Rob Levin was stunned to hear that his son, a ninth-grader at Seattle’s Roosevelt High, was already smoking pot with his friends.
Levin was even more disturbed to hear his son say kids were dazed and confused at school, taking hits from smokeless vaporizer pens in classes and hallways.
“I was politely in the school’s face about this,” said Levin, a lawyer. He wrote Roosevelt’s principal, “roundtabled” with other parents and has been pushing school officials to bring drug-sniffing dogs into Roosevelt.
He also helped organize a recent meeting for parents at the school featuring Dr. Leslie Walker, chief of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s. Among other warnings about pot, Walker said she knew a boy so high that he didn’t feel anything while a dog “gnawed his arm to the bone.” She declined to be more specific.
Although it’s still illegal for minors to use pot and it remains a felony to sell pot to minors, parents like Levin are growing anxious about Washington’s voter-approved law legalizing adult possession of weed.
They’re worried the new law sends a message that pot use is endorsed by adult society and not risky. They’re concerned about the Seattle Police Department’s sometimes liberal approach to marijuana. They’re clueless, they fear, about new trends such as “dabbing” hash oil and discreet “vape” pens that don’t give off the telltale odor of pot.
Even sponsors of the new pot law see a need for high-profile educational messages, similar to government-produced TV ads in Colorado, the other state to legalize adult use of pot. Some say Washington should already have started such a campaign, before pot stores open in a few months and kids are exposed to giddy media images of adults using pot.
Roger Roffman spent his career as a marijuana researcher and dependence counselor. A University of Washington professor emeritus, Roffman said he greatly respects Walker and believes pot can seriously harm some teens.
But Roffman, whose new book “Marijuana Nation” details his own compulsive pot use nearly 40 years ago, said there’s another part of the story parents should know. Most teens, including almost two-thirds of the seniors at Roosevelt, don’t use pot with any regularity, according to surveys. And many do it occasionally without harm, he said.
“This is a time because of the sea change in policy when hyperbole can lead us to be up-in-arms or afraid,” he said. Roffman said he’d like to get past exaggeration and scare tactics to accurately convey the risks of marijuana.
As a model, Roffman points to a brochure produced by the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.
It’s rooted in science, but not alarmist. It details pot’s potentially harmful impact on memory, driving, developing adolescent brains and people vulnerable to psychosis. It urges teens to hold off on pot until they’re 21.
Roffman is frustrated that state government hasn’t done more to spread such messages.
A sponsor of Initiative 502, he said after the election he urged the state Liquor Control Board (LCB) while it was crafting marijuana regulations to require new pot stores to give each purchaser an educational flier similar to the UW brochure. He even wrote to the governor’s office.
Beyond that, he said, the state should’ve convened top thinkers on science, prevention and the evolving industry, added expert fundraisers and crafted messages to deter youth access, impaired driving and the use by adults with health vulnerabilities.
“And none of that has happened,” he said. “It’s really discouraging.”
The response from state officials: We’re working on it.
Waiting on money
Brian Smith, spokesman for the LCB, noted the primary obstacle: The state hasn’t yet received money earmarked by I-502 for prevention and education messages.
The initiative calls for spending a significant amount of marijuana-excise taxes from recreational-pot sales on preventing youth drug use and abuse and educating people with accurate information about the health risks of marijuana use.
But that money isn’t expected to start flowing into the state treasury until retail-pot stores open in July.
In the meantime, Smith said, state officials are moving ahead proactively on two ads, featuring Walker.
One of the public-service announcements will emphasize basic facts: It’s still illegal for minors to possess pot; still illegal to drive while high; still illegal to consume in public.
Another ad will advise parents on how to talk to kids about marijuana, Smith said.
The state is also preparing, he said, a “consumer’s guide” brochure to be handed out at retail stores — similar to what Roffman advocated. And they’ve produced marijuana-fact brochures with the UW.
