Our condolences to the family in Colorado who lost two sons to overdose deaths. How did this tragedy happen? Here is what we’ve been told:
Teenage son number one got caught with a little weed. Then it was teenage son number two. According to the prevailing culture of Colorado, their parents didn’t think that they had that much to worry about. It’s a rite of passage and a expression of teen-aged angst. Everyone does it. Be glad they aren’t smoking tobacco or eating too much junk food, we rationalize.
Teenage son number one then tried opiates. Then son number two followed. Such progression isn’t at all uncommon. It’s not surprising to treatment providers. Marijuana use significantly increases the risk of opiate addiction, and there’s plenty of medical evidence to back it up.
In December, we learned that both sons — their parents’ only children — have died within six months of each other. Can you imagine this couple’s devastation? Our hearts break for them.
The United States cannot afford marijuana legalization. Why are we giving young people the impression that marijuana and drug use is inconsequential. We are contributing to the 52,000+ overdose deaths in 2015 by pretending there’s a safe way to use drugs. Promoting “responsible use” of drugs is promoting a lie.
Colorado’s marijuana legalization has wreaked havoc on Pueblo, and city will be featured on 60 Minutes on November 6th. (Date has since been changed to Oct. 30) After nearly four years of legalized pot, many in the community are rebelling. By initiating Propositions 200 and 300, citizens of Pueblo hope to regain a voice in their future. A “yes” vote on both initiatives will shut down marijuana businesses in the city and Pueblo County.
Seventy percent of the counties in Colorado opted out of Amendment 64, which commercialized marijuana. The city of Pueblo banned retail marijuana, but the county of Pueblo licensed marijuana grows and retail stores. In 2014, we reported on the efforts to ban retail expansion in Pueblo West. Pueblo County commissioners promoted marijuana as an opportunity to fill empty factories and create jobs. Acting against the wishes of most of the county’s 160,000 residents, commissioners decided to license marijuana businesses..
An influx of 15,000 migrants moved to Pueblo for easy access to the drug. Some of the newcomers also hoped to find jobs in the pot industry. Tent villages are housing newcomers who can’t afford or find homes. Pueblo has always taken care of its homeless, but it can no longer handle the huge number of people needing services. Social services, soup kitchens and emergency rooms are stressed to the breaking point. Approximately one-third of county residents, 67,000 are on Medicaid.
Doctors from Three Hospitals Hold Press Conference
The medical community recently held a press conference, announcing that 237 physicians signed a statement supporting “yes” votes on the propositions. Physicians who spoke at the event detailed some of the health risks coming from marijuana use in the community. Dr. Steven Simerville, a pediatrician and Medical Director of St. Mary-Corwin Hospital, reports that 7-10% of the babies born are testing positive for THC. THC is the psychoactive compound in marijuana. Dr. Simerville cited a dramatic increase in attempted suicides, a five-fold increase since legalization. Every suicide attempt in the community, except one, involved THC.
Dr. Karen Randall an emergency medicine doctor affiliated with several of the Pueblo hospitals said that many of the newcomers to the area are coming to the emergency room with multiple and severe illnesses. Dr. Randall believes the Pueblo community could be on the verge of a public health disaster. She explained that those living in tent camps are at risk for the same communicable diseases found in refugee camps: flu, pertussis, cholera, tuberculosis. Randall, who previously worked in Detroit for a large city hospital as disaster coordinator, says she fears the Pueblo community health system is not equipped to deal with such an outbreak.
The black market is growing alongside the legal industry. Sheriff’s office reports that foreign cartels from Laos, Argentina, Cuba and Russia are now operating in Pueblo. The cartels are buying or renting homes and setting up illegal grows. Law enforcement has busted sixty illegal grows in 2016, but there are 1500 other documented grows –also illegal. Sheriff Kirk Taylor is also retooling his tracking methods to account for the increasing crimes associated with marijuana . Currently Pueblo has the highest murder rate in the state, at 11.1 per 100,000.
