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 [email protected] and Rebecca Jones at [email protected].

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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.