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How Will Recreational Marijuana Impact Local Teenagers?

Marci Krivonen

Now that recreational marijuana is legal for adults 21 and older, some parents of young kids are concerned. Law enforcement and school officials say legalization has led many kids to see marijuana as benign.  Some parents also fear with legal pot now for sale, it will be easier for their kids to get. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.

Parent Jillian Livingston’s son is preparing to enter high school next year.

"I feel like there’s a lot of questions. I feel like he is in the middle of this new evolution and I think that we have to be educated," she said.

Last week Livingston and about 70 other people packed into a classroom at the Aspen High School. There to answer questions was a panel including a child psychiatrist, the director of a non profit for troubled youth, a school resource officer and other experts.

"Hi, my name’s “Huff.” It’s actually Paul Hufnagle, but it’s a lot easier to say “Huff” and it’s easier for the kids."

Paul Hufnagle works for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and at the Aspen school campus. He says kids’ attitudes about marijuana appear to be changing.

"They’re already saying, well, if the voters voted for it and we were the number two county in the state to pass marijuana, it’s got to be okay," he said.

Panelist Michael Connolly works with kids at the high school as part of his non profit, Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention. 

"The concern that I have and that’s shared by a lot of folks in the community is we’re hearing kids say that marijuana’s not dangerous, marijuana’s safer than alcohol, marijuana’s healthier than alcohol, things like that," he said.

He worries about adverse health consequences for young users.  

He’s not alone. Dr. Jonathan Birnkrant told the parents that marijuana is not a healthy substance for young children whose brains are developing.

"There are studies out that have shown that use of marijuana in the hippocampus. The THC accellerates cell death," Birnkrant said.

Marijuana is has been a problem at Aspen High. A survey last year found the rate of Aspen High School twelfth graders who used marijuana in the previous month was nearly double the national average. 41 percent of the 12th graders in Aspen said they used pot.

The Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention is trying to bring that rate down. Mike Connolly says one way is by highlighting kids who don’t smoke. And, he says, there are many.

"We hear words like ‘everybody’s doing it!’ And, that’s not the case. Most kids are making healthy decisions."

Studies show, Connolly says, if you can get the perception close to the reality, use will go down.

"So, what we want to do is roll out the red carpet for those kids who are making healthy decisions to continue making healthy decisions. For kids on the fence who are between maybe going one way or the other, we provide them with the information, and we hope they make good decisions."

Still, his data shows marijuana use declining at Aspen High until last year, when there was a slight uptick. It remains to be seen whether retail marijuana will have an impact. Just like alcohol, it’s only available for adults 21 and older.

Aspen attorney Lauren Maytin is a board member for the group Colorado NORML. With recreational pot, she says more marijuana will be available, so education is key.

"I do think there’s an increase of the substance and we have to be more proactive in educating our children in proper choices," she said.

Back in the classroom, the panel discussion is wrapping up. Parent Jillian Livingston says she’s unsure how recreational marijuana will impact teenagers.

"I think a big theory that parents have is that it’s always been there and the children are always going to be able to get it, and having it be legal isn’t going to change much," she said.

Still, she plans to educate herself so she says, can protect her children and share her knowledge with other parents. She’s planning to blog about what she learned at the panel discussion.

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