Rural Areas, Crime, Gangs and High Teen Use of All Drugs Reported
“Those living in the rural areas are scared,” reports Paula McPheeters of the Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo. “The marijuana grows are despoiling the land and draining the water aquifers. Squatters are growing marijuana and crime is increasing.” McPheeters says the community is being overwhelmed by outsiders moving in and taking over. Gang activity is increasing, drive by shootings, petty crime, auto theft are now big problems in a once peaceful community.
“Pueblo County now has 20 retail marijuana stores, compared to our 18 McDonalds, Starbucks and Walmart stores combined,” says McPheeters. The county took in 3.5 million in tax revenue from the marijuana industry, but McPheeters says, “The social costs to the community could easily be upwards of two times that amount.”
The biggest concern to those seeking to pass the ballot initiatives is the increase in youth drug use. Thirty one percent of high school students are using marijuana, three times the national average. Tragically, 12% have tried methamphetamine or heroin. The community has inadequate drug treatment facilities, so when teens get into trouble with addiction it is difficult to get them help.
A Cautionary Tale
Pueblo offers a cautionary tale against trying to resolve a government’s financial difficulties with tax revenue from marijuana. This relatively small city with a population of 120,000 is a former steel mill town which fell on hard times. It ranks number two in the state for poverty.
The Pueblo experience warns public officials to listen to the people’s will before allowing predatory businesses. It warns other communities what can happen to the youth when they’re surrounded by these businesses.
Pueblo may have some of the worst crime problems in Colorado, but it is not as bad as Eureka and Humboldt County, California. Humboldt County’s murder rate is 18.7 per 100,000 people, and it reports 250 missing persons per year.
Born in Massachusetts, our son started out life with a very bright future. As a toddler he was interested in things with wheels, and anything his big sister was doing. As he got older, Legos was his obsession. In his early school days he tended to get really into a subject, even those of his own choosing. For a while it was Russian language and then it was the Periodic Table. He begged me to buy him a 2½-inch thick used Chemistry textbook before he was a pre-teen. I did.
I was able to be a stay-at-home parent until our son was 8. I tried to do all the right things. We played outside, limited screen time, and got together with other little ones and their moms for play groups. I read to him and his sister every night until they both reached middle school and wouldn’t let me anymore. Our son routinely tested in the 99th percentile on standardized tests and at least 3 grade levels above. Now, at age 17, he has dropped out of high school.
My husband and I both have Master’s degrees, and my husband is a public school administrator. His father is a retired architect. My mother is a retired elementary school teacher. Our family believes in education, we believe in learning and growing. When asked why he continues to use drugs, mostly marijuana, my son said, “I think it’s because of the people we’re around.”
In reflecting back on “What happened?” I blame marijuana. We now live in Colorado, where marijuana is legal and widely available to everyone. What if we had never moved here?
How it All Began
My son’s first time using was in 7th grade when marijuana was legal only if used medicinally with a “Red Card,” if recommended by a physician. Coloradans voted on legalization in November 2012 and marijuana stores opened in January, 2014. But back in 2012, he and some buddies got it from a friend’s older brother who had a Red Card. From what I can tell, the use just kept escalating until his junior year in high school when he was using at least once a day…and when he attempted suicide.
Between that first incident in 2012 and the suicide attempt in 2015, his father and I waged an all-out battle on the drug that was invading our home. We grounded him; I took to sleeping on the couch outside his bedroom because he was sneaking out in the middle of the night; we yelled and screamed; I cried, we cajoled and tried to reason with him: ”You have a beautiful brain! Why are you doing things that will hurt your brain?”
We did weekly drug tests, we enlisted the school’s support, we enlisted our family’s support and we even tried talking to his friends.
But nothing worked. Our son was in love with marijuana. Our sweet, smart, funny, sarcastic, irreverent, adorable boy was so enamored with this drug that nothing we did — NOTHING — made any difference. And we slowly lost him.
At the same time I was battling marijuana at home, I was also leading a group in our community to vote against legalizing it in our small town. I had teamed with a local business-owner and a physician and the three of us got the support of many prominent community members, including the school superintendent, the police chief, and the fire chief. We ran a full campaign, complete with a website where you could donate money, a Facebook page, and yard signs.
