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Not just a hit ? It's a way of life

By Andrew Scot Bolsinger, Amanda Bolsinger and Myles Murphy

Strobes spew forth a colorful blitz of light across hundreds — of Ashland High Students clad in '60s, '70s and '80s garb, dancing to — the funky beat. Each flash of light reveals that which the olfactory senses — already have perceived: a thick, pungent haze wafting over the crowd.

Suddenly, the music stops and an announcement is made — that draws hoots, laughs and some applause from the crowd.

"Hey, let me remind you that this is a non-smoking event," — the DJ cautions before returning to the music.

The applause comes from a dense crowd of teens, surrounding — one of their peers, who is getting high. Often in Ashland, there is no — such thing as a non-smoking event, particularly when it comes to marijuana. —

"Marijuana smoking is a social thing in our community," — said an Ashland High senior who is also a member of the school's honor — roll. "It's honestly a recreational activity when kids get together. It's — something they do as part of the social code of conduct."

This student, who we will call Bill for this story, uses — pot about three times a week.

But it's not just the students who see the abundance of — marijuana in Ashland. Official statistics compiled through surveys by — the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that regular marijuana use — by Ashland High School seniors is 39.8 percent, almost two times the national — average of 21.5 percent. Observations and anecdotal evidence, gathered — by community volunteers and school officials, verify that usually about — 30 to 40 percent of students say they smoke pot.

Many teens who use regularly take comfort in a belief — that most others share their habits.

"I know people who don't smoke. They are a minority," — says a high school senior.

Rick Cornelius, a coach and teacher at Ashland High, says — the problem extends far beyond the high school walls. It is "prolific — and widespread in the community," he says.

None of which is especially surprising for many in Ashland, — where the leafy, often home-grown drug is as interwoven into the culture — as Shakespeare plays and Plaza protests.

What's the problem?

To combat misinformation about the effects of marijuana — use, Ashland Public Schools hosted a meeting on Dec. 15. At the meeting, — held in the Mountain Avenue Theatre, presenter Eric Martin of Safe and — Drug-Free Schools was asked by a community member, "Why are we sitting — here talking about pot when people are doing worse drugs, like meth and — coke?"

"Because Ashland High School students smoke marijuana — at levels that is two times the national average," Martin said.

Still, what's the problem, say some parents?

Brad Carrier, a Unitarian minister and parent of three — sons, two of whom have graduated from Ashland High, was at the meeting. — Carrier is convinced that the problem does not lie with marijuana use. —

"The assumption is that if people are using they are bad," — Carrier said. "But not all drugs are bad. Marijuana has been used in some — cultures for 5,000 years. Only recently has there been a puritanical prohibition."

Carrier allowed his sons to experiment with marijuana. — "I demanded that my sons not smoke cigarettes because there are definite — health risks, but other than that, I allowed them to do what they want," — he said. "Two of my kids don't care for pot so they don't use it. One — does, so he does."

Carrier believes that smoking marijuana provides certain — buffers from other drugs. "I'm glad that Ashland kids are using pot instead — of something like meth," he said. "We don't throw people in jail for drinking — alcohol, but it's more dangerous then marijuana."

Carrier's views resonate with many high school students — who are convinced that marijuana is safer then cigarettes and alcohol. — To many students who use marijuana, the only problem is that it's illegal.

"I have been really drunk," says Jack (not his real name), — an Ashland High senior who is headed to a state university in the fall, — "and really stoned and I was much more in control when I was stoned. They — are both altering in different ways but alcohol is more intoxicating. — I don't understand the double standard that the government puts on marijuana." —

The problem

Countering these beliefs is a big part of Martin's mission. — A growing amount of evidence, according to Martin, undermines permissive — attitudes. The effect of marijuana on users depends on the strength and — potency of the D-9-THC, the main active chemical in marijuana. THC potency — of marijuana has increased since the 1970s and continues to rise, according — to Martin. Most marijuana also contains more than 400 other chemicals, — according to NIDA literature.

"Marijuana is no longer the same natural drug that it — was 30 years ago," Martin said.

Where historically, marijuana had THC levels of 6 to 9 — percent, the highest level on record was confiscated by police in Oregon — at 33.6 percent, Martin says. Simply put, marijuana is being developed — unnaturally to be stronger and more hallucinogenic than ever before.

