First Person

Fort Collins, Colorado Springs differ on regulating medical marijuana around schools

By Rebecca Jones and Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

Sometime on Saturday, Steve Ackerman sold his last joint.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
A worker at Fort Collins' Medicinal Gardens dispensary, one of 23 facing a Tuesday deadline for closure. Photo by Joe Mahoney / I-News

His Organic Alternatives, a medical marijuana dispensary in Fort Collins, is one of 23 in this laid-back university town forced to close by Tuesday after residents voted to ban dispensaries.

“I won’t continue in the medical marijuana industry,” said Ackerman, who opened his comfortable saloon-like dispensary two years ago. “But I will continue to support it, and I’ll continue to help fight for what I think is right. Marijuana should not be prohibited.”

Cruise south a little less than 150 miles and you’ll find the opposite scenario, one of Colorado’s medical marijuana capitals in a city known as a conservative stronghold.

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Neon green crosses signifying medical marijuana businesses now light up so many shops in Colorado Springs that they rival the number of churches in a town where evangelical Christians often dominate.

Welcome to the new Tale of Two Cities, a real-life drama playing out as Coloradans wrestle with how to handle the resurgence in popularity of this ancient plant.

Voters narrowly approved the use of marijuana for limited medicinal purposes in 2000. But it wasn’t until 2009, when more than 700 medical marijuana dispensaries began sprouting in neighborhoods across the state, that the issue became kitchen-table conversation.

Since then, more than 80 communities have banned dispensaries, outlawing them from Alamosa to Greeley. School leaders lament a 45 percent spike in drug offenses, an increase sparking a federal crackdown on dispensaries near campuses.

Colorado has become a national focal point in the debate over efforts to legalize medical marijuana, as over a dozen states weigh legislation to approve its use and join the 16 states where those laws are already on the books.

Fort Collins and Colorado Springs — the college town that banned dispensaries and the conservative city that didn’t — illustrate how different communities grapple with the results.

Later this month, Fort Collins will be the focus of a new TV series, “American Weed,” shot by a National Geographic crew that spent months filming the battle over the ban.

“They viewed Colorado in general and Fort Collins in particular as a real litmus test for the rest of the country as it relates to medical marijuana,” said Fort Collins resident Scoot Crandall, who championed the ban. “They wanted to show a complete picture of what happens in a community when medical marijuana is being debated.”

In the Springs, focus on “liberties and choices”

In Colorado Springs, libertarians squared off against religious conservatives in drafting medical marijuana regulations in 2010.

Much to the dismay of medical marijuana opponents, the libertarians won.

Click on graphic to enlarge.

“Colorado Springs residents still want government out of their hair. They believe in individual liberties and choices, everything from gun rights to medical marijuana,” said Sean Paige, a former city councilman who oversaw regulations that allow dispensaries as close as 400 feet from schools, and day care and drug rehab centers.

State law suggests a 1,000-foot buffer around schools but allows local authorities to deviate.

Superintendents of three school districts – Colorado Springs, Cheyenne Mountain and Academy – urged adoption of the bigger buffer zone but were unsuccessful.

“Yes, there was a lot of fear and a lot of parental anxiety, but the sky hasn’t fallen,” Paige said. “It hasn’t led to Sodom and Gomorrah in Colorado Springs. It hasn’t been the destruction of our city and our culture. People drive by the dispensaries just like the 7-Elevens and the Walgreens without even noticing them.”

Not everyone is oblivious.

Religious conservatives say they are watching the marijuana experiment play out and waiting for an opportunity to intervene.

Focus on the Family, the giant among Colorado Springs’ evangelical groups, opposed the legalization of medical marijuana in 2000 and plans to fight any ballot measure this year to allow recreational use of the drug.

For now, Focus leaders have had little choice but to tolerate the dispensaries in their backyard.

“Like many, we are unhappy with the current marijuana dispensary situation in Colorado Springs. However, we are not aware that there are any current options to ‘fight’ these dispensaries as they are here legally and to date, efforts to limit them have been unsuccessful,” said Carrie Gordon Earll of CitizenLink, Focus’ advocacy arm.

“If an opportunity to reverse the law or close down dispensaries presents itself, we’ll examine it for future involvement.”

State law allows local governments or local voters to regulate or ban marijuana-related business. A listing from the Colorado Municipal League shows, as of November, 37 of 85 community bans have been approved by voters while the other 48 were enacted by local governments such as city councils.

A proposal to ban dispensaries in Colorado Springs has never made it to the city ballot. In Fort Collins, a citizens’ initiative split the city for much of 2011.

