Marijuana use by students in seventh through 12th grades in Cortland County is declining, but professionals, educators and students don’t seem to know why.
Fifty-one and a half percent of Cortland County students responding to a survey said marijuana is not a risky drug, up from 50.9% in 2015, but usage is down, too. Only 10% used marijuana in the previous 30 days, down from nearly 15% in 2015, reports Cortland Area Communities that Care.
For eighth-grade students, marijuana use in the past 30 days declined to 4% in 2020 from 11.5% in 2019 and 6.7% in 2015. But Homer eighth-grader Kaden Durham, 13, and his mother, Rushana, said they are concerned about the recent legalization of marijuana.
TEEN MARIJUANA USE
“I have talked to my kids about drug use and marijuana but it doesn’t help that the state passed a law that permits marijuana usage,” Rushana Durham said. “You’ll still have older teenage siblings that purchase it and share it with their younger siblings and friends.”
But she has no concerns about her son, who is part of Reality Check, a junior high program that educates children on the dangers of smoking marijuana, cigarettes and vaping, Rushana Durham said. The program is offered through the Cortland County Health Department by its Tobacco Free Zone Program.
However, in-school education surrounding adolescent marijuana use is limited, Kaden Durham said.
“In school, we don’t really do much about marijuana and stuff — in our school, a lot of the slides are about vaping, which is mostly what is in our junior high and intermediate schools,” he said. “Marijuana would be more high school.”
Kaden Durham has not seen or heard of his peers partaking in partial or regular marijuana use, he said. But he knows some students have access to it in their household.
“In junior high, I have not had to deal with marijuana or drug use in my community or school but I have heard different people in high school have been going to the bathrooms and vaping and smoking,” Kaden Durham said. “But in my area, there has not been that much marijuana use.”
“Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with marijuana if you use it the right way – it could be helpful,” said Rushana Durham’s daughter, Janiyah Durham, 19, who graduated from Homer High School in 2019.
Both Kaden and Janiyah Durham participated in the youth survey conducted by Cortland Area Communities That Care every year they attended school in Cortland County.
The youth survey results help data analysts and program coordinators identify problem areas to develop solutions and programs using the data to target these groups, said Cortland Area Communities That Care Executive Director Matt Whitman when discussing survey results in March. The prevention programs begin before students start using substances.
“A lot of our youth prevention initiatives are focused on the common substances that youth are actually using,” Whitman said in April. These substances include alcohol, marijuana, tobacco and vaping.
But Whitman is seeing declines in almost every substance, including marijuana, he said. Since 2004, Cortland Area Communities That Care has seen a decline in reported past 30 day use of marijuana, despite an increase between 2016 and 2019.
“In 2020, most (68.1%) of seventh to 12th grade students in Cortland County reported it was hard or very hard to access marijuana,” said Cortland Area Communities That Care epidemiologist Margaret Thon. “In general, the percentage of youth who reported it was hard to access common substances increased in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Still, marijuana was reported as the second-most easily accessible substance after alcohol in 2020, Thon said. The effect on youth development is a concern.
“Research shows heavy or regular marijuana use can permanently impact the developing teen brain and long-term use has been linked to lower educational achievement,” Thon said. “While it is promising that marijuana use is trending down in Cortland County youth, it is a concern that the percentage of students who perceive marijuana as risky has declined in recent years.”
In the meantime, Cortland Area Communities That Care is partnering with Cortland Prevention Resources to bring Too Good for Drugs to county school districts, Thon said.
Too Good for Drugs is an education and prevention program about substance use that is offered to students from kindergarten through sixth grade, but only the Cortland and Cincinnatus schools have used it.
EDUCATION AND PREVENTION
“We have been providing this program for many years,” said Leslie Wilkins, director of Cortland Prevention Resources. “It’s 10 sessions and covers everything you can imagine from drugs to refusal skills and what it all means.”
Education begins in kids as young as kindergarten, Wilkins said.
At that age, the curriculum does not include drug use but it does teach children what a healthy body is, how to take care of theirs and not to take anything that isn’t given to them by a doctor or parent.
Cortland Prevention Resources also provides junior high schools and high schools in Cortland County with presentations about drugs and drug trends, Wilkins said. Districts can choose specific topics they’d like covered, like vaping or tobacco use.
“I did take a health class in 10th grade where we did talk about drug use,” Janiyah Durham said. “We did a whole course on it, but I don’t remember too much because it was a little while ago.”
“I do wish there was more stuff the district did,” Rushana Durham said. “As far as inschool programs, we don’t have any of those.”
Rushana Durham would like to see the Homer School District take part in Too Good for Drugs. In the meantime, she teaches her children, a practice Whitman says is influential in setting clear rules and expectations.
LEGALIZATION OF MARIJUANA
Marijuana presentations across the state are being revamped and updated because it has recently been legalized for people over 21, Wilkins said.
“The entire field across the state is working together, researching and exploring what resources are out there to not only educate students but the community as well about the basics of cannabis and health effects,” Wilkins said. “We are exploring what programs are available and we want to find the best that are available to our community center schools.”
The new program, which would be provided annually in student health classes, will include media literacy, how to refuse drugs, the benefits and dangers of both THC and CBD and health effects, Wilkins said. When presentations have been done in the past, Wilkins noted students are very engaged and have many questions.
“All of this time the state is talking about legalizing it, that’s a message to the kids that it’s OK to use,” Wilkins said. “We are digging deep and exploring and researching to get the appropriate messages out to the community and schools.”
It’s become more important now for parents to have conversations with their children about marijuana use, Wilkins said.
“We’ve talked a lot about vaping but not much about marijuana,” Kaden Durham said. “She (his mother) told us about the effects and consequences of it and that she doesn’t support it being used in the wrong way but if it helps as a medicine, she’d look at it if it’s good and research it.”
Janiyah Durham’s conversations with her mom about substance use have helped her understand the dangers and effects, she said.
But it did not deter her from trying marijuana.
Rushana Durham said Kaden Durham will suggest moving signs advertising marijuana or vaping out of kids’ view, and spends time researching marijuana’s influence on the adolescent brain.
‘AN ODD YEAR’
“We value the CACTC survey results each year and typically use that data to do all sorts of internal program planning and connecting it into our curriculum,” said Robert Edwards, superintendent of the Cortland Enlarged City School District.
Because students have been out of school much of the past year due to COVID-19, it’s been hard for Edwards to assess what substances, if any, students are using, he said.
“It’s been sort of an odd year to assess student access to drugs and alcohol and their use of it,” Edwards said. “But our curriculum around that sort of continues the same way It always has, as do our partnerships with community agencies.”
But Cortland is not unique, Edwards said.
Every district deals with substance use and every district has programs to educate students on prevention and consequences.
“We have some educators that are very dedicated to this work so they are at the tip of the spear in terms of facilitating these conversations with staff and students,” Edwards said. “They really drive our efforts.”