Special report: Marijuana and K-12 schools

He’s 16 but his baby face makes him look a little older than 10, his age when he first tried marijuana.

Dr. Christian Thurstone, right, counsels a patient in Denver Health's STEP substance abuse program on Feb. 1. I-News photo (Joe Mahoney/The I-News Network)

“I smoke marijuana every single day all day long,” the teen said during a lunch period spent hanging out in a park outside his downtown Colorado Springs high school.

“It develops brain cells. That is a complete and true fact,” he said. “It kills weak brain cells. It does affect your lungs … but it’s better than smoking cigarettes.”

Dozens of students interviewed across Colorado as part of an investigation by Education News Colorado, Solutions and the I-News Network made similar statements:

Marijuana is healthy. It helps me focus in class. And, hey, it’s better than alcohol or cigarettes.

The investigation found a 45 percent increase in drug violations reported by schools statewide in the past four years, even as violations in nearly every other category – including alcohol and tobacco use – declined.

It also found that student perceptions of marijuana as “healthy” or “healthier” are dubious at best – and dangerous at worst.

Doctors say marijuana is especially harmful to kids for two key reasons:

First, new research shows adolescence is a crucial time for brain development and marijuana use can permanently change the teen brain. Second, young people who start using marijuana before age 18 are much more likely than adults to become addicted to the drug.

“There is no debate in the scientific community,” said Dr. Christian Thurstone, who is conducting a medical marijuana study for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “It’s physically and mentally addictive.”

Our latest report on medical marijuana and K-12 schools focuses on health:

Learn more about this entire series, including in-depth examinations of the spike in drug violations reported by K-12 schools and how different communities are regulating medical marijuana around their schools.