Colorado

Feds warn marijuana shops close to schools

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 53 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 53 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 42 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 42. 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 53.
  • 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.

Two views

“We fully support keeping regulated substances out of the hands of unauthorized users and schools.”
— Mike Elliott, MMIG

“We … are glad to see the U.S. Attorney enforcing the buffer zone.”
— Antonio Esquibel, DPS

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.

A Denver doctor talks about medical marijuana dispensaries and schools

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.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

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

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede