Amid the debate about Santa Barbara’s medical-marijuana dispensaries, there’s one issue everyone agrees on — taking necessary steps to keep it out of the hands of children.
Marijuana and other controlled substances are a real problem in local schools, leading to suspensions and expulsions every year, according to law enforcement and school administrators.
Even though the legality of dispensaries and medical marijuana isn’t black and white, it’s very clear as far as schools are concerned.
California’s public-school system doesn’t recognize medical marijuana, so any student caught selling, possessing or using the drug, even if he or she has a legitimate card, will face consequences.
“Regardless of Proposition 215 or the city ordinance, marijuana on campus is still very illegal,” said Bud Andrews, the safety, welfare and attendance administrator for the Santa Barbara School Districts.
California’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996 legalized medical marijuana for “seriously ill” patients in need, and Santa Barbara took it one step further with Measure P, which made state and federal marijuana laws the lowest enforcement priority for police.
Patients can get doctors recommendations at age 14 with parental consent, or at age 18 on their own, which is still school-going age.
The city’s dispensary ordinance is undergoing a massive revision through multiple public meetings, but under current rules, the facilities must be located at least 500 feet from schools and parks.
Many people, including the SBSD Board of Education, find it unacceptable. The board sent the city a list of recommendations, which included increasing the distance to 1,000 feet, capping the total number of dispensaries, requiring hours of operation to exclude times right before and after school, and requiring notification to the districts when a new dispensary opens near a school.
Others have supported these changes, including David Hughes, a Housing Authority commissioner. Since state law requires that marijuana can’t be smoked within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, recreations centers or youth centers, dispensaries should have the same guidelines, he said.
The Housing Authority’s special-needs population also has an interest with having dispensaries carefully located, and Hughes hopes more people will get involved in the discussion.
The secondary district had 178 suspensions in the 2008-09 school year, Andrews said. Students get an automatic five-day suspension and referral to a treatment program for being caught with a controlled substance.
Suspended students aren’t technically truant, but are in the same environment.
“When they’re not in school, they’re not learning. When they’re at home, they’re doing something else, which means they might be getting into more trouble,” Andrews said, adding that statistics have shown day crimes to parallel truancy.
A new school board resolution made the third offense recommendable for expulsion, and Andrews said he already has received four recommendations this school year — all for marijuana-related issues. “I think three is pretty damn generous,” he said.
On the first offense, students are placed in the SUPER program: Substance Abuse Prevention Educational Resource. For the second, treatment is recommended by the Daniel Bryant Treatment Center.
The three offenses count through a student’s secondary career, from seventh to 12th grade, and often carry over if they transfer from other districts.
Selling, however, is an entirely different matter. There’s a zero-tolerance policy, and expulsion is recommended right away — no matter who the student is, Andrews said. Sales have gone up recently, he added.
For those who are expelled, very few drop out. Instead, more than 90 percent attend El Puente Community School — which also serves students transitioning back from juvenile hall or another facility, probation-referred status offenders and social service referrals — or Summit High School, the county school for students in recovery.
The question is: Where do dispensaries fit into the problem? Students have been smoking pot for decades, far before dispensaries or even Proposition 215 were in existence, residents have pointed out at Ordinance Committee meetings.
School district administrators say they don’t pass judgment on the use of medicinal marijuana, but they are concerned with its effects on students, Andrews said.
Many of the district’s schools — including Summit High School, where expelled students often attend — are in close proximity to dispensaries, and students walk by on their way to and from school.
Andrews has caught some students with marijuana from the dispensaries (with the stickers still attached to the containers), but it’s rare.
School resource officer Armando Martel with the Santa Barbara Police Department has said almost none of the marijuana confiscated at schools has been traced back to dispensaries.
Other forms of marijuana, including edibles, are a different matter. They’re not as easy to detect, and can be in almost any form of food these days — from butter to baked goods and lollipops. “You can be eating a cookie in front of me, and I don’t know what’s in it,” he said.
Law enforcement has said that many of the nonsmokable forms of marijuana come from dispensaries, either directly or indirectly, Andrews said. “They’re a very real but hidden risk,” he said.
Few students flash their medical-marijuana cards, even if they have them, and students going through the suspension and expulsion process have reported getting products from dispensaries both directly and indirectly, according to the Board of Education recommendations.
Whether the cards are legitimate is another big concern with students and dispensaries. “It’s hard for me to believe that there are that many high school kids that need to use marijuana rather than Advil,” Hughes said.
Administrators are trained to recognize illegal substances as well as the symptoms, and there are school resource deputies from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department stationed at some of the high schools. Reasonable suspicion, not probable cause, is license to search a student’s items or locker.
The schools focus a lot of energy on prevention for younger students so that they understand the rules before they make all their own decisions. Of course, the school districts are responsible for only so much.
“What (students) do on their time at home is their parents’ responsibility,” he said. “But if they can smoke marijuana at home, it’s very difficult for a 14-year-old to know the difference between ‘I can do it here, but not here.’”
The board’s recommendations to the city operate on the opinion that the more available and acceptable marijuana is, the more students will use it.
Even though many high school students are able to drive, a larger distance between schools and dispensaries could deter many of them, Andrews said.
The high schools, which have a larger student population than the elementary district and more issues with illegal substances, have an open campus for lunchtime, which is a factor in recommending that dispensary hours don’t include the time before and after classes and the lunchtime of schools.
Students who use the “cigarette of yesteryears,” as Andrews called it, are not limited to one community. All ethnicities and ages, gang and nongang, special education and non-special education have been caught.
“I hope the public’s input into the committee results in modifications that are not as impactful to our students,” Andrews said.
— Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at email@example.com.