(Aaron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

More pot arrests at Denver schools, but no signs of increasing teen usage

One year after retail marijuana joined medical pot as a legal product, the number of marijuana-related arrests in Denver public schools has grown by 6 percent.

Opponents predicted that legalizing the drug would encourage more teens to use it. But statistical data showing what change, if any, there has been in the number of teenagers using pot are so far spotty, at best.

“Ultimately, we should be looking at rates of use, not rates of enforcement,” Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said of the arrest data provided by Denver police.

Police made 273 arrests for marijuana in Denver schools from Aug. 1, 2012, to July 31, 2013. During the same period of the following school year, pot arrests rose to 289.

Tvert said heightened awareness could be leading to more arrests.

“There has obviously been a lot of scrutiny surrounding this issue, and maybe more school officials are trained to identify users,” he said.

Coming Sunday: Pick up a Denver Post on Dec. 28 for our 24-page special report A Year Of Legal Pot, dissecting Colorado’s first year of legal recreational marijuana sales.

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Supporters of legalized marijuana point to the 2013 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Healthy Kids survey that found use among teens fell from 22 percent in 2011 to 20 percent in 2013, findings that would bolster their contention that legalization hasn’t attracted more kids to pot.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said the rate of marijuana use among U.S. high school students remained virtually unchanged from 2011 to 2013.

Neither measured use after retail marijuana went on sale Jan. 1.

Colorado passed its first law allowing medical marijuana use in 2000. But legal sales of the drug began to escalate in 2010, when a dual licensing scheme that regulates medical marijuana businesses at the state and local level was created.

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Gina Carbone of Smart Colorado, a group concerned about legalization’s impact on kids, said the Healthy Kids survey is misleading because it counts use among children in areas where there has been little or no commercialization.

Many rural areas have barred the sale of recreational marijuana, leaving many pot shops in Denver and other population centers.

“We have a very diverse state, and some rural areas are very conservative. But where the pot shops are, where we have full-on legal commercialization. That is where the highest use is,” Carbone said.

Thirty-two percent of 720 expelled students in Colorado were thrown out for marijuana-related offenses last year, according to the state Department of Education.

However, it was the first year in which schools officials separated marijuana from other drugs in statistics of violations leading to expulsion.

The education department plans to release data on pot and expulsions in the present school year in an annual legislative report due in mid-January.

Mesa County Valley School District 51 has been tracking disciplinary action attached to marijuana, and its schools have seen a definite increase in expulsions, said Dan Dougherty, a district spokesman.

Study: Teens who smoke pot daily less likely to complete high school

Thirty-six of 41 expulsions for drug use in the 2012-13 school year were for marijuana, Dougherty said.

This year, the district expelled 59 students for drug use, 55 of them for marijuana.

With 2,200 students in the Mesa County school system, the increase is small, Dougherty said. “If you look at the number and growth in expulsions it is easy to say, ‘Oh, wow, there is an increase,’ but what is important is the number of expulsions divided by the number of students.”

Denver schools saw drug-related expulsions and suspensions fall from 191 in the first quarter of the 2012-13 school year to 162 in the same period of the following year.

The number climbed to 203 in the first quarter of this school year, according to Denver schools spokesman Doug Schepman.

Aurora has not tracked pot’s use in the student population, said Aurora Schools spokeswoman Patty Moon. “Anecdotally, we have heard there may be increases,” she said.

For the first time this year, Jefferson County Schools officials are separating data on discipline for marijuana offenses, but that won’t be available until the end of the year or early next year, said spokeswoman Melissa Reeves.

“We haven’t seen an increase, and we are not expecting an increase,” Reeves said.

In a study by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, 89 of 100 school resource officers reported an increase in marijuana use among students in their schools since legalization. Eleven said they had seen no change.

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The study found that most kids caught using pot got it from friends who can obtain it legally — 38 percent — and parents, at 23 percent.

“My guess is that parents are not handing it to them,” said Christine R. Harms, director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center. Instead, the parents aren’t storing the drug safely, she said.

Hospitals are treating more children for marijuana overdoses than they did before legalization brought a variety of candies and other pot edibles to market.

Children’s Hospital Colorado treated 14 children through October of this year, compared with eight last year, said Dr. G. Sam Wang, assistant professor of pediatrics at Children’s.

Since 2009, the number of toddlers coming to Denver Health Medical Center’s emergency room after ingesting marijuana has grown steadily, said Genie Roosevelt, director of the Denver Emergency Center for Children at Denver Health.

Prior to that, Roosevelt said, “we never saw ingestion in that age group.” Today, Denver Health treats about one or two toddlers a month, Roosevelt said.

The number of marijuana overdoses is small, however, when compared with a count of emergency department visits to metro Denver hospitals for unintentional, non-pot poisonings among children 14 and below.

According to the Colorado Hospital Association, there were 1,317 visits to emergency departments by children for accidental poisoning in 2013.

Those treated ingested dangerous substances from over-the-counter and prescription drugs to household cleaners.

A couple of times a week, Roosevelt said, she sees an adolescent who has been exposed to synthetic marijuana or has eaten a legal marijuana edible and comes to the ER.

“There is a steady increase, but the numbers are not large,” Roosevelt said.

Tom McGhee: 303-954-1671 or tmcghee@denverpost.com

This story was first published on DenverPost.com