Campaign in “Fort Fun” emphasizes kids

Dubbed “Fort Fun” by college kids and known for its forestry students and earth-friendly microbreweries, Fort Collins came late to the idea of a ban.

Steve Ackerman, owner of Fort Collins' Organic Alternatives dispensary, closed Saturday. Photo by Joe Mahoney / I-News

Activists say they watched one nearby community after another prohibit dispensaries. The home of Colorado State University seemed destined to become the region’s marijuana mecca.

“The dispensaries sprang up like crazy,” said Crandall, who is executive director of Team Fort Collins, a substance abuse prevention coalition. “At one point, they outnumbered our pharmacies. I believe they even outnumbered our Starbucks.”

The city council initially passed restrictions barring dispensaries from locating within 1,000 feet of schools. But like many communities, they planned to allow those who were already there to stay. Nearly all of the 23 existing dispensaries violated the new regulations.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said City Councilman Wade Troxell, who helped lead the campaign for the ban. “We allowed 21 medical marijuana dispensaries to be adjacent to our neighborhoods, next to our schools, surrounding the CSU campus, up and down our main avenue.”

Troxell said he was walking downtown to get a cup of coffee one morning when he stepped on a dispensary vial.

Meanwhile, Poudre Valley schools posted increasing numbers of drug violations. During 2007-08, schools reported 74 drug violations to the state; during 2010-11, that number was 200.

Ultimately, the rallying cry behind Initiative 300 became “Save our kids!”

But while 52 percent of Fort Collins residents agreed to the ban, those who pushed it say it’s uncertain whether they’ll see a decline in reported drug use at schools.

“We feel like the damage has been done to our kids,” said Crandall. “The perception of harm is low. Even though we’ve been able to secure the passage of this ballot initiative, we have a lot of educating to do with our kids.”

Ackerman, who’s been forced to shut down his dispensary on Fort Collins’ Mountain Avenue, happens to share concerns about marijuana use – or any drug use – among teens.

He just doesn’t agree that prohibition is the answer.

“Anything we can do to keep kids away from all substances – including alcohol and prescription drugs – is a good thing,” said the father of two. “But I think having medical marijuana centers is a better way to keep kids away from it than having no regulation at all.”

Police cite concerns about “seepage in the system”

With the dispensaries closing, Fort Collins will give up an estimated $250,000 a year in tax revenue. Troxell says the city will never miss the money.

Sarah Graham, manager of Medicinal Gardens dispensary in Fort Collins, packed Friday in preparation for a move to a new Denver location. Photo by Joe Mahoney / I-News

“Given the trade-off of social ills they bring, we’re coming out far ahead,” he said. “It doesn’t take more than a few families not being destroyed to recover the cost of that sales tax.”

Critics of the Fort Collins ban say marijuana has always been easy to get and, if anything, dispensaries undermine the black market.

There’s nothing to suggest dispensaries themselves are selling directly to minors – or to anyone without a medical marijuana card.

But police say more marijuana is making its way into the community.

“There’s a lot of seepage in the system. There’s just a lot of pot being grown, and it’s very difficult to track where it’s all going,” said Capt. Jerry Schiager, former commander of the narcotics unit of the Fort Collins Police Department. “The whole medical marijuana system has increased access to marijuana.”

Patrons of dispensaries are limited to purchasing no more than 2 ounces of marijuana at a time from a single outlet, because state law says that’s the maximum amount a medical marijuana patient should have at any one time.

But there is no system of tracking purchases from one dispensary to the next, and medical marijuana patients can buy products from any dispensary at any time.

“It’s possible, for an individual who wanted to, to obtain 2 ounces at 23 dispensaries in a single day,” said Bob Powell, a retired Fort Collins businessman who worked on Initiative 300. “They can get a lot of marijuana that way, which can get into the hands of our kids.”

But is that happening? Law enforcement officials have a difficult time connecting the dots.

Unlike many other drugs – or other prescription medications – marijuana is an agricultural product, not something cooked up in a laboratory with definitive markers. It’s difficult to determine where a given ounce of marijuana came from or to track where it’s going.

Springs school officials confiscate dispensary vials

In Colorado Springs, school officials say at least some medical marijuana is flowing into the hands of teens.

By the numbers

  • Number of churches200 churches within Colorado Springs city limits, based on property tax exemption records and excluding related church property such as parking lots and schools.
  • Number of medical marijuana businesses235 licenses have been issued by the Colorado Springs city clerk for dispensaries, infused edible manufacturers and grow centers, for use at 176 unique locations.