My son’s use isn’t the reason I got involved. I had started advocating against marijuana legalization long before I even realized he had a problem. My background is in health communication and I work in the hospital industry. I sit on our local Board of Health, so allowing retail stores to sell an addictive drug just doesn’t make any sense. I did think about my children; what I was modeling for them; what kind of community we were raising them in, and the kind of world I envisioned for their future. Those are the reasons I got involved. My son’s use is actually the reason that I’ve pulled away from any sort of campaigning.
Unfortunately, we lost our fight. So in 2014, it became legal in our small town to purchase pot without a Red Card. And the following year, his junior year, he almost slipped away from us forever.
It Got Scarier and Scarier
His use by then had escalated to daily (and I suspect often more than once a day). Pot seemed to be everywhere! We found it hidden all over the house — in the bathroom, on top of the china cabinet, in his closet, outside, even in his sister’s bedroom. It’s a hard substance to hide because of the strong smell. Even in the “pharmacy” bottles and wrapped in plastic bags, the skunk stench still manages to seep out. But it sure seemed easy for a young boy to get!
He started leaving school in the middle of the day, or skipping school altogether, and his grades plummeted. Where he was once an A/B student and on the varsity cross-country team, he was now failing classes and not involved in anything. This boy who had tested in the 99th percentile was failing high school. And this boy who had once been the levity in our home, who used to make me laugh like no one else could or has since, this boy became a stranger.
Our son withdrew from everything except his beloved drug. His circle of friends (never big in the first place), was reduced to only those who could supply him with marijuana. His relationship with his older sister all but disappeared. And his relationship with his father has been strained beyond almost all hope of repair.
Then in late 2015 our son attempted suicide. He was hospitalized, first overnight at the very hospital where I work, and then for a 3-day locked psychiatric unit stay. I remember very little from this difficult (and surreal) time except learning that it wasn’t his first attempt, and that he blamed us for how awful he felt. He started taking an antidepressant and after he was released we took him to a drug counselor for a total of three visits but after that he refused to go — he threatened to jump out of the car if we tried to take him. We tried a different counselor and that only lasted for one visit.
Changing Strategies and a Truce
At this point I convinced my husband that we had to approach things differently, because obviously what we were doing wasn’t working. We stopped the weekly drug tests (we knew he was using so there seemed to be no point anyway). We stopped yelling and punishing. And basically my husband stopped talking to our son altogether — they are both so angry and hurt that any communication turns toxic very quickly. He refused to go back to school so we agreed that he could do online classes.
There is an uneasy truce in our home right now. Now it just feels like waiting. Waiting for what will happen next. Waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Our son, 17, still lives with us. His sister left for college this past summer. I acknowledge that he uses pot and doesn’t want to quit, but I continue sending the message that it’s not good for his brain. The one thing my husband and I won’t bend on is no drugs on our property. He has started five different online classes, but has so far finished only one. He doesn’t feel any pressure to finish school — he says he’ll get a GED, but hasn’t made any effort towards that end. He doesn’t drive and doesn’t express any desire to learn, which is probably good because I doubt he could be trusted to drive sober. He started working at a local restaurant recently and has been getting good feedback from his managers, which I take to be a positive sign. (I’ll take any positive signs at this point!)
Trying Something Else and Blacking Out
I don’t know if the suicide attempt and hospitalization were rock bottom for our family, but I suspect not. Just this past weekend our son came home and I could tell he was on something — and it wasn’t marijuana or alcohol. I checked him periodically throughout the night and in the early morning he was awake and asked me how much trouble he was in. I replied that it depended on what he had taken. He said Xanax. He also said that he had blacked out and couldn’t remember anything that had happened from about an hour after he took it.
Later in the morning, when we were both more awake, I asked him about the Xanax (he got it from someone at the restaurant) and the pot use and what he saw for his future. He has no plans to stop using, but said that he probably wouldn’t take Xanax again (he didn’t like blacking out). He said that he’s very happy with his life right now, that he knows a lot of people who didn’t go to college who work two or three jobs and live in little apartments, and that he’s happy with that kind of future for himself.
