First Person

Feds crack down on Colo. marijuana shops near schools

By Katie McCrimmon and Rebecca Jones 

The federal government is cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries in Colorado for the first time, ordering 23 dispensaries near schools to shut down within 45 days or face criminal prosecution and seizure of their property.

A medical marijuana dispensary in downtown Colorado Springs is located about a block from Palmer High School. Joe Mahoney / I-News

U.S. Attorney John Walsh sent warning letters Thursday to the unidentified dispensaries and said in a news release that many are closer than 1,000 feet to K-12 campuses.

“When the voters of Colorado passed the limited medical marijuana amendment in 2000, they could not have anticipated that their vote would be used to justify large marijuana stores located within blocks of our schools,” Walsh said.

Federal authorities are working to identify all marijuana stores within 1,000 feet of a school, he said, and Thursday’s warnings “are merely a first step to address this issue.”

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“The office will continue to insist marijuana stores near schools shut down,” he said.

Walsh cited data showing many school districts in Colorado “have seen a dramatic increase in student abuse of marijuana, with resulting student suspensions and discipline” since medical marijuana facilities opened.

An ongoing investigation by Education News Colorado, Solutions and the I-News Network found a 44 percent jump in all drug-related incidents at K-12 schools statewide over the past four years. That increase occurred from the 2008-09 school year through 2010-11.

The figures from the Colorado Department of Education don’t specify the drugs involved, but several school and health officials interviewed across Colorado attributed the increase to marijuana use.

“We’ve really seen our numbers go up,” said Judy Mueller with YouthZone, a Glenwood Springs non-profit that works to keep young offenders out of juvenile court. “It is medical marijuana that their friends or friends’ parents got. They’re telling us it’s easy to get. They’re getting it from an adult’s stash.”

As many as 56 medical marijuana dispensaries located within 1,000 feet of a school

The investigation also found that other dispensaries could be targeted under the crackdown. As many as 56 medical marijuana facilities in Colorado are located within 1,000 feet of a school, according to an I-News analysis of school addresses and licenses issued to more than 700 medical marijuana facilities statewide.

Thursday’s action sets up a potential showdown between federal and local authorities, though legal experts agree that federal law – which clearly states marijuana is illegal – trumps local law.

Federal law also imposes enhanced penalties for drug activity within 1,000 feet of a school.

State law recommends a 1,000-foot buffer between medical marijuana facilities and schools, drug rehabilitation centers and child care centers. But the law allowed local authorities to set their own rules.

So Colorado Springs, for example, allows marijuana facilities within 400 feet of schools while Denver has several closer than 1,000 feet. Those facilities have been allowed to continue operating because they opened before the state law was enacted.

Among other findings of the investigation:

  • Up to 45 public schools are within 1,000 feet of a medical marijuana facilities. The range — depending on how you measure the distance — is from 31 to 45. Because there are multiple medical marijuana facilities near some schools, the total number of medical marijuana facilities within 1,000 feet of Colorado schools is up to 56.
  • Most of the schools closest to dispensaries are in Denver and Colorado Springs. For example, North High School in Denver and Palmer High School in Colorado Springs have marijuana facilities within 1,000 feet.
  • Overall, 370 of the 1,692 public school buildings in Colorado lie within a mile of a medical marijuana dispensary or product infusion manufacturer. That’s 22 percent – or between one-fourth and one-fifth of all schools.

Colorado medical marijuana officials had hoped to avoid federal enforcement

Rumored for weeks, the Colorado crackdown follows similar federal action in California.

Colorado medical marijuana industry officials had hoped that they would dodge federal enforcement because they say the state tightly regulates the marijuana industry.

Mike Elliott, executive director of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, which describes itself as the largest and most influential group in the state, said people in the industry support regulation.

“We are looking into the situation now. We fully support keeping regulated substances out of the hands of unauthorized users and schools,” Elliott said in a written statement.

“Towards that end, MMIG is in the process of putting together, and will announce soon, the details of a public education campaign to help educate medical marijuana patients about how to keep their medicine safe and secure.”

School officials welcomed the news of a crackdown.

“We are supportive of the law as written and are glad to see the U.S. Attorney enforcing the buffer zone,” said Antonio Esquibel, executive director of the West Denver Network Schools, including North High School.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, has tried to pin down the U.S. Attorney General regarding federal enforcement of medical marijuana businesses that comply with state law.

Polis released a statement Thursday saying that he supports keeping dispensaries at least 1,000 feet away from schools.

“Both federal and Colorado law state that dispensaries are not allowed within 1,000 feet of schools, which is a policy that makes sense, that I support, and with which all businesses should comply,” Polis said.

“The Justice Department has repeatedly made clear that dispensaries that are in compliance with state law are not an enforcement priority. Colorado’s tough system of medical marijuana regulation is the best way to keep drugs out of the hands of minors.”

Studies, health officials find marijuana use among minors is increasing

National and local studies in Colorado show that marijuana use among minors is on the rise.

Dr. Chris Thurstone, who runs a drug and alcohol treatment program at Denver Health, said nearly all of the young people in his program abuse or are dependent on marijuana. He walked around East and North high schools in Denver and was shocked at the number of dispensaries located near the schools.

Thurstone can’t prove the proximity of dispensaries has caused the spike in marijuana abuse among his patients, he said, but he cited research showing teen marijuana use rises when it’s easily available, socially acceptable and perceived not to be harmful.

“There’s been lots of debate about how close to a school it should be,” Thurstone said. “Should it be 500 feet, 1,000 feet? Should we grandfather in the people who are already there? It kind of blows my mind that that’s a debate.”

Contact Katie McCrimmon at katherine.mccrimmon@ucdenver.edu and Rebecca Jones at rjones@ednewscolorado.org.

Calculating distances between schools and medical marijuana facilities

The analysis compared the locations of public schools in Colorado compiled by the state Department of Education to the addresses of medical marijuana dispensaries and infused product manufacturers from the Colorado Department of Revenue using ARCview GIS software and its geocoding technology. Not all marijuana facilities could be mapped because of problems with the addresses.

Duplicate schools at the same physical address were not counted twice and online schools were not included in the analysis. Using the GIS software, the analysis electronically calculated the distances between schools and marijuana addresses.

It calculated a range of schools that could be within a 1,000 feet of a medical marijuana facility since the software calculates distances between addresses and the state law measures from property line to property line.

The spreadsheet includes a description of the different types of medical marijuana facilities:

  • Type 1 – license for 300 or fewer clients
  • Type 2 – licensed for 301 to 500 clients
  • Type 3 – licensed for 501 and more clients
  • Infused product manufacturer – Facilities that process marijuana into edibles such as baked goods.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.