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Medicinal Message Skews Students' Perceptions of Marijuana, Critics Say

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The call came this past fall while the single dad was at his construction job.

“It was the hardest day of my life,” he said.

The man’s son, an East High School freshman, had been busted with baggies of marijuana at a Colfax Avenue parking garage adjacent to the school.

His arrest was one of 18 at East for marijuana possession last year and among the 179 arrests for marijuana possession or sale at 43 Denver schools during 2010-11, according to Denver police records.

The boy said he purchased the marijuana from a senior at school. He was naïve enough to divide it into smaller bags and write friends’ names on them.

“His whole intention was to sell it and make some money. There are quite a few kids there with a lot of money. He was trying to fit in and make some money,” the boy’s dad said.

The names of the father and son are being withheld because the boy is still a juvenile.

While Colorado schools report an increase in drug-related incidents and both national and state surveys show a rise in marijuana use among young people, this father has a message to other parents and kids.

“The stakes are a lot higher than you think,” the dad said. “You’re doing something illegal and you’re playing with fire. Sooner or later, you’re going to get burned.”

He believes young people are confused by mixed messages that bombard them. On the one hand, medical marijuana dispensaries are located near schools and advertise their products as “healthy” on storefronts, online, and on radio stations with young audiences.

On the other hand, East officials are taking a proactive stance against the use of marijuana by students and federal law enforcement officials in January announced a crackdown on medical marijuana shops within 1,000 feet of schools.

The 36-year-old father said he never had a strong opinion on the marijuana debate before, but now thinks medical marijuana dispensaries should be illegal.

“Nobody thought about the kids,” the dad said. “How do you tell your kids this is wrong when you’ve got a guy with a sign dancing around and saying, ‘Come get this’?”

On the day the boy was caught, school resource officers hauled the 15-year-old back to East, arrested him, and charged him with two felonies: attempted distribution and attempted distribution to a minor.

The dad couldn’t bear to watch as the officers loaded his son into the police car and drove him to the Gilliam Youth Detention Center.

Because of a holiday, the boy ended up spending four days locked up before a judge in Denver’s juvenile court could hear his case. He experienced some bullying that led to a fight and some minor injuries.

Ultimately, he was confined to house arrest for two weeks, expelled from East and later harassed online for being a snitch. He had rocks thrown at his car and had to miss weeks of practice for his elite club sports team.

“It’s been devastating for him,” the dad said.

The boy transferred to another Denver high school and his grades plummeted.

“He had never been in trouble before. He had great grades. He went from a 4.0 to a 2.5” grade point average, the father said.

The boy is now on probation. If he can stay clean for two years, the felonies will be expunged from his record. He returned to East this year and is doing well again in school.

“I don’t want to see other kids go through that,” the dad said. “You don’t realize how this impacts the rest of your life. It impacts him getting into college and getting jobs. This has affected both of us pretty heavily.”

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