Youth marijuana survey says Summit County above state, nation for usage
Between roughly a quarter and a third of all Summit High School students have used marijuana in the last month, according to recently-released statewide data.
The statistics are based on the Colorado Department of Health & Environment’s (CDPHE) Healthy Kids Colorado Survey (HKCS), which is conducted every other year. The results made public late last month — the first since the state permitted retail sale of the drug in 2014 — are based on voluntary, anonymous information from last year and suggest that Summit youth on average maintain heightened marijuana consumption compared to peers around both the state and nation.
“Our use of marijuana and alcohol by our secondary-level students over the past five-to-10 years is generally higher than what we see elsewhere in the state,” said Julie McCluskie, the Summit School District’s director of communications. “We attribute that to what might be considered a more relaxed, vacation atmosphere that we have here in the resort community.”
The fact that Summit now has 10 retail dispensaries between Breckenridge, Dillon, Frisco and Silverthorne, she said, is also a factor that consistently places the concept in front of teenagers throughout the county. That level of visibility may contribute to the thought among area youth that, “Now that it’s legal, it must be safe.”
The totals for 2015 point to between about 24 and 30 percent of Summit high schoolers using marijuana in the past 30 days versus 21.2 percent in Colorado and 21.7 for the entire country. The last time the survey was conducted in 2013, Summit’s average was 26.4 percent, as opposed to 19.7 percent for the state, and 23.4 percent across the United States.
What that shows is while the national median has declined marginally, Colorado’s composite has ticked up slightly since the passage of Amendment 64 during the 2012 general election. Meantime, Summit County, where 69 percent of voters were in favor of the law — the third-most statewide — remains behind the curve.
Grouped with Colorado’s other mountain resort communities of Eagle, Garfield, Grand and Pitkin counties, Summit’s high school seniors, according to the data, saw a state-leading 90-percent increase in use, while the combined group of sophomores had the second-largest expansion in Colorado at nearly 55 percent. The region’s freshmen, however, decreased their usage by almost 33 percent and the juniors by more than 2 percent.
Lost In Numbers
The local school district still has questions about the accuracy of some of the preliminary state survey data being presented, though. Summit indicates that what it has actually received demonstrates decreased marijuana use compared to the prior survey but wishes to affirm those figures ahead of its own detailed release of stats.
“Initially, we do see improvement with our students locally,” said McCluskie, “but we are verifying those numbers. While we’d be thrilled to see these numbers confirmed, we also do not want to put something out that is erroneous and that misrepresents the behaviors of our kids.”
The district will be revisiting what it has been sent sometime this week with the University of Colorado-Denver, one of the administrators of the survey along with the state’s Departments of Education and Human Services. Once reviewed, Summit plans to host a community-wide meeting as soon as August or September to bring parents, staff and other interested citizens up to speed on the facts.
The Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, another organization tracing the impact of recreational acceptance in the state, recently prepared a statement in response to a Denver Post story that stated pot use among teens stayed flat between 2013 and 2015. It noted that the CDPHE survey shows marijuana among Colorado’s high school juniors rose 19 percent, and 14 percent among seniors in that time, and that 48 percent of students now see the drug as risky, compared to 54 percent two years before.
On top of that, the agency points to the fact that the 2015 survey had a response rate of less than 46 percent of those schools polled. That number is well below the percentage required by the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is considered a standard for national information on marijuana use as well as other youth social trends.
“What is clear is that there is no overall pattern in the HKCS data,” reads the statement, “thus it is best to refrain from jumping to conclusions on such an important issue. The HKCS results are high variable between class years and regions from major increases to major decreases.”
Similar to the CDC study, the HKCS results look at a number of activities, including behavioral and mental health, perceptions of drug, tobacco and alcohol use, in addition to questions about physical education and nutrition. While 2015 data is not available for Douglas, El Paso, Weld and Jefferson counties due to low participation numbers, Summit has taken part in the state questionnaire both years it has been conducted.
“We have always felt that Summit County is unique when it comes to the results of the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey,” said McCluskie. “And, while we think it’s important to benchmark ourselves and compare ourselves to the state because of the unique characteristics of living in a resort community, what’s most important to us is understanding our own kids’ behavior.”
Staying The Course
Regardless of what is ultimately settled upon as far as Summit’s usage rates among its middle and high school-aged students, the emphasis for the district continues to be on communication and coaching. And area officials are confident in its prevention and intervention programming when it comes to alcohol, marijuana and other drugs.
“(We’re) always trying to take the approach with both student and parents around education,” said McCluskie, “why children need to understand the impacts of use, how parents can best talk with their kids and establish those rules and consequences if children attempt to use. And then, if kids make poor choices, if something happens, what can parents do, where can students turn.”
Curbing drug use is included in the health curriculum from high school on down to as early as third grade. The DARE program is taught at several Summit elementaries, and both counselors and teachers attempt to instruct kids on healthy choices and the risk and impact of drug and alcohol on the adolescent brain. Among other services, the school system also embraces its Dialogue Over Dinner meetings as well as assemblies — in particular those surrounding high school homecoming and prom — to drive home the importance of good, healthy choices and the consequences of drinking and getting behind the wheel.
As a result, and in spite what the survey data might show throughout Colorado, Summit schools, officials said, have not seen a notable uptick in disciplinary issues related to marijuana. The district also believes the state takes the matter seriously, especially since the time of retail legalization.
“Some of these numbers at the state level are pretty troubling,” said McCluskie. “If nothing else, it serves as a wake-up call for all of us who work with youth to make sure that we’re doing everything we can. We know that youth experiment with drugs and alcohol, particularly during those high school years, so we have taken that responsibility to work with parents and community partners in making sure that we are talking about this issue.
“We hope to see a decline in usage among alcohol, marijuana and other drugs,” she continued. “If we don’t see an improvement, then I am confident we will step up our efforts, we will look at new research-based approaches to address those issues with kids because nothing is more important than keeping our kids safe.”
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