Suburban school administrators bracing for legal marijuana's impacts

Students won't be allowed to use marijuana when adult recreational use begins Jan. 1, but school leaders anticipate legalization bringing a cascade of effects in the educational realm.

The need for prevention education will increase. The difficulty of determining intoxication among students and staff members will rise. The use restrictions imposed on employees will need clarification. And the regulations that come with federal funding could create conflicts.

These are the chief concerns raised by educational leaders across the suburbs as they start a school year during which recreational marijuana use by adults 21 and older is set to begin under the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act.

Elgin Unit District U-46 CEO Tony Sanders raised many of these points in a paper he wrote for a doctoral degree he is pursuing from Aurora University. He advises vigilance to prevent increased marijuana prevalence.

"Students already have access, somehow, to illegal marijuana," Sanders said. "I think this (law) makes it more open for students to gain access to marijuana, and I do worry about that."

Vigilance against marijuana in schools could mean posting signs to remind the public of smoke-free and drug-free regulations, which U-46 plans to do, Sanders said. Or it could mean using health class lessons to emphasize the negative implications of marijuana use by teens, which is in the plans for Glenbard High School District 87, among others.

Whatever districts do to prepare for adult marijuana use, they should work to create a "culture of nonuse" among students, said Cristina Cortesi, substance abuse prevention coordinator at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.

"Unfortunately, when a substance is legalized, it creates greater accessibility and it creates greater norms of use," Cortesi said. "When policy is not in our favor in terms of preventing substance abuse, it's just a harder road ahead."

Teaching prevention

With health classes focused on positive lifestyle choices at Glenbard North, East, South and West high schools, District 87 will use these lessons to educate 8,100 students on the potential consequences of marijuana use, which Superintendent David Larson said will not change when the drug becomes legal for adults.

"We will continue to present data and review the negative side effects, the negative implications of marijuana addiction - memory loss, social anxiety disorders, heart and lung damage," Larson said. "We're not going to be bashful."

The district also plans to use its Glenbard Parent Series to build "awareness and caution" of the various ways marijuana can be consumed, including through the use of increasingly popular e-cigarettes or "vaping" devices.

"We work really hard with parents being the first line of prevention intervention," Larson said.

Impairment checks

Legalization creates at least three hurdles with determining whether a student or staff member is under the influence of marijuana while at school, officials say.

There's the fact there is no equivalent of the alcohol-impairment testing ability of the Breathalyzer for marijuana.

There's the fact school employees, other than bus drivers, must be proven to be intoxicated in order for discipline or termination to be possible, U-46's Sanders said.

"How do you take action against somebody," he said, " ... if you have no way of proving that they are actually, currently, under the influence of cannabis?"

And then there's the issue of smell.

Whether a student smells like cannabis is one factor Stevenson deans and nurses use when investigating suspected cases of intoxication. Officials also check blood pressure and speech and look for sweating, tremors, dilation or constriction of pupils, stumbling or decreased ability to walk.

But once the drug is legal to be used by adults - including parents - in their private homes, the smell test won't be as reliable, Cortesi said.

She gave the example of laundry. Say a parent legally uses cannabis near a student's clean clothes. The student wears those clothes to school and smells like the drug.

"I think it will be more difficult to determine if a student is under the influence," she said.

Employment rules

Federal transportation code prohibits school bus drivers from using cannabis.

"As such, a positive drug test for an employee who drives a school bus would be grounds for action," Sanders wrote in his paper.

But for other employees, drug testing is more complicated, since a positive result for marijuana could indicate use that took place legally.

"The ability to take action against an employee would require a better system of testing to determine if an individual had utilized cannabis within the past 24 hours," Sanders wrote.

Whether districts continue or discontinue marijuana testing, Sanders said, he advises leaders to consult with their attorneys and update their employee handbooks so everything is clear.

Federal funding

The average school district receives roughly 10% of its annual budget from federal funds, Sanders said. Securing those funds requires following federal law, including the U.S. Drug Free Schools and Communities Act.

It requires policies to "clearly prohibit, at a minimum, the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs and alcohol by students and employees on its property or as part of any of its activities."

That's generally not a problem, but the legality of adult cannabis use in Illinois contradicts the drug's illegal status as a Schedule 1 narcotic at the nationwide level.

One way school districts could run afoul of the federal prohibition relates not so much to K-12 education but to community colleges.

Up to eight community colleges in the state can receive licenses to participate in a Cannabis Vocational Training Pilot Program created under the new law. Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, for one, said it plans to participate by offering a cannabis dispensary and patient care specialist certificate.

Some districts allow students to pursue dual credits from community colleges while still in high school. So if a high school were to allow its students to take courses toward a cannabis certificate, Sanders said, it could risk compliance with federal law.

"Absolutely there is a risk of losing federal funding," he said. "I don't believe the (President Donald) Trump administration has withheld funding from any school district for not providing a safe and drug-free work environment, but they certainly have the authority to do so."

Letting students pursue dual credit in a cannabis program, therefore, is not worth it, he said. "I would never put our district funds at risk by providing that opportunity."

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BRIAN HILL/bhill@dailyherald.comElgin Unit District U-46 and other suburban school district administrators are grappling with the complications of recreational marijuana use becoming legal Jan. 1.
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