The NIDA asserts that many outside factors have produced — chemically enhanced marijuana. Most plants are now grown with the aid — of artificial breeding, chemical fertilizers, selective pollination, and — controlled atmospheres to increase potency, as well as size of the plants. — Martin says that marijuana and tobacco share 14 cancer-causing chemicals, — including Benzopyrne, the number-one cancer causing chemical. The NIDA — also claims that early long-term studies of marijuana are developing links — to cancer.

"Studies show that someone who smokes five joints per — day," according to NIDA literature, "may be taking in as many cancer-causing — chemicals as someone who smokes a full pack of cigarettes every day." —

In short, marijuana is not the "natural, organic, healthy — alternative" that many are led to believe.

In his work with teens, Cornelius sees a more immediate — negative effect. In his experience, kids become more "jaded, cynical and — apathetic to daily life."

Other teachers share his concern. AHS teacher Matt McKinnon, — who also works as the school's peer jury advisor, says kids who are using — pot in school are often hard to single out, but "I see more students as — more lethargic. It's just a general impression I have."

McKinnon says there is no way to really know the extent — of marijuana use, but he suspects it's rising. "My perception is that — marijuana is being smoked at increasing levels in this high school. There — is a lot of marijuana being smoked."

But another teacher, who asked not to be named, said the — problem of marijuana is relatively constant.

"It's no more of a problem than it was 20 years ago," — he says.

Yet even he admits that the problem of marijuana use is — evident at times. "For some," the teacher says, "it's a major problem — and becomes a focus in life."

A split in society

Therein lies the rub, but certainly not just on the Ashland — High School campus. It's the rub throughout the entire community. For — some, marijuana use is a destructive force in their lives.

"We are right in the middle of Pot Central, USA," says — Jack, who says that both he and his parents use the drug regularly. "It — is a drug and it messes you up. You have to be responsible."

For others, it's as normal a part of life as opening a — bottle of wine with dinner.

"Nobody ever dies from it," says one Ashland High teacher. —

"You can't die from weed," says an Ashland senior.

"No one has ever died from weed," says an Ashland High — sophomore, "but they have died from cigarettes and drinking."

The issue is ongoing in the city and in schools. In 2003, — community input helped reverse a "zero tolerance" policy which had been — in place since 1997. Before 1997, there had been no consistent districtwide — policy. The policy called for the expulsion students found in violation. — Even that toothsome rule proved difficult to enforce. In 2001, the school — board overturned the expulsion of two students for pot, ignoring the protestations — of school administrators.

In 2003, following a long and often contentious series — of meetings between community members and school officials, the policy — was abandoned in favor of a one geared toward helping students address — their substance abuse problems through a series of graduated steps designed — to keep students drug-free.

"If a teacher suspects, or if a kid is acting different — than they do on any other day," says Ashland High School Principal Jeff — Schlect, "they call us we make a determination. We pull them in, then — work with the parents."

So how bad is it?

As elusive as a puff of inhaled smoke, assessing the real — level of marijuana use is a quixotic quest. Stories of marijuana use rise — and fall every day with a casual ease. Surely some are little more than — urban myth. Just as assuredly, however, some are real.

One student who doesn't use says her car with tinted windows — became a frequent "hot box," because she didn't lock her doors. On more — than one occasion, she left school, opened her car door and was greeted — by the pungent smell of marijuana. She suspected that students who don't — drive off campus found the car an easy place to get high at lunch.

The same student said she was recently approached in the — high school halls by a peer she did not know.

"Do you smoke?" the peer asked.

"No."

"Can I buy your pee?" she asked, holding out a Starbucks — cup.

But community leaders believe that much of the discussion — is the stuff of legends, blown far out of proportion.

"It's really hard for me to accept student surveys," says — Schlect. "Kids tend to exaggerate on surveys. I honestly think kids are — making those choices after school."

The number of arrests at Ashland High School support Schlect's — impression. According to figures released by the Ashland Police Department, — police have been called on campus for drugs - almost exclusively marijuana — - only nine times since 2001. Police Chief Michael Bianca, himself a father — of two kids at Ashland High, says stories about drug use tend to grow.

"I hear from many kids at the high school that drug use — is low or nonexistent," Bianca says. "There's a lot more talk and hype — that doesn't match reality. Some kids never use, some try it and stop. — Some use it a lot and it's part of their lives. For a few individuals — it will lead to dangerous and destructive behavior."

Pressed, Bianca is willing to concede that marijuana presents — more of a problem than other drugs.

"Alcohol use is high, marijuana use is high. Meth use — is low, heroin use is low," he says of the both the high school and the — city in general.

For further evidence, Schlect points to the scholarly — excellence of student performance at Ashland High, generally regarded — as one of the finest academic schools in the country.

