing much.

“Illegality aside, our position on marijuana hasn’t changed,” said Mark Swanitz, principal at SYVUHS. “It still has a negative impact on students. It’s still a gateway drug. It’s still illegal for students to use.”

Swanitz said administrators and teachers are taking a proactive approach to the legalization of marijuana instead of a strictly reactive response.

“We try to teach students healthy choices, but we understand there are students who are going to stray from that. We have a mix of school discipline and counseling programs,” Swanitz said.

High school students under 18 who are caught with cannabis or under the influence of it can be required to take drug education classes and contribute toward community service. If they’re over 18 — but under 21 — young adults can face fines of up to $500 and six months in jail.

PE for health

The high school is relying on its physical education department to address the legalization of marijuana. Beginning this year, SYVUHS PE teachers will educate freshman students about the use of cannabis from a “healthy choices” standpoint.

Enter Jennifer Rasmussen, head of the school’s PE department.

“We used to have health for a mandated session but they decided to dissolve that class and fold it into a physical education class,” said Rasmussen, who is also an Advanced via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher for grades nine through 12. “With this new law coming in, the school hasn’t really told us what to cover. I’m trying to get the sheriff’s department to come in and talk to our students.”

In the interim, the initial focus of Rasmussen's health class will be on comprehensive sexual education and HIV prevention education, per the California Healthy Youth Act that took effect in 2016. In May, SYVUHS is planning a drug education class.

“We feel like that’s a good time, with summer coming up,” said Rasmussen, who has a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and a master’s degree in education, both from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Rasmussen and Swanitz both pointed to ambiguity about how the federal government will enforce marijuana laws -- the drug remains illegal at the federal level and recently the U.S. Justice Department ditched its hands-off approach.

“With the federal government cracking down on states, the whole state of California is in an uncertain [position] with regard to marijuana laws,” Swanitz said.

“We know, from an educator’s view, students need to be substance free,” Swanitz said. “It’s a dangerous path to go down.”

Rasmussen — who has three kids, including a son in high school — said she believes the law gives students the false impression that marijuana is safer than it is.

“I believe there is going to be more negative impact than positive,” the PE teacher said. “Statistics show it’s a gateway drug.

“The legalization of marijuana takes some of the stigmatization off of it,” she continued. “Students see that and think it’s OK.”

More powerful pot

Swanitz said he’s concerned today’s cannabis is far more potent than it was in the past, and that people are consuming it in new ways.

“We are seeing marijuana and THC being used in a lot of different ways,” said Swanitz, referring to tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychotropic ingredient that gives cannabis its hallucinogenic punch.

“They’re using THC-based oils, they’re rolling it in cigarettes and they have access to different delivery systems,” he continued, pointing to vaping pipes, baked goods and other foods.

“The thing I’ve noticed, since [Prop 64] was passed, is we’ve continued to catch the same number of students with marijuana,” Swanitz reported. “It’s the variations of how they use it that’s changed.”

The principal said he’s surprised by the unrecognizable substances he encounters when students are suspected of possessing illicit drugs, prompting the question of whether adults need to be educated about increased use of opioids, sleeping pills and other narcotics.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had students brought into my office with something and I look at it and I don’t know what it is,” Swanitz said. “I have to look it up on the Internet.”

Law and searches

More students are researching the subject of marijuana and asking questions, said Rasmussen, which she said is a positive.

“In my AVID classes, where we have student debates, it’s been brought up more,” Rasmussen said. “They like to bring up Trump and his initiatives with the wall. And the legalization of marijuana has been brought up more.”

She said it’s helpful to shine light on the subject of legalizing marijuana because it prompts students to understand both sides of the issue.

“They come in with, ‘Uh, look what’s happening,’ and I think it’s more important for them to look it up and research the laws,” Rasmussen said.

Statistics bear out younger students are less likely to engage in experimental drug use than are juniors and seniors in high school. Additionally, there is minimal follow-through once freshman students advance to grades 10–12.

“I think an area we need to look at is how we’re educating sophomores, juniors and seniors,” said Rasmussen, noting the physical education department motto — Fit for Life. “We need to reach out to our coaches to reach the students that are not freshmen.”

Parental concerns

Swanitz said he has not seen an increase in concerns among parents following the change in law Jan. 1.

“Parents have not come to us inquiring, ‘What are you going to do about this?’” Swanitz said, adding he believes parents whose kids attend the Valley’s only public high school trust administrators and teachers to enforce drug policies fairly.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a zero tolerance policy, where kids get kicked out immediately if they’re caught with drugs or alcohol,” he said. “The use of drugs or alcohol [today] is not a heavy handed or draconian approach. There is an understanding that kids — and everyone — make mistakes.

“I firmly believe that parents have a right to expect that students are not going to find drugs or alcohol available on campus,” Swanitz added.

Rasmussen said she sometimes sees parents who are open to the use of marijuana among young people.

“There is a huge spectrum of what’s allowed in the home,” she said. “There’s all different levels of what parents think is acceptable and what is not. As the conversation has taken place, it legitimizes it … I imagine because of the fact that it’s legal for adults, kids will see it in the home.”

Nonetheless, Swanitz made clear the school has a legitimate role to play when it comes to enforcing drug laws and protecting all students.

Staying in PE

The emphasis is on staying healthy, Rasmussen said. To the extent that marijuana use hinders cardiovascular fitness, it’s important to educate students about side effects from smoking cannabis, or tobacco.

“I only have one PE class this year and they’re all very positive students,” she said. “They enjoy when we run off-campus and they feel that improvement when we increase their endurance.”

As a PE teacher, Rasmussen explained it’s also important to teach kids about healthy dietary habits.

“I see a lot of harm just in sugar consumption,” she said. “As potentially harmful as smoking marijuana is, the consumption of sugar is actually more prevalent among kids — and across society.”

In his role as principal Swanitz has to weigh the various federal mandates and state laws with community needs and parental expectations.

“One of the things that’s nice about being a small school is we can react really quickly,” he said. “We’re very nimble in that way.”

Based on his experience as a school administrator, Swanitz explained the best way to react to California’s new law is to “embed it with physical fitness and health.”

This way, “it’s less of a lecture and more about health,” he said of educating students about marijuana use. 

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