Under California’s new laws and regulations, possession or consumption of cannabis remains a prohibited, punishable offense for individuals under 21 years of age.

Juveniles caught in possession or under the influence of cannabis face mandatory drug education classes and community service hours, while underage adults can see fines of up to $500 and six-month jail sentences.

With recreational sale commencing Jan. 1 and cannabis poised to become commonplace in California, Mike Wheeler, D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer with the Santa Maria Police Department, believes the number of cannabis-related calls — especially among minors — will increase.

"The [number] of times I was going to school for marijuana possessions seemed to increase over the years before," Wheeler said. "[School Resource Officers] are consistently dealing with students who bring marijuana on campus. Now, with things like [legalization], it makes it more accessible for students to get a hold of."

In light of California’s new cannabis policy, Wheeler hopes educators and law enforcement will balance interrelated efforts to enforce state law and district drug policies with non-punitive measures designed to educate and prevent use among juveniles and underage adults.

Preaching prevention

Drug-related suspensions in Santa Barbara County public schools have remained relatively unchanged since the 2011 school year. Districts issued more than 700 drug-related suspensions last school year, with roughly 70 percent occurring in North County schools.

Through prevention and education programs like D.A.R.E., Wheeler hopes to work with educators and law enforcement officials to engage with students in a non-punitive fashion to dissuade students from pursuing drugs or other “risky behaviors.”

"We want to focus on teaching kids how to stop and think about the choices and consequences of the decisions they’re going to make," Wheeler said.

D.A.R.E, introduced in the 1980s as an anti-drug program, and its curriculum were overhauled over the last decade to de-emphasize drug use and promote "good decision-making skills" among students. Presentations to elementary and middle school students are delivered throughout the year by local law enforcement officers or the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office.

"We want students to think about every decision they make and everything they put in their body," Wheeler said. "Even if it is 'legal,' [consuming] tobacco, alcohol and now, marijuana, for kids under 21 is still a bad, unsafe choice."

Rob Plastino, the Santa Barbara County sheriff's commander tasked with overseeing North County law enforcement operations, said recreational legalization does not affect D.A.R.E.'s curriculum because the program is, at its core, a life-skills program.

"Healthy lifestyle choices involve more than just abstinence from illegal drugs; they also require students to overcome peer pressure and make sound decisions in their lives," Plastino said. "D.A.R.E. focuses on giving students a way to make decisions that will impact their lives with positive outcomes."

Enforcing the law

Assembly Bill 133, which passed in September, modified California Health and Safety Code in accordance with the passage of Proposition 64.

According to the modified code, minors caught in possession of cannabis are not subject to criminal prosecution but are required to complete a combination of drug education counseling and community service hours.

Adults between the ages of 18 and 21 will face a $100 fine if found in possession of less than one ounce (28.5 grams) of cannabis or 8 grams of cannabis concentrate. Jail time for possession is also possible for underage adults, as possession of more than one ounce could result in six months of county jail time and a fine of no more than $500.

On school grounds, possession of any amount of cannabis during instructional hours by adults is a misdemeanor offense, punishable by monetary fines or jail time for repeat offenders. As AB 133 imposes no punitive consequences for juveniles, punishment for cannabis-related offenses fall under California Education Code and district policies regarding drugs.

Drug policies currently in place at Santa Maria-Bonita and Santa Maria Joint Union High school districts deem possession, consumption, or the sale of or intent to sell, or provide any controlled substance (as listed in Health and Safety Code) by K-12 students as grounds for suspension or expulsion.

Per district policies, violations by students are not limited to school grounds and may occur while going to or coming from school, during lunch (whether on or off the campus) and while going to, during, or coming from any school-sponsored activity.

While Wheeler recognizes suspension and expulsion as a tool to address the problem, he considers corrective measures to be more efficient in addressing the issue at large.

"Whenever students are found in possession of cannabis, we end up sending them to teen court for charges," Wheeler said. "We’re not looking to take students to juvenile hall or anything like that, but we are trying to get them into drug education programs and inform them of the consequences. There are long-term effects for juvenile use we want to inform them about."

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