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Police across Colorado questioning whether youths are using marijuana less

State and federal surveys have declared that Colorado youths are not using marijuana more than before the drug became legal for adult recreational use in 2014, and that use among juveniles is actually dropping. State officials frequently point to those surveys as proof that Colorado is succeeding in a key metric for regulating pot.

Statistics from district attorneys across the state on arrests and charges appear to back that up.

Yet law-enforcement officers who interact with students each school day, and whose job it is to intervene and report on drug use by teens, offer a starkly different perspective. And a Denver Post review of available data found shortcomings in how marijuana cases are handled and tracked in Colorado schools, raising questions about the data’s reliability.

School resource officers in Colorado – police who are assigned to public schools – say that based on their observations, use among students has increased in recent years. What has changed, they say, is how youths are disciplined in school for marijuana violations and how statewide data on violations is collected.

These officers say they are issuing fewer tickets for marijuana infractions today than they would have without those changes, which include a 2012 law that did away with zero tolerance toward pot in Colorado schools and a policy revision that allowed districts and individual schools to decide how to deal with the problem and its discipline.

“I tend to believe we’d be issuing many more citations, and you’d most certainly see an increase in that,” said Stacey Collis, a Lakewood police officer who is president of the Colorado Association of School Resource Officers. “Perhaps it’s a perfect storm, with different responses from the schools, with some handling it the same as always, and others sitting back on a petty offense, not reporting it or dealing with it on their own.”

School Resource Officer Stacey Collis, of ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

School Resource Officer Stacey Collis, of the Lakewood Police Department, has worked at Green Mountain High School for past 18 years on Dec. 13, 2017 in Lakewood.

In a survey this year by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federally funded agency that coordinates drug enforcement activities in a four-state region, 86 percent of Colorado resource officers said they believe marijuana use among students has risen dramatically. That’s up from 82 percent who said the same last year.

In an effort to determine what is actually happening with youth marijuana use in Colorado, The Post reviewed state and local arrest records, court data and state research on school incidents, and interviewed a half-dozen resource officers and advocates in Colorado. The Post found a picture that’s less clear than the youth survey results and arrest and charging statistics suggest.

Records do not account for many young offenders who either are not reported to police, are not ticketed because police say there’s too little to cite, or have infractions that are not tabulated because of programs designed to protect minors from blemished records. Scores of marijuana incidents were reported by schools but not by police, because either the schools did not involve the officers or, in some cases, police departments did not report the information to those compiling the data.

In other cases, researchers count only those arrests or tickets police say they issued to public school students, part of a statewide program to track those interactions, and not hundreds of other marijuana infractions that are ticketed to juveniles outside of a school setting or event.

“The data collecting is just not done well,” said Lynn Riemer, executive director of Act on Drugs, a Thornton nonprofit that last year did 755 in-school training sessions about drugs, including detailed sessions about marijuana. “You’ve got everyone doing their own little thing and we don’t get the true picture of what’s happening, a true sense of just how many kids are affected.”

More discretion granted

Each year, Colorado schools report to the Colorado Department of Education the number and type of incidents that required discipline – those involving drugs, assaults and weapons among them. The report shows the number of students suspended and expelled, as well as the number of times law enforcement was asked to be involved.

The legislature in 2012 passed a law that gave school administrators and local school boards greater discretion in determining student discipline for all offenses.

In tandem, the education department encouraged those schools to limit the use of suspensions and expulsions as a disciplinary response. There were even agreements signed between some police departments and school districts – Denver among them – to encourage alternative approaches to what had been seen as automatic ticket writing.

The actual number of marijuana-related offenses in public schools was not known until the 2015-16 school year, when the drug was separated from the collective number of drug violations schools were required to report. Previously, any incidents involving drugs – marijuana, cocaine or another – were simply lumped together.

In the first school year that marijuana was counted separately, 1,585 public schools reported 2,928 incidents that involved pot. It’s unclear how many, if any, were by repeat offenders, or the form in which the drug was found – leaf, edible or concentrate.