A year after recreational marijuana stores opened, Colorado is still trying to determine the impact on youth who aren't legally allowed to use pot.
Recently released data shows that in the last school year drug incidents in Colorado middle and high schools reached a ten-year high and certain districts standout in the data including the Mesa County Valley School District.
Mesa County District officials say they are trying to address the problem through more education.
This is the second story in KVNF's two-part series on student drug use in the Mesa County Valley School District.
With nearly 22, 000 students, Mesa County Valley School District 51 is the 12th largest district in the state.
Recent data compiled by Rocky Mountain PBS I News from the Colorado Department of Education shows this district saw 22 percent more student drug incidents last year than the year before.
District 51 reported 200 incidents. That’s just under 10 cases per one thousand students—one-third higher than the state average.
Cathy Haller, the prevention services coordinator for the district, said schools in Mesa County are reporting more students getting in trouble for marijuana.
"A couple years back there was a doubling of our expulsions for substance use," Haller said. "And I truly believe that is due to availability. It used to be that kids had to work really hard if they wanted to be able to find marijuana or other substances and now with the legalization and the availability it’s just there."
Last November, District 51 launched a new drug intervention program called Pathways. It’s for first and second time student drug offenders.
The five-day program takes place off campus.
Haller said its run by mental health specialists who focus on working with kids with substance abuse issues.
"They do a screening and evaluation to indicate if it’s an abusive, addictive issue with a youth or whether it’s just experimentation," she said.
Cody Roark is the assistant coordinator for Pathways. He said the district tries to tailor the program to fit a student’s individual needs.
"Commonly we see students coming into the program on the first day with the mindset that they know everything there is about marijuana and the affects of it and how they think it’s cool and they think it's okay," Roark said.
The students spend more than 30 hours of classroom time learning how drugs can harm them, and they meet with counselors to help sort out what is going on in their lives that would lead them to use drugs in the first place.
He said the program also tries to teach kids critical thinking skills that the counselors hope will help these young people make better choices.
"In five days realistically we cannot change a behavior, but we plant the seeds and get them to engage at a level of which we can come to an understanding in meeting them where they are at and addressing their [issues] and trying to help them come up with a plan to help to eventually overcome and understand the effects of their choices," Roark said.
So far more than 50 students have completed Pathways.
Roark says the Mesa County School District is working a tier two program for repeat offenders.
State data shows last school year drug incidents in Colorado middle and high schools reached a ten-year high. And, that increase is being driven by more cases at middle schools.
Haller said District 51 is seeing this trend.
"We are seeing an increase in use at the middle school level," she said. "It is primarily marijuana. We have seen some increase in the use of pills."
Haller thinks student drug use is going up because certain substances are more available.
She said now that pot is legal it’s easier for students to find, and it’s not hard to steal a few pills without an adult noticing.
"We don't have this in hard data, but anecdotally kids will tell us they got it from their parents or they got it from friend’s parents," she said. "That doesn't mean it was necessarily supplied by them but they were able to secure it in their own home."
Neural Activity is a youth-led organization in Mesa County where high schoolers talk to middle school students about the dangers of drug abuse.
High school senior Macharnie Skalecki, 17, is the president of her local chapter.
"We try to promote natural highs instead of synthetic highs," Skalecki said. "We go into middle schools and show them presentations on how you can have a good time without getting these synthetic highs from drugs."
She says she’s done about 20 presentations at area middle schools since the organization launched over a year ago.
"I feel like drug prevention these days has been focused mostly at high school students, but for Neural Activity we strongly believe that the problem starts sooner than that," Skalecki said. "I think it’s important to get in their minds the issues that are going to arise and the problems they might have to face."
Skalecki believes younger students are more likely to listen to older kids since many of them face the same issues.
"The kids are actually really receptive to what we have to say," she said. "My first presentation I was really nervous going in thinking that some of the scientific numbers and results that we found might go over their heads but they are actually super excited to learn what we have to tell them and they take it in really well."
Haller said it’s not realistic for adults to think they can keep students away from drug if they want to try them, but schools and parents can teach kids about the physical and social consequences of substance abuse.
"I think that education is the key because we can't protect our kids from these things," she said. "They have to have some buy in into the fact why it is not a good idea for them at this point in their lives."