An Accepting Culture Is Cited as School Eyes Marijuana Use
By CHRIS BURRELL
For students at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, it's as commonplace as the pencils and notebooks: kids bringing marijuana to school or showing up for class when they're high.
The principal describes it as "epidemic," and students say pot is pervasive, used by a vast number of their peers on campus.
Last November, school administrators expelled two students for possession of marijuana and suspended another three who were found to be under the influence of the drug while at school.
Alarmed by the recent incidents, principal Peg Regan is trying to clamp down, but there's one thing standing in her way - a culture of acceptance around marijuana that starts in the school hallways and seems to extend across the Island.
"I was astounded by the epidemic of possession and use inside the school. Do the parents support this? Is the community that tolerant of marijuana use?" said Mrs. Regan.
In November, she turned to the school advisory council (SAC) for some guidance, sparking a discussion over how to deal with the problem and mete out the appropriate punishment.
No simple answers emerged.
Student members of the advisory council told the Gazette this week that use of marijuana is deeply rooted in teen culture, widely accepted among the students at the regional high school and easily concealed.
"Kids are smart enough not to do it in the bathroom," said sophomore Duncan Pickard, a member of the school advisory council and a student representative to the regional school committee. "A lot of kids bring it to school, and I've seen it being sold. There are so many kids that do it, that you don't feel uncomfortable about it."
Michelle Holmberg, a high school senior and member of the SAC, said many students simply feel entitled to use marijuana and make no effort to curtail their habit on school days.
"The use of marijuana is widespread throughout the school," she said. "It's not just select groups. I know of many students who leave school for a little while to do it. They schedule it if they have study hall first period or work-study . . . or they come to school high."
Statistics only bear out the anecdotal assessments from students. According to a behavior risk survey released almost two years ago, 44 per cent of Vineyard high school students reported having smoked marijuana in the past 30 days, which is defined as current use.
That's more than double the national rate. Roughly 20 per cent of the nation's 10th and 12th graders reported that they are current users, according to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Alcohol use among Vineyard teens, according to the 2002 survey results, still outpaces pot: 58 per cent reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days.
But those numbers don't reflect a significant difference. While more teens may be drinking alcohol, they're holding off until the weekends. Pot smoking, on the other hand, is more likely to happen on a daily basis.
"Kids aren't drinking every day, but a lot of kids are smoking every day," said Amy Lilavois, a substance abuse counselor at Island Counseling who works with young people.
The reasons are pretty obvious. "It's easier to get away with. People don't always know if you're under the influence," said Ms. Lilavois. "If it's a Wednesday at three in the afternoon, most parents aren't expecting their kids are high."
High school guidance counselor John Fiorito said marijuana is easy for teens to obtain. "It's so accessible. So many older kids are willing to get it for them. They're working with them, dating them or they're stealing their parents' stash," he said.
Indeed, while there are no statistics to show what percentage of adults on the Island count themselves as pot-smokers, counselors and police believe the problem lies not so much with the teenagers as with the Vineyard community at large.
"Children here are a reflection of the adults, and we have a high percentage of adult abusers of pot and alcohol," said West Tisbury police chief Beth Toomey.
The problem runs so deep that counselors approach it from a harm reduction standpoint, urging their young patients to cut back on the daily pot-smoking and indulge only on the weekends.
"What concerns me most is when the use is daily, when it precedes school or happens during school," said Rob Doyle, a substance abuse counselor at Island Counseling. "The main effect from pot is that it debilitates people. They drop off teams or their grades go down."
"Once somebody starts smoking every day, they think their lives are fine," said Ms. Lilavois. "When they stop, they're like "‘Whoa, I wasn't doing anything, I was dozing in classes and my grades were off.' "
Chief Toomey said that while marijuana is not physically addictive, it is psychologically addictive. "You're getting dependent on it. If kids are using it consistently, they're missing out on developmental parts of life. If you're young and using it, you stop developing coping skills," she said.
Both the chief and Ms. Lilavois emphasized that marijuana is much more potent today than it was 20 years ago, with much higher levels of the active ingredient, THC.
Despite the concerns about the drug and its impact, there's ambivalence about the appropriate response.
Only a fraction of the Island teens who report using pot are actually caught by either school officials or police. Consider the raw numbers. If 44 per cent of Vineyard high school students say they are current users, that's well over 300 teenagers.
But in the last 10 years, only 26 students ended up being expelled from the regional high school for drug possession. In the last three years, Island police have charged 25 juveniles with possession of marijuana, nearly all of whom ended up in a six-month diversion program run by the Cape and Islands District Attorneys Office.
Kathy Quatromoin, the head of that program, said the recidivism rate is very low. "Overall, we're at 93 per cent. Most go on their way and we don't hear from them again," she said.
The program functions much like probation, mandating counseling for the juvenile and sometimes the family while also requiring random drug testing. The carrot, said Ms. Quatromoin, is a clean record at the end of six months.
When it comes to marijuana enforcement, Oak Bluffs police Sgt. Tim Williamson said "We're certainly not aggressive, but we're also not passive."
The sergeant said that officers are aware of the acceptance of marijuana on the Vineyard and cognizant of how most charges play out in Edgartown district court - a $50 fine and a case continued without finding.
State police Sgt. Jeff Stone said, "We're more concerned about heroin and cocaine use with the kids. We're absolutely against anyone dealing marijuana, and that's who we go after aggressively. "
Back at the Vineyard high school, the looming threat is expulsion, ranging from one to two quarters. That's what happened to the two students caught with pot in November.
"I mentioned it at a faculty meeting, and some faculty were shocked we expelled on first offense," said Mrs. Regan.
At least two teachers argued for leniency for the expelled students, and some have recommended a two strikes policy before expelling a student. But then the punishment would be permanent with no chance of coming back to the high school, the principal said.
Clearly, the high school is wrangling over the best deterrents, especially when the drug seems to be so entrenched in the students' lives.
"What's appropriate given the community view of marijuana and when, according to the students, it's not a big deal?" asked Mrs. Regan.
Since November, the principal has opted to reinforce what's spelled out in the school handbook. Every morning now in home rooms, television screens flash this blunt reminder: "Stop and think. If you bring drugs to school, you will face expulsion."
Enforcing the school drug policies is a dicey issue when there's no pot or paraphernalia to be found, only the suspicion that a student is high.
In the case of the three students suspended in November, the smell of marijuana was the tell-tale sign. The school nurse also weighs in on the determination.
At last November's SAC meeting, Jim Reynolds, a board member and parent who also happens to be an attorney, pointed to the legal and ethical minefield inherent in declaring a student is under the influence of marijuana.
"It's not like there's a breathalyzer they can take," said Mr. Reynolds.
The three students who were deemed to be under the influence of marijuana were each suspended for up to two weeks, said Mrs. Regan.
The principal has asked health teachers to survey students about their attitudes on marijuana and what the school's response should be. "I want to measure the culture of tolerance or intolerance," she said.
"My assumption is that most kids don't want drugs in school," she added. "I'm hoping that's the kind of culture elicited."
It will likely be the only survey results the high school sees this year. State funding for the behavior risk surveys, given every two years since 1999, has been cut.
Meanwhile, the task of putting a dent in the pot-smoking habit of Island teens could be a real challenge. "There are many households where we know the adults are smoking pot," said Chief Toomey. "How do we preach to those kids?"