"When I think of our kids, they have a broader perspective," — he says. "Our kids are well-traveled and well-educated - they're known — for this. I don't see us as pot central. People ask me all the time, for — such a small school, how is our student performance so strong?"

But, over the course of several interviews, with several — kids, it is safe to say they disagree.

"Most people at school smoke," says an 18-year-old Ashland — High senior - we'll call her Monica - who says she used infrequently during — her sophomore and junior years. "It's not a big deal because it's so prevalent. — Kids are mostly numb to the fact that it's illegal or that it's bad for — them."

One teacher interviewed for this story says his afternoon — class is a challenge every day. Following a 50-minute, open-campus lunch — period, the change in his students is noticeable.

"I feel relatively certain," he says, "that in one of — the classes I teach after lunch a good number of students come back being — high on marijuana. I base that on behaviors, on a number of factors that — I can't pinpoint and can't attribute to anyone in particular. Lunch gives — a lot of students the opportunity to go out somewhere else and smoke a — joint and take a hit on a pipe or whatever it might be, and I really believe — I can see the impact in one of my classes."

Are kids using at lunch on a daily basis?

"No, that's not true," Schlect says. "Kids aren't getting — stoned every day, and I'm convinced it would be impossible for a kid to — be stoned every day and we wouldn't notice."

Still he says parents are often concerned.

"Parents come to me all the time and that's their question: — 'Is a lot of alcohol and marijuana use on campus?' We understand kids — are using on school grounds and some kids come back after lunch and they — use."

Vice principal Don Valentini thinks school policy is working, — and that the problem, to the extent that it is a problem, is under control.

"I'm on this campus every day of the week," Valentini — says.

Simply too easy

The ease with which students can obtain marijuana plays — a role, both in access, and in the subtle message of permissiveness. Routinely, — Ashland students - even those that don't use - say the drug is readily — available.

An 18-year-old high school dropout who doesn't yet have — a job says he uses five times a week and hasn't paid it for any of it — in over a year.

"I rely on the generosity of others," he says. Even without — paying, it's easy to get. "I can call someone and have it within five — minutes."

Which does not differ greatly from the experience of Ashland — middle schooler Chance Conner, who attended the December school meeting — with his father, Rich, to listen to Martin's lecture. Even at middle school, — Chance says, marijuana is easy to get. Which is exactly why Rich Conner — wanted he and his son to attend the meeting together.

"We want to be open and honest as possible and just keep — talking without using scare tactics," Rich said.

Monica says the opportunity to experiment is always available, — even with students like her who no longer use the drug.

"I know five people that deal," she says. "It's easier — to get then booze. You ask anyone and they either have it or they know — where to get it. It's quick, easy and accepted."

What to do

Ashland school officials say they approach the issue in — accordance with the values of the community. Clear guidelines exist for — dealing with students who are knowingly intoxicated. The tricky part is — knowing, according to Valentini.

"If we can't prove it without a shadow of a doubt," he — says, "we pretty much have to get an admission."

Still, as the relatively small number of arrests indicate, — "it's working, I think," Valentini says.

Schlect agrees. He believes the school's mandate from — the community is to step in, "if we see kids' academic success falling — off," and work with the student to provide assistance, not punishment, — unless necessary.

Parents agree that the schools can only do so much. It's — up to each family to raise their children, says one parent, who says his — own experimentation with drugs firmed up his resolve to keep his own children — clean. Parents who do not monitor their children are failing them, he — says. Acceptance is simply "bad parenting. It's like handing your children — a loaded gun."

Cornelius agrees, saying that adults who use, or make — excuses for kids who use, are "trivializing it."

The backdrop of disparity among adults on marijuana colors — any discussion. Bianca says the disparity of views, and the tolerance — of the drug extends beyond Ashland. Bianca pointed out that pot is less — of a crime in the entire state than in most of the rest of the country. — Possession of less than two ounce of pot brings offenders merely a citation.

"The state has decided it's not as big a deal as other — things," Bianca said.

And finally, there are the students themselves. Some, — like Monica, say her friends that use are headed down a dead-end street. — Others simply accept it as a part of their lives. Some are openly consumed — by it.

Most agree, even those who use the drug say the billow — of smoke in the community is a problem that extends far beyond the halls — of the high school.

"The community is f---ed up when it comes to pot," says — Bill, the honor roll student who continues to use pot. "[Pot is] not a — good thing."

"Maybe some of it has to do with the community," Valentini — says simply.