The ads are being produced in-house by the state Traffic Safety Commission. One is a radio spot, the other for TV, said agency spokeswoman Erica Stineman. The commission will produce a longer educational video with Walker intended for parent and driver-safety groups, Stineman said.
Total budget for those messages is $1,300, she said. The agency is also applying for a $50,000 federal grant to produce ads about pot-impaired driving, she said.
Smith said the state doesn’t have the money to run the first ads on TV stations.
The hope is to use social media to promote the ads, he said, and to have local substance-abuse-prevention groups implore local stations to run the ads, especially in smaller markets outside Seattle.
“There are no marijuana revenues, so we’re using resources and expertise available to us. You make do and be as strategic as you can until money is available,” he said.
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) didn’t wait for the tax money to flow.
“I came on the job in April (2013) and said, ‘This is going to be a big deal, let’s go for it,’ ” said Amy Ford, CDOT communications manager.
The agency applied for a federal grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to curb impaired driving. It received $450,000. It organized focus groups to learn what messages would work best with the target audience of young men.
Three 30-second public-service announcements were created for TV. They started airing March 10. The recurring theme in the cheeky ads is you can now do things like grilling while high, but you can’t drive to get the propane you forgot while baked.
Research showed the target audience wouldn’t respond to finger-pointing or scare tactics, said Emily Wilfong, who oversaw the ad project. “What resonated most was informational with a tinge of humor,” she said.
The ads are not specifically aimed at teens, but they address impaired driving, a chief concern of youth use. And while parents have the most influence on teen behavior, educational campaigns have proved to sway attitudes of minors about tobacco.
But for all its foresight, Colorado didn’t air the ads until after pot stores opened there in January, not long before, as Roffman has called for in Washington.
Levin said he voted for I-502 and admits to experimenting with pot while a high-schooler himself. But hearing that his son and friends were getting stoned in the ninth grade — primarily to be cool, he said — was just “earlier than all of us anticipated.”
He believes his son probably will make smart choices about drugs and alcohol, just as he said he did in his youth, but he doesn’t want to risk him getting arrested or kicked off a sports team.
In any case, he said, “it’s definitely not OK to use pot in and around school.” Particularly after Roosevelt Principal Brian Vance reported last month the number of students disciplined for using drugs or alcohol at school has doubled, up from 12 last year to 24.
Levin started brainstorming with other parents.
One idea that made some sense, he said, is bringing in drug-sniffing dogs.
Levin maintains that courts have found drug dogs to be legal. Seattle police might use drug dogs in a school if a criminal investigation turned up evidence that warranted such a step, said police spokesman Sean Whitcomb. But the use of dogs would be specific and targeted as opposed to random and preventive, Whitcomb said. “There is no random drug-sniffing that we’d conduct in any setting,” he said.
As for perceptions that Seattle police have been lax about enforcing pot laws, Whitcomb pointed to an investigation last year that led to a Ballard man being sentenced to 30 months in prison for selling pot to middle-school and high-school students.
Even when police handed out bags of Doritos with educational messages affixed at Hempfest, Whitcomb noted, the messages emphasized that minors shouldn’t have pot.
“We understand the concerns and have a robust educational program designed to inform students about the dangers of drug use,” said Lesley Rogers, spokeswoman for Seattle Public Schools. “As for using K9 units, we would certainly cooperate with any Seattle Police Department investigation.”
Alison Holcomb, chief author of the new pot law and criminal-justice director for the ACLU of Washington, called the drug-dog idea “horrible.” Roffman said such tactics were “egregiously harmful.” Even Walker from Seattle Children’s was iffy, saying “things that scare people don’t work.”
The idea, Levin emphasized, is not to bust kids, haul them off to jail, or even suspend them. It’s to deter them from bringing pot to school.
“We have the opportunity right now to get in front of this issue,” he said. “I’m just kind of shocked there isn’t more happening.”
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org