(Seth McConnell, Denver Post file)

Adams City H.S. pot offenders try new treatment program created by CU

COMMERCE CITY — A handful of high school students in Commerce City identified as high-risk marijuana users can avoid traditional punishment by enrolling in a pilot, school-based treatment program created by substance abuse researchers from the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

The cognitive behavioral therapy model is called Encompass. Paula Riggs, a psychology professor and director of CU’s division of substance dependence, developed the 16-week program over 20 years of research.

At Adams City High School, a condensed, 8-week program has been implemented to treat about 15 students who were caught intoxicated or using marijuana at school.

“It’s a layered approach to discipline and treatment,” said Anthony Smith, executive director of school turnaround and principal of Adams City High School. “If we (suspend) these kids and they don’t have a parental support system at home, we’re just giving them a license to go and use more.”

The grant-funded program combines substance abuse treatment with mental health diagnostics and therapy. Riggs said it’s the first dual model of its kind to be integrated into a school system.

“Only 10 percent of kids who could benefit from substance abuse treatment actually receive it,” Riggs said. “It was clear that that 90 percent of adolescents who could benefit from this program are in high schools. The key to prevention is early intervention.”

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For the hundreds of at-risk substance abusers at Adams City, the individually tailored therapy offered through Encompass was the best option for effective rehabilitation.

The program begins with voluntary enrollment and a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation. Riggs said that a majority of kids who develop substance abuse problems also have at least one mental disorder like depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“Integrating mental health and substance abuse treatment for adolescents is essential, because if you’ve got one, you’ve got the other,” Riggs said. “Almost every single one of these students is dependent on cannabis as a coping mechanism.”

On average, Riggs said marijuana addicted teenagers use one or two grams of pot per day. On the weekends, many admit to using up to seven or eight grams.

“It’s quite remarkable, but the great thing about these students is that they all agreed to be in the program — it wasn’t mandated,” Riggs said. “They’re forthright about how (marijuana use) affects their schoolwork and motivation, and they’re willing to get help.”

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Each student chooses an hour-long block in their school day to meet with a therapist during treatment. They take a urine test at the beginning of each session and spend the rest of the time talking about their triggers and temptations through the week. There are nine sessions over eight weeks.

Students who show up each week choose a reward chip from a fishbowl. Prizes range from compliments to $100. Riggs said motivational incentives help to create a drug-free lifestyle. Students draw another chip each time they produce a clean urine sample, and another chip if they can prove they performed an activity like volunteering or organized sports.

About three Adams City students have completed the Encompass program already.

“Based on preliminary outcomes, we’re getting significant reduction in substance abuse and many are achieving abstinence early on,” Riggs said.

One female upperclassman whose identity is confidential said that Encompass taught her that there is a relationship between her feelings, thoughts and marijuana use. She said it’s a triangle — one that she’s in control of.

“It’s a beautiful thing when they realize that it is under their control,” Riggs said. “It was very gratifying to see the students benefiting and changing because of this program.”

This story was first published on DenverPost.com