Mercer Island senior Sarah Stewart, 18, spent her freshman and sophomore years at a private arts school in Michigan, where some kids—not Stewart—frequently got stoned to beat small-town boredom. She arrived as a junior at Mercer Island High School in the fall of 2014 hoping for a different environment. But her timing was off: That summer, Seattle’s first legal recreational marijuana shops opened. Suddenly, pot was all everyone could talk about.
“Marijuana became highly visible for students,” Stewart says. Who wouldn’t notice the new storefronts and signage near popular student hangouts, like the Capitol Hill Dick’s Drive-In? Who could miss the print and online ads for candy-bright pot sodas and sleek vape pens, presumably aimed at adults but sporting youth appeal?
Local kids are being pummeled with messages that pot is now OK, says longtime KING-TV reporter Roberta Romero, now director of development at Residence XII, a substance abuse program for women based in Kirkland. Romero, in recovery for alcohol addiction herself and the parent of twin teenagers attending Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, worries that the recent years’ barrage of local pot promotion isn’t being offset by prevention education for youth.
“Youth substance abuse education tends to focus on harder drugs or alcohol,” she says. “I haven’t seen a lot about pot.”
Since seattle’s first legal recreational pot shops opened in 2014, dozens of storefronts have sprung up in neighborhoods from Magnolia to West Seattle. We’ll soon see more, closer to home and work—the state is currently considering doubling the number of recreational pot shops in Seattle from 21 to 42. The Seattle City Council recently voted to whittle the buffer zone between pot shops and public spaces, such as parks, from 1,000 feet to 250 feet in downtown Seattle and 500 feet elsewhere (schools still get a 1,000-foot berth).
It’s not surprising that the state is improving access to legal pot for adults; legal marijuana is popular, supported by more than half of the state’s counties in the November 2012 election. It’s profitable, too. The state’s Economic and Revenue Forecast Council reports that retail pot is expected to bring in $1 billion in revenue through 2019.
But increasing availability for adults also means that youth are likely to have more access to pot. According to the state’s most recent Healthy Youth Survey, 10th graders who live with a marijuana user are more than five times as likely to report regular pot use. When kids ingest or smoke pot, it can lead to a slew of health-related issues, says Leslie R. Walker, M.D., the chief of Seattle Children’s Division of Adolescent Medicine.
Walker is closely involved with the drug-free community coalition Prevention Works in Seattle, or Prevention WINS, which partners with Seattle Children’s. Since Seattle’s first recreational pot shops opened in 2014, she says, “we’re seeing more emergency room visits for youth, for things like excessive vomiting, extreme paranoia and psychotic symptoms. And our schools are seeing an explosion of [students in possession of] pot-related paraphernalia and infractions related to pot.”
That’s a problem schools and parents are just beginning to grapple with, says Walker. One key issue: “Pot’s main mind-altering ingredient, THC, affects developing teenage brains differently than those of adults, impacting receptors in the frontal lobe that influence executive functions like critical thinking and problem solving,” she notes. Once the brain’s frontal lobe is fully developed, around the mid-20s, marijuana doesn’t have the same damaging effect.
The hit to cognitive function is permanent. One study from Duke University found that teens who use cannabis into adulthood lose an average of eight IQ points, compared to those who never used. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that early exposure to pot may make opiate drugs like heroin more enjoyable.
Long-term effects are sobering, as are the more immediate medical consequences. Marijuana overdoses are on the rise among youth, says Washington Poison Center clinical managing director Alexander Garrard, who holds a doctor of pharmacy degree. In 2014, marijuana-related calls to the Washington Poison Center spiked 58 percent. In 2015, pot-related poison calls rose another 13 percent, to 272. More than half of the episodes prompting the WAPC calls required hospital treatment.
“Of the 272 poison center calls, we saw more teenagers 13–19 than any other age group,” says Garrard. When it comes to youth marijuana use, these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. “We only hear from people having a bad experience [on pot], so these numbers don’t give the full scope of use by youth. They don’t call us if they’re having a good time,” he says.
By all accounts, it’s a big iceberg. A recent study from the National Institutes of Health found that 6 percent of the nation’s 12th-graders report smoking pot every day. In Washington state, the figure is 10 percent. Nearly half, 43 percent, have used pot at least once, along with 26 percent of 10th-graders.