I tried not to cry. Imagine that as the goal for a boy who started life with so much curiosity and such a desire to learn.
It’s not that I don’t think he can have a good and decent life without a college education. But I know that he’ll have a much harder life. Statistically, Americans with fewer years of education have poorer health and shorter lives (partly due to lack of adequate health insurance), and Americans without a high school diploma are at greatest risk. It’s not just life without a college education, but it is life with a brain that has been changed by marijuana. Will he be able to give up pot? If he does give up pot, will he recover the brain he had at one time? Will he lose motivation?
I asked him why he used pot when he knew how his father and I felt about it and when we had tried so hard to steer him in a different direction.
He said: “I think it’s because of the people we’re around. And all the drugs that are around.”
I’ve finally accepted that his use is not in the range of normal teenage experimentation, and I’m barely surviving on the hope that he’ll eventually grow out of it…and that he doesn’t do any permanent damage. In the meantime, I’m sorry that we ever moved here.
Since 2009, the state Legislature has taken liberties with the school funding formula mandated by the voter-approved Amendment 23, using the so-called “negative factor” to cut funding every year. The Legislature has relied on circuitous reasoning and intricate formulas to withhold crucial money from school districts across the state.
We’ve felt the impact of those cuts in the Cherry Creek School District. We’ve been underfunded by about $50 million annually. Since 2012, $380 million has been withheld from Cherry Creek. We’re facing a shortfall of more than $20 million for the 2017-2018 school year. These cuts have the potential to impact every facet of district operations, from recruiting new teachers to maintaining a reasonable class size.
It’s a crisis that’s tied to our fundamental priorities as Coloradans, one that won’t find an easy remedy from the state’s nascent marijuana industry. People keep asking me, ‘Where’s the pot money?’ The short answer is that the Cherry Creek School District hasn’t received any. The longer answer is about how the money actually is allocated.
The lead-up to the legalization of marijuana in 2012 brought plenty of rhetoric regarding the positive impact on public schools in Colorado. Voters were told that taxes on legal marijuana would prove to be a windfall for cash-strapped school districts; millions of dollars’ worth of education cuts from the state would be offset by new income from a new vice tax.
That’s not what happened. In the fiscal year 2014-15, for example, taxes from the sale of recreational marijuana in Colorado totaled $77.9 million, $66.1 million of which came from special sales and excise taxes.
For context, the state’s general fund is about $9.7 billion, and the total state budget is $26 billion. By state law, the first $40 million of the excise taxes from marijuana sales went toward capital improvements for poor and rural school districts, and the remainder went toward marijuana education, treatment and regulation and enforcement programs across the state.
The Cherry Creek School District saw none of that money, nor did most of the other large school districts in the Denver metro area.
Similarly, the Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) grants allotted for the 2016-17 year by the State Board of Education will have no impact on Cherry Creek Schools. Funding for projects in Aurora Public Schools, Adams 14 and Westminster all carry the contingent of matching funds from the school districts, and the vast majority of the 31 awarded grants will go to rural districts far outside of the metro area.
But to be eligible for the grants, those school districts must pass a local bond issue first, or already have matching capital funds available.
So far, the only thing that the legalization of marijuana has brought to our schools has been marijuana.
This isn’t a new story. Taxes on alcohol and tobacco haven’t fixed the state’s quandary when it comes to funding public education, nor have revenues from lotteries or casinos.
The reality is that any fix will have to come from a much more complex and overarching effort. To offer our students the resources they need to learn, we need a much more profound change at the state level, one that comes down to real and lasting change. It comes down to spelling out our collective priorities as Coloradans, to urging our elected representatives to do the hard work and make sure that students in Colorado receive the funding spelled out by a voter-approved constitutional amendment.
That effort is much more complex than any easy fixes offered by legal marijuana. (Harry Bull, Ed.D. is Superintendent of Cherry Creek Schools)