Saturday, November 13, 2004

Number of Pot-Smoking Students Alarms Educators

Students' pot use alarms educators
Facing an uphill battle against marijuana, schools say new law sends wrong message
Grace Macaluso
Windsor Star
Saturday, November 13, 2004

Danny sucks on the joint like a pro. At 17, he started smoking marijuana shortly after entering high school, and lunch hour is prime time for getting high.
"Everybody does it," says Danny, who asked that his real name not be used. "It's no big deal." He and two other friends pass around the joint as they huddle in an area of Jackson Park that's far enough away from the watchful eyes of Kennedy high school administrators. The marijuana cigarette was purchased just minutes ago from a fellow student - one of a handful of dealers who profit from on-site demand for a drug that has become a fact of life in Ontario high schools.
Marijuana use among teenagers has risen to the point where it has overtaken tobacco for the first time as the second most popular drug of choice behind alcohol, according to a recent study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. The trend is alarming school officials and politicians, who fear it will only get worse under Ottawa's plan to decriminalize marijuana.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense," says Randy White, Conservative solicitor general critic and MP for Langley-Abbotsford. "Canada should be telling kids not to smoke pot; instead we're telling kids 'you'll just get a fine.' "
Federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, who reintroduced the legislation earlier this month, insists the bill constitutes a multi-pronged approach that includes tougher penalties for grow-ops as well as funding for a public education campaign aimed at discouraging the use of marijuana and other illicit drugs.
"Cannabis use is harmful and it will remain illegal in Canada," Cotler says. "Combining cannabis reform with this public education campaign will reinforce the message that marijuana is illegal and harmful to one's health."
But the minister's reassurances offer little comfort to principals like Tom Halliwill, who face an uphill battle against pot-smoking students who believe inhaling a joint is no worse than consuming alcohol.
"There are drugs in every school in North America," asserts Halliwill, principal of W.F. Herman high school. "I think it's more socially acceptable; a lot of parents do it. In the media they're talking about decriminalization. Well, kids read the paper, too, and it seems smoking pot doesn't carry the same stigma it had during the '70s."
In fact, in the minds of some students, pot is far less harmful than tobacco. "Cigarettes are worse; they're addictive," says Jason, a Grade 11 student at Herman who didn't want his real name published. "Pot can become habitual, and you know what's in it. It's not like cigarettes that contain chemicals like formaldehyde. Look at what second-hand smoke can do to you."
At F.J. Brennan Catholic high school, principal JoAnne Shea says the eight pot-related suspensions she handed out last year do not reflect the full extent of use among students. "I'd literally have to be policing alleyways," says Shea, adding that the school hears from nearby residents and businesses complaining about kids smoking up.
The majority of Brennan's 1,027 students are not using marijuana during the school day, says Shea. "We're hearing that pot is the drug of choice during the week; on the weekends it's alcohol."
Major challenges for principals include detecting use and catching kids in the act, she says. "We're always trying for evidence; it's easily camouflaged."
And it's affordable. "I was offered some just this morning during food and nutrition class in second period," says Herman high school student Jason, a pot smoker who declined the offer. "Pot is sold in the school on a regular basis."
The going rate for one cigarette is $5, or three joints for $10, he says. "You can make good money."
Identifying drug dealers is also easy, says 16-year-old Kennedy student Derek - not his real name. "Most people that deal are always high," says Derek, who used pot weekly until it started affecting his grades and athletic performance. Now, he indulges "once in awhile, on a Friday when I'm with friends.
"My parents said I can smoke weed as long as I don't get into trouble and continue to do well in school, but they didn't like that I was doing it."
Richard Pollock, a Windsor lawyer and federal prosecutor, attributes the rising use of marijuana to the ever-increasing supply of marijuana from large-scale hydroponic operations in the area. But more troubling, says Pollock, is the cultural shift that has contributed to the growing perception that pot use is acceptable.
"I've prosecuted cases where children under the age of 16 have been caught consuming cannabis out in the open, in public places and not hidden for fear of getting caught. I've prosecuted cases where teens were smoking up and their parents were aware of it.
"This debate (over decriminalization) is taking place in a vacuum without considering how it's affecting the lives and activities of our children."
Under Ontario's Safe Schools Act, a student found to be under the influence or possession of a drug, including alcohol and illegal substances, faces an automatic 10-day suspension, says Vickie Komar, supervisor of social work at the Greater Essex County District School Board. "And, there's always a recommendation to student and families to seek counselling through a variety of agencies that can provide education and support."
While both the public and Catholic boards offer anti-drug workshops and assemblies featuring police officers and a variety of public speakers, schools can't tackle the problem alone, say education officials.
"It has to be a community response; like the campaign against drinking and driving," says Komar. "The message has to be that it's not socially acceptable.
"As long as the message among teens is 'everyone is doing it,' it becomes normal behaviour and it's much more difficult for us to step in."
Even teens who refrain from using pot face intense peer pressure to smoke up, says Katie Moore, a Grade 12 student at Brennan. "People call me a narc, a police narcotics officer, because I want to stop drugs. If you're one to go against it, you're looked down upon."
Determined to spread her anti-drug message, Moore says she's researched the impact of pot, noting the grade on the streets today is far more potent than what was available in previous years. "The THC is much higher. It's going to affect your judgment, especially when you're driving and you're high."
Current growing methods have made pot more potent, said Const. Deb Mineau, spokeswoman for Essex Ontario Provincial Police. In 1960, an average marijuana cigarette contained 0.2 per cent THC - the mind-altering ingredient in pot, says Mineau. Today, the level of THC in an average joint is between five and 14 per cent.
Users like Derek agree that pot isn't a benign drug. "I couldn't concentrate in school," he says. Push came to shove when he began playing competitive hockey. "I was skating real slow. So that's when I cut back."
Still, misconceptions about pot are widespread, says Stephen Gard, Focus Community co-ordinator at the Teen Health Centre.
"It's becoming normalized. I'm being told that it's not that bad. Some teens think decriminalization means legalization."
And some teens, like Bogdan Babos, an 18-year-old student at Herman, doubts the battle against pot can be won. "Obviously it's there. You won't be able to stop them from trying it. I know they're going to try it sooner or later -- it's a given."
Adds Jason: "They've been trying to stop kids from having sex for how long, now? If they want to do it, they'll find a way to do it, so why stop them?"
Drug use among students from Grade 7 through Grade 12 (2003)
Alcohol 66.2 per cent
Cannabis 29.6 per cent
Binge drinking 26.5 per cent*
Cigarettes 19.2 per cent
Hallucinogens 10 per cent
Pot use soared from 6.2 per cent in Grade 7 to 44.8 per cent in Grade 12.
In the spring of 2003, 6,616 students in Grades 7 to 12 from 37 school boards participated in the study by The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health's Ontario Student Drug Use Survey.
* Binge drinking (five-plus drinks on one occasion) refers to the past four weeks time period.