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Officials Struggle to Keep Cannabis Away from Kids

Photo Simeon Berg/Flickr

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Officials Struggle to Keep Cannabis Away from Kids

On Feb. 13, middle school students in San Francisco unknowingly consumed medical marijuana products and had to receive medical attention. Officials said legalization is to blame, but the evidence isn’t quite clear.

Stone-faced, flanked by police officers and facing a brace of television cameras and a crowd of parents, San Francisco public school officials on Tuesday announced that students at a middle school had been sickened with a substance — which turned out to be medical marijuana products.

Police and ambulances had responded to a call for help from James Lick Middle School, where ten middle schoolers were “hospitalized with non-life threatening conditions,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

At the time of the press conference, it was only known that the students had all ingested some mysterious “substance.” First responders taking note of the kids’ symptoms probably had an inkling, but it would be another day before the truth about substance’s cannabis composure would emerge.

Officials are treating this as a very big deal. Parents described the experience as “traumatizing” to their children, in comments to the Chronicle, and school officials are promising action. The offending prankster is still unidentified, and it’s not clear where or from whom he or she obtained the edibles in question.

“This terrible incident is a reminder that we need to not only educate our students appropriately — and SFUSD will make this a priority — but also those who make these products accessible to our youth under 21,” Schoolboard President Hydra Mendoza told the newspaper.

In a broader context, Mendoza’s rhetoric is exaggerated. While most scientists and cannabis advocates agree that unmetered, unsupervised doses of THC are not good for a developing brain or a welcome addition to a school environment, medical cannabis is in schools, at the order of judges. While these medical marijuana child patients are consuming cannabis knowingly and with expert supervision — unlike the ten children in San Francisco, there still is space for medical marijuana on the schoolyard.

In fact, around the same time on Tuesday that San Francisco officials were holding their press conference, one California state senator announced that he had introduced a bill to guarantee children with the right to access their medical marijuana at school. State Senator Jerry Hill’s SB 1127 would give school districts the choice to adopt a rule allowing parents to come administer medical marijuana to their child during the school day.

Nevertheless, the James Lick incident highlighted a growing issue, one that will not go away anytime soon in states that have legalized marijuana.

Kids will occasionally get their hands on the stuff — just as they did before legalization. So what can be done?

Legalization’s sales pitch leaned heavily on the promise that regulated and taxed cannabis would stay away from California’s youth. (As has been said before, the promise “While Protecting Children” was literally part of the legalization campaign committee’s official name.) Drug dealers don’t card, the argument went — but dispensary workers do.

Yet in hindsight, legalization’s self-assured promise might have been a bad idea. Nobody can guarantee that kids will never bring cannabis edibles to school and share them with friends and enemies. This was true before California’s legalization era began on Jan. 1.

As per the Chronicle, authorities confiscated at the school a package bearing the words “medical marijuana,” a concept that’s been legal in California for 20 years. Those keeping score at home will note that THC limits in edibles products in California are now lower than ever.

The Chronicle warned that “with the Jan. 1 legalization of recreational marijuana sales to adults upping the accessibility of baked cannabis confections and candy, it could easily happen again.” One parent told the paper, “To my mind, what happened is like a portent of what’s going to happen more and more in schools in California and other states that are making marijuana more accessible.”

But the newspaper did not note that high THC edibles have been available in San Francisco over the counter for most of this millennium, and this is the first time this has happened.

Plus, neither Washington nor Colorado saw increases in youth use after commercial sales of legal recreational cannabis began in those states in 2014.

In an attempt to stop children from accessing cannabis, some officials are considering keeping the price and taxes on cannabis high, so remains difficult to access.

On Feb. 13, across the bay from San Francisco, Berkeley elected officials weighed whether to cut the city’s tax on recreational cannabis. The city currently levies marijuana sales at 10 percent. Added to state-mandated sales, excise and cultivation taxes, eighths of marijuana cost $75 over-the-counter in Berkeley — exorbitant prices that, some experts contend, helps keep the black market in business.

But high taxes are credited with keeping youths away from cigarettes and a tax on beverages with added sugar — the soda tax — is promised to help cut childhood obesity. Keeping taxes on cannabis similarly high “will discourage teen use,” as the authors of an op-ed published in Berkeleyside ahead of the vote argued.

“[W]e know that legalization will only make it easier for those under 21 to access it,” wrote public-health advocate Holly Scheider and condom-manufacturer David Mayer. “The higher tax rate will have the most impact on youth who are price sensitive.”

In presenting their argument, Scheider and Mayer presented no data to support their suppositions that legalization increases youth access, or that expensive over-the-counter cannabis keeps it away from kids. This is probably because — as of yet — there isn’t any.

TELL US, what can officials do to keep kids from consuming cannabis?

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