Wheat Ridge High School's nurse Rhonda Valdez, center, was recently hired with a grant to hire more school nurses and school counselors to deal with the issues surrounding the legalization of marijuana On Aug. 31, 2017 in Wheat Ridge, Valdez works with a student and his PERA on how to use an epipen. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Colorado uses $9.2 million in weed taxes for teen use prevention, health care programs

School nurse Rhonda Valdez is on the front lines of student health at Wheat Ridge High School, treating myriad concerns — flu outbreaks, diabetes, severe allergies, body image issues, football-related concussions.

The job is rewarding and keeps her busy, but the longtime registered nurse and 18-year veteran of Jefferson County Schools is taking on a new role this fall. Valdez is among a vanguard of state-certified school nurses, social workers and counselors hired this year to try to keep marijuana out of the hands of youths.

The new positions are funded by a $9.2 million grant parceled out among 42 school districts and charter schools by the Colorado Department of Education. Money is going to districts and schools that are near legal pot shops and have created evidence-based plans to discourage underage use of marijuana, said Jeremy Meyer, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Education.

The legalization of recreational pot in Colorado in 2014 for anyone age 21 or older increased the likelihood of use by underage residents, the CDE said. Bolstering the number of qualified health care officials, including school nurses, on campuses, where they could work with students inside and outside classrooms, can help stem the tide, the agency reasoned.

“We and other school health professionals are in a unique position in our schools in that we see these kids every day and we can educate, assess and assist them with substance abuse or behavioral health issues,” Valdez said. “We can help keep kids from walking through that door that can lead to bad things.”

The grant money effectively eases the shortage of school nurses to treat all students in many schools.

Each of Colorado’s 630 school nurses is responsible for as many as 6,000 students. Yet the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention recommends that one school nurse serve no more than 750 general education students.

The grant allows school districts to hire qualified counselors as well. Professionals are needed to administer early, comprehensive intervention that prevents later substance abuse problems, said Jon Widmier, director of student services for the Jefferson County School District.

“There is a growing need for this type of service in our schools, and we are trying to get ahead of it,” Widmier said.

Jeffco Schools received $825,164 through the grant program and will hire six social emotional learning specialists to work at elementary schools and three full-time school nurses, including Valdez. The positions are funded for three years.

Valdez and others involved in the grant project admit their jobs won’t be easy. Legalization of recreational use of marijuana for adults has created an almost casual approach to marijuana use that kids pick up on, they say.

“The lines have definitely been blurred,” Widmier said. “There is more of a cultural acceptance of marijuana use.”

There is little or no evidence that marijuana use among children has increased since use was legalized for adults. More than 5 percent of high school students in Colorado use marijuana daily or nearly daily, which has been the case at least since 2005, according to a January 2017 report from the state’s Retail Marijuana Public Health Advisory Committee.

“After all, it’s still illegal for high school students to use marijuana,” said Mike Van Dyke, head of environmental epidemiology, occupational health and toxicology at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “You still can’t go to a retail shop and buy marijuana if you are under 21. You have to get it through illegal means.”

“So that,” Van Dyke added, “could keep marijuana use level for those under 21.”

School officials are grateful for the grant money and the services it offers. Valdez, for instance, used to rotate among three schools but can now concentrate her efforts on Wheat Ridge High School.

“That’s one reason why we are so excited about this,” Widmier said. “We can offer more focused support on one place.”

Denver Public Schools received $871,636 under the grant program, which it will use to pay health care professionals to lead substance abuse, suicide prevention and other programs at 22 high schools and middle schools.

Educators say they see the irony in hiring health care workers using $9.2 million collected from the sales of retail and medical marijuana.

The state legislature determines how the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund is spent. However, state law requires the money go to things like health care, monitoring marijuana health effects, health education and treatment programs.

“It’s an interesting life we are in right now,” said Ellen Kelty, DPS’s interim director of student equity and opportunity. “But anything we can do to eliminate depression and other things that cause substance abuse is a step forward.”

“We just want to make sure kids make smarter choices,” Kelty said.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com