Beyond the Buzz: Preparing adolescents to make healthy decisions about marijuana
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — With marijuana use becoming more and more normalized in Colorado, Routt County educators are abandoning the demonization of “weed” that their parents and grandparents attempted to foist on them. Instead, health teachers in the Steamboat Springs School District are putting their faith in the intelligence of their students.
Their method of teaching middle and high school students about the dangers of marijuana increasingly involves providing emerging 21st century adults with the facts they need to decide on their own to put off experimentation with marijuana.
“My hope is that I can give them more information so that they think about it, and talk with their parents so they will be more prepared when they have to make a decision about whether they want to use marijuana,” Steamboat Springs Middle School health teacher Marco Cuevas said.
Cuevas said, he doesn’t tell his students, “Don’t use marijuana because it’s bad.” That would only trigger a rebellious response, he explained.
And as it turns out, there are scientific reasons why middle and high school students should avoid marijuana.
Thanks to a new marijuana curriculum developed by Sarah Grippa and Molly Lotz, two former teachers at Yampa Valley High School, students and teachers here better understand the potential harm marijuana use poses to development of the adolescent brain.
With the legalization of retail sales of marijuana in Colorado, Grippa and Lotz said they consistently heard from their former students that because it was legal, the perception was that marijuana is akin to medicine. And in many ways, it can be just that.
Those conversations encouraged them to develop the Marijuana Education Initiative in 2015 to provide a curriculum to help teachers prepare their students for the changing world of marijuana morays.
The curriculum is based on a large body of scientific research that has established that marijuana can interfere with the development of the pre-frontal cortex of the adolescent brain, potentially robbing them of the development of many of the capabilities of mature adult brains, Grippa said.
National studies have shown the understanding of this danger is low among adolescents who tend to believe marijuana is not harmful to them.
Cuevas said that when the potential developmental risks of using marijuana are presented in a non-threatening, academic context, students are receptive to the message.
“They see it as, ‘Wait a second, why would purposely do something that could hurt me?’ If you give them the relevant information, they can internalize it and become more aware,” Cuevas said.
The South Routt School District is also teaching the MEI curriculum to middle and high school students in Oak Creek, where a grant from the Colorado Department of Education channels sales tax receipts from retail sales of marijuana to cover the cost of the program.
“I really like the program,” school district social worker Megan Wykhuis said. “They recently created workbooks that aligned with health skills that are part of Department of Education standards. Also, it’s huge to be able to have those conversations (with students) so directly because it’s so specific to Colorado. I have students in my classroom who know someone who uses marijuana for medical reasons. We give them really clear factual information
“We dispell the stigma around marijuana for medical uses – we give (students) around recreational use and why it’s still dangerous for adolescents.”
While researching their marijuana curriculum, Grippa said she and Lotz learned that alcohol and drugs can interfere with the coating of nerve cells in the adolescent brain with a fatty substance called myelin.
As the protective coating forms, the speed of neurotransmission in the frontal cortex accelerates and thought processes become more complex.
When marijuana use interferes with this process in young brains, the opportunity to acquire high-level thought – qualities that include emotional control, flexible thinking, reasoning and problem solving can be prevented from developing, Grippa and Lotz said.
The MEI curriculum also prepares students to understand the complexity of marijuana as a plant that contains more than 400 chemical compounds.
There are both scholarly and more accessible articles about the affects on marijuana on adolescent brains online.
Teaching the difference between psychoactive THC and CBD
Because Colorado enacted legislation in 2016 allowing a parent or “primary caregiver” to administer medical marijuana on school grounds, the MEI curriculum deals with that subject so that students understand what that implies.
As most adults know, THC is the psychoactive compound in a marijuana plant and it provides health benefits.
CBD is not mind altering and also offers numerous health benefits to humans, according to scientific research. The most broadly discussed example is the demonstrated the ability of CBD medicines to reduce epileptic seizures in children.
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