School districts find marijuana use has become increasingly normalized

(Photo by Nicole Terpening)

Read more from the special Kingston Times April 20 edition

Local school districts are constantly looking for new ways to steer kids away from old vices. With marijuana, that can mean Too Good for Drugs, an evidence-based program offered through the Ulster Prevention Council.

The increasing normalization of marijuana in culture and society can make it trickier to get kids to say no. “It has become somewhat normalized,” said Carole Kelder, principal at Mt. Marion Elementary in Saugerties “Cigarettes used to be a gateway drug. I feel that we’ve gone one step beyond that now, and marijuana is the gateway drug. When you’re chasing that high, whatever it is, you’re going to go to that next step.”

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Susan Palazzo, an educator with the Ulster Prevention Council, agreed, though she didn’t believe marijuana use was higher than it used to be.

“I still feel like kids are using just as much as always,” she said. “They’re using it in groups more. They’re not stopping. I think they’re scared of heroin, and they think they can just chill out and relax with marijuana. Cigarette smoking has gone more to the wayside, but they’re smoking marijuana.”

In Saugerties, Too Good for Drugs works alongside kNOw MORE, a district-organized program founded a year ago to help students navigate some of the pitfalls facing young people in the modern age. Marijuana isn’t the primary focus of either initiative, but it’s an important piece of the anti-drug curriculum in all local school districts.

“If it’s marijuana we would talk about the brain and how it changes development,” said Palazzo. “In terms of marijuana, which is always a big lesson, we will still use the peer refusal strategies. But what we end up doing is role play, and I have 10 students who take a different role and play out what it would look like if somebody was peer-pressuring them into using marijuana, and the consequences of using marijuana. We talk about the signs of use.”

Too Good for Drugs is part of the Mendez Foundation’s decades-long commitment to evidence-based, skill-building programs for students. In Saugerties, it’s being presented for the first time to sixth- and seventh-graders.

“It gives students social skills and emotional skills for making healthy choices,” said Kelder in Saugerties. “It also helps them to discuss and develop positive friendships and communicating effectively and resisting peer pressure.”

 

Kelder said Too Good for Drugs has a chance of getting through to kids because it involves them in the process rather than just turning the experience into a lecture. “The program is designed to mitigate the risk factors related to alcohol, tobacco and other drug use, and they’re discussed in the context of peer pressure and the role that the media plays as well,” she said. “It’s done through fun and interactive lessons that help students build self-confidence to make healthy choices and be successful. They talk about goal-setting, decision making, bonding with peers and adults, managing emotions. Sometimes drug use begins because they’re having a hard time managing emotions. It’s not just students, but people of all ages, sometimes feel a drug will help them feel better.”

Palazzo is teaching the 10-week course for sixth-graders in Saugerties elementary schools, and she trained a seventh grade teacher to give the course in health classes at the junior high school.

“For sixth-graders I don’t go as in-depth,” Palazzo said. “We learn the consequences, what it’s doing to your heart, lungs and brain. We focus on development, and that it takes until you’re around 25 for your brain to fully develop …. Every kid has a different take on it. In the sixth grade they’re still a little innocent and don’t always know what marijuana is. High school is very different.”

It can sometimes be more difficult to get through to older kids, Palazzo said.

“If I was teaching high school, they’ll say to me there’s nothing wrong with marijuana and nobody’s ever overdosed from it,” she said. Teenagers sometimes don’t realize the other dangers marijuana can present, like delayed reaction time. “They feel like it’s not going to impact their lives because they can’t overdose from it or can’t die from it.”

At Onteora, an evidence-based program through the Prevention Research Institute is part of the middle and high school curriculum.

“So far the feedback that we’ve got from children and teachers who are in the classroom with them has been positive,” said Kelder about Too Good for Drugs. “I think addressing these issues is important, and we have to start somewhere. Prevention is the key. Intervention sometimes can be too late.”

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