City revenues

  • $110,765 – amount paid in 2009 by medical marijuana businesses via sales and use taxes
  • $549,414 – amount paid in 2010
  • $770,979 – amount paid in 2011

Schools in District 11, the core-city district, have posted some of the highest increases statewide in drug violations. Palmer High School reported two drug incidents in 2007-08, one in 2008-09, 75 in 2009-10 and 45 in 2010-11.

Greg Ecks, director of the district’s Office of Student Discipline Services, sees every student found with drugs. He said almost all have been caught with marijuana.

The newest trend he’s noticing is edibles like marijuana-infused gums. He also sees plenty of little brown dispensary jars.

“It has a dispensary label on it. That would lead us to the conclusion that it’s coming from dispensaries,” Ecks said. “It’s passing hands. The students say they don’t know where it came from. But the jars are quite common.

“It’s serious and it’s a growing problem. Even before it was legally allowed for medicinal purposes, it was growing in popularity,” he added. “Now it’s filtering down into the middle schools.”

At Palmer, located in downtown Colorado Springs, students flood into nearby Acacia Park during lunch and other breaks. It’s a small, gritty park where homeless people hang out and kids say it’s easy to score street weed.

But their preferred method is to buy wholesale, not from dealers in the park.

“The favored way for kids to get it pretty much is to go through a grower because that way you can keep up with the grower’s plants,” said a 17-year-old Palmer High School junior.

“You’d be able to see the quality of it, how it’s made and be able to trust that person to get you the highest quality you can get.”

Dan May, the Springs' DA who wants dispensaries away from schools, is targeted by protestors after he charged a cancer patient with illegal possession of marijuana. Photo by Joe Mahoney / I-News

Fourth Judicial District Attorney Dan May remains convinced medical marijuana businesses near schools are leading to increased use among young people.

He said that medical marijuana is the No. 1 drug that juveniles in his crime diversion program, which covers El Paso and Teller counties, report using.

In 2010, Colorado Springs was so broke that national media outlets such as ABC and CNN covered city leaders selling police helicopters online and urging residents to mow municipal parks, among other measures.

May believes city officials have failed to protect young people while scooping up more than $770,000 in revenues during 2011 from medical marijuana businesses.

“They built their establishments in residential areas, next to schools. They’re next to churches. They’re next door to each other,” he said. “Our city council failed this community.”

Contact Katie Kerwin McCrimmon at katherine.mccrimmon@ucdenver.edu and Rebecca Jones at rjones@ednewscolorado.org.

Impact of medical marijuana dispensary bans

Do medical marijuana dispensary bans result in declining drug violations in Colorado public schools?

It may be too early for definitive evidence but the answer for two communities, at least, seems to be no.

Virtually all of the 85 communities and local government councils enacting dispensary bans have done so in 2010 or later, and those votes have typically included closure dates coming months afterward.

For example, voters in Fort Collins enacted a dispensary ban in November 2011 and set Tuesday as the deadline for closing up shop.

Aurora voters passed a ban in November 2010 and, since then, the number of students caught selling marijuana has gone down slightly. But the number found possessing marijuana has gone up.

During the 2009-10 school year, before the ban, 50 students were caught selling and 312 were found in possession. The following year, in 2010-11, 39 students were caught selling and 367 possessing.

“We do not believe that our data is related to the dispensary ban,” said Aurora Public Schools spokeswoman Paula Hans. “Instead, we believe it is because we have increased the number of APS security officers who are in our schools monitoring these types of behaviors.”

Perhaps more telling over time will be the experience in Grand Junction, where voters in April 2011 banned dispensaries.

An Aurora ban may not have as much impact because nearby communities, such as Denver, continue to allow them. But the Grand Junction vote means there’s only one legal dispensary left today in all of Mesa County – and that’s in Palisade, 12 miles away.

Mesa County schools have seen a steady increase in drug violations over the past four years, from 100 in 2007-08 to 155 in 2010-11. But district officials aren’t sure the brief influx of dispensaries accounts for that.

Nor do they think the closure of the dispensaries will turn things around.

“Frankly, when you look historically at any kind of discipline record, it tends to be an up-and-down wave,” said district spokesman Jeff Kirtland. “There are years when there are high numbers of incidents, and years when there are low numbers. We continue to see that trend, up and down, consistently.”

He thinks other factors – population growth and the boom-and-bust economy in Grand Junction – could be just as important as the presence of medical marijuana dispensaries in shaping those numbers.

— Rebecca Jones, Education News Colorado

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

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I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.