When California first legalized marijuana for medical use 21 years ago, it was unclear how permissive use of a once-illegal substance would affect students.

Now, those conversations have reignited in the wake of last year's vote to legalize recreational marijuana for anyone 21 years or older starting Jan. 1. 

While county officials grapple with regulation and taxation, school officials are facing their own dilemma: How to talk with students about cannabis as a recreational drug?

The answer, it turns out, may be in how school officials have talked to their students about alcohol and other drugs — including cannabis — for decades. 

A time-tested approach

“To me, the legalization of recreational use is really a formality," said Luke Ontiveros, superintendent of the Santa Maria-Bonita School District. "When medicinal marijuana went into effect more than 20 years ago, we had [similar] conversations."

Ontiveros does not believe increased access will equate to a greater incidence of cannabis use among K-8 students, citing what he witnessed after medical marijuana was legalized. 

“Medicinal marijuana has been permitted for the last 20 years [and has] really provided broader access,” Ontiveros said. “Even with that, we didn't see a huge spike in use at schools.”

Data regarding cannabis use collected by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, which has studied cannabis since legalization was enacted in that state at the start of 2014, suggests Ontiveros may be correct.

Though higher than the national average, first-time and regular cannabis consumption by Colorado minors did not notably increase in the two years following legalization.

With recreational sale around the corner, Ontiveros believes the potential impact of increased access to cannabis can be addressed by treating the substance similarly to alcohol and involving adults — not just parents — in leading the conversation.

“Providing marijuana to a minor is no different than providing alcohol to a minor,” he said. “It's just something that's new and adds to the layers of accountability and responsibility we all have as adults.”

Gentle reminders

While lifetime cannabis use remains low (5 percent) among Santa Barbara County seventh-graders, consumption among 11th grade students jumps to 36 percent — seven times the reported rate at a seventh-grade level.

As superintendent of the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District, Mark Richardson oversees approximately 7,800 ninth- to 12th-grade students at Santa Barbara County’s largest secondary school district.

With reported cannabis use highest among 11th-grade students, Richardson said the district will work to remind students of the legal regulations surrounding cannabis possession and consumption.

“Even though the state has legalized marijuana, there is an age restriction [on it], just like alcohol,” Richardson said. “What this means for us is that we will treat possession or [students] under the influence as we have in the past.”

Under the state’s recently implemented recreational cannabis regulations, possession of cannabis and its derivative products remains a prohibited, punishable offense for individuals under 21 years of age.

Individuals under 18 years of age who are caught with cannabis are required to complete a combination of drug education counseling and community service hours, pursuant to California Health and Safety Code.

”Our message to students is, ‘just because it is legal for some (21 and older) doesn’t mean it is good for you,’” Richardson said.

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga


Education Reporter

Mathew Burciaga is a Santa Maria Times reporter who covers education, agriculture and public safety. Prior to joining the Times, Mathew ran a 114-year-old community newspaper in Wyoming. He owns more than 40 pairs of crazy socks from across the globe.

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