Parents may think that pot is harmless—the same stuff they smoked in the ’70s and ’80s, notes Walker. “Today’s pot has much higher concentrations of THC, and the effect is much more powerful.”
Case in point: While rates of teen substance abuse treatment for other drugs have dropped markedly, treatment rates for marijuana are rising by 5 percent each year. Per Washington state’s most recent report, it’s the number-one reason teens land in rehab; nearly 80 percent of youth in substance abuse treatment programs are there because of pot.
Although hundreds of Seattle students were caught using or possessing marijuana last year, Seattle Public Schools has not made broad changes to student programming or curriculum to address Washington’s new legal environment for marijuana. However, the district has incorporated information on the risk of new marijuana products into existing curriculum, says Lisa Davidson, manager of prevention and intervention for Seattle Public Schools. Evidence-based drug prevention programs used by the district include the Project Alert program, used in many middle schools, and Project SUCCESS, in high schools. There’s also more staff training and parent education pertaining to issues such as the marijuana law and new products, she says.
But there may also be a lack of consensus on what role schools should play in prevention. “Not that I agree, but there’s the argument that prevention needs to be taught at home, so whose responsibility is it?” asks Charlene Grisim, dean of students at Auburn’s Rainer Middle School.
Some schools have beefed up training for staff. “We’ve changed our staff training and parent education to include information on the law and how that pertains to students and use on school property,” says Davidson. And as of the 2015–2106 school year, Rainier Middle School has a part-time counselor focused on youth substance abuse, says Grisim.
Student Sarah Stewart decided to create her own support network at Mercer Island High School by starting the S.A.F.E.—Super Awesome Fun Events—Club for students who don’t drink or use drugs. “I wanted a group that would have fun and where you’d always have someone to hang out with if you didn’t feel like going to a party.”
The call for consistent, factual messaging about youth and marijuana is getting louder, thanks in part to new data showing teens’ beliefs about pot. The Washington’s Healthy Youth Survey, which measures teens’ beliefs about whether pot is harmful, had these findings: In 2012, 37 percent of Washington 12th-graders thought regular marijuana use carried little or no risk; in 2014, the number rose to 43. For 10th-graders, 30 percent reported that regular use wasn’t harmful, up from 29 percent in 2012.
In prevention circles, “perception of harm,” or the idea that a substance is harmful, is a key indicator. “As perceptions of harm around a substance go down, we see the use go up,” says Liz Wilhelm, drug-free communities coordinator for Prevention WINS.
The highly visible presence of medical marijuana dispensaries is likely to be one reason the perception of harm has changed. They vastly outnumber legal recreational shops, leaving little distinction in kids’ minds between medicinal and recreational use, says Erin Watlington, drug-free communities coordinator for Franklin Pierce Youth First, a community partnership in Pierce County for the Franklin Pierce School District.
“Kids aren’t separating ‘recreational’ marijuana from ‘medicinal.’ We’ve blurred all these things together. And now we need to deconstruct those messages for our kids,” says Watlington.
Seattle Public Schools has incorporated information about marijuana into its existing Project Alert drug prevention program, including this poster
To that end, Seattle residents can expect to see more public awareness of youth marijuana use this year, thanks to new campaigns that include the “Start Talking Now” bus boards backed by the Washington Healthy Youth Coalition. Another awareness movement is funded by pot itself: A portion of retail marijuana revenues were set aside in a dedicated account and earmarked for statewide youth marijuana abuse prevention by the state Legislature last year, says David Hudson, section manager for the Washington State Department of Health’s (DOH) for community-based prevention programs. Last December, the DOH announced award recipients from nine Washington regions for its Youth Marijuana Prevention and Education Program.
King County’s award recipient, a partnership between Seattle Children’s Hospital, King County Public Health, and King County Department of Community and Human Services, will receive more than $600,000 for two years of programming focused on preventing youth marijuana abuse.
Wilhelm of Prevention WINS says funds will initially be used primarily for public awareness, including advertising aimed at educating parents and youth about the laws.
And in the meantime, the most important thing parents can do is talk with their kids, often and early. “Parent disapproval is a strong protective factor against marijuana use,” says Wilhelm