Two years ago this month, Massachusetts decriminalized the use and possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.
Many probably haven’t given a second thought to that change over the past 24 months, but in the schools, it’s a topic of conversation just about every day.
And Revere school officials say the double standard between inside the school and out on the streets has made it much more difficult – if not impossible – to keep drugs and drug dealing out of the schools.
Superintendent Paul Dakin said it has become a Catch-22 for schools all over the state.
“It haunts us and it has made our lives harder and has made things much more difficult,” he said. “It’s not affecting us in a good way. We have to do intense re-education of the kids because they feel if they can have marijuana on the street, then they should be able to have it in the schools. Society is giving them the right to hold pot in the street. The way an adolescent thinks is that we’re taking away their rights when we enforce our zero-tolerance policy because there is this great disconnect between the street and the schools. It makes adults look foolish because you can’t expect to keep schools safe and drug-free and not follow your own procedures. This society sends mixed messages to kids with this and it’s not good.”
In November 2009, after a well-funded media campaign by out-of-state individuals, voters across the Commonwealth overwhelmingly voted to decriminalize the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana – which meant that one could not be arrested for possessing that amount. The new procedure called for tickets or citations to be written, though public safety officials complained that the civil ticketing process was vague and difficult to implement.
When it came to young people, the law was fairly vague, only requiring that any young person caught with marijuana be referred to a state program. It was still technically illegal for young people to possess, but they could no longer be arrested. They could only be referred to the state program. That program, though, was slow to be implemented and was cumbersome to wade through.
The law went into effect in January 2010.
Two years later, public safety officials, school officials and youth advocates are saying it has levied a major toll on the school-age generation – who grapple to understand why marijuana is frowned upon at school and smiled upon in the law books.
“Our anecdotal reports suggest that the decriminalization of marijuana has led to the misconception that marijuana is now ‘legal,’ when in reality, it is still illegal for youth to possess it or use it in any amount; it’s just that the consequences of doing so have changed,” said Katie Sugarman of RevereCARES. “Based on the information we have received from youth in Revere, there appear to be skewed perceptions of how harmful marijuana actually is – and its decriminalization just reinforces this misunderstanding. Many youth mistakenly believe that marijuana must not be ‘that bad for you’ if the regulations governing it have loosened.”
Added RevereCARES Director Kitty Bowman, “For youth it creates a very confusing situation. You cannot drink legally, but if you are caught with a small amount of marijuana on the street it is only a civil offense. Then you factor in the differences between consequences in the schools and in the street.”
Sugarman added that there isn’t enough emphasis being put on the long-term ramifications of youthful drug use – especially that of marijuana.
“In reality, marijuana use is associated with a number of health problems for adolescents, including negative impacts on brain and lung development,” she said. “Furthermore, youth marijuana use is associated with an increased risk of substance abuse later in life.”
Revere Police Chief Terence Reardon said that the well-funded campaign during the 2009 Election came from moneyed interests like MoveOn.org founder and multi-billionaire currency trader George Soros. He said that Soros and others championing the cause did not pay enough attention to how their crusade would negatively affect young people.
“What most disturbs me is the rise of marijuana as the substance of choice among kids,” said the Chief. “It is sad that the public while availing themselves of the access to the drug never even considered the negative affect it might have our youth. George Soros, with all his billions, should be ashamed of himself for wrapping the issue in the blanket of personal freedom while ignoring the consequences.”
The law, nevertheless, will likely see no change or amendment any time soon and, perhaps, could possibly get emboldened as similar advocates continue their annual call for a medical marijuana law to be implemented in Massachusetts.
In the interim, superintendents such as Dakin are left to sort out the mess that is left behind two years after the initial law became implemented.
That involves sorting out who is dealing drugs, whether or not to expel kids who are carrying drugs and how to explain to young people that pot isn’t harmless.
“If we catch a kid with 15 bags packaged for what is obviously a selling situation, the law does nothing to them if they have less than an ounce, but we expel them,” said Dakin. “We would get no place in the courts with something like that. It could be an amount under the quantity and the laws don’t say anything about how it’s packaged. That’s the law, but for the school purposes, we can expel and sometimes we do.
“Meanwhile, people say we shouldn’t be expelling kids for something that’s not illegal and I say, ‘Then what?’” Dakin continued. “How do we keep schools safe and drug-free?”
Even more importantly, he said, is keeping kids on the edges of bad behavior drug-free.
“There are a lot of kids on the fringes that will not go down a bad path if they know there are consequences,” he said. “Once you relax those consequences, these kids are the ones that will end up going down that bad path that they otherwise would not. That’s the biggest tragedy here.”