A district leader’s visit to the workplace of a potential business partner would usually be considered a wise move in the effort to attract future financial support for education initiatives — but not when the business owner grows cannabis for a living.
Diana Rigby, superintendent of the Carpinteria Unified School District in California, drew criticism from members of the community last month when she and four principals in the district were photographed wearing hard hats in a greenhouse full of cannabis plants.
Glass House Farms — where the photo was taken — is part of the Cannabis Association for Responsible Producers, which offered to pay for a counselor from the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse in Santa Barbara to work in the district's middle school. While some in the community argued accepting the donation was inappropriate, Graham Farrar, the company's CEO, said the gesture makes perfect sense in a state that has legalized adult recreational marijuana use. He called it a "good example of community supporting community."
Ultimately, the board voted 4-1 to accept the donation, but the controversy is an example of how the clash between shifting regulations and longstanding beliefs is affecting many district leaders.
“Marijuana is a drug, and basic common sense tells me that drugs and children are a bad mix,” Rogelio Delgado, the Carpinteria board member who voted against accepting the donation, wrote in a letter to the editor. “Accepting these donations shows disturbing and unethical behavior on the part of district leadership.”
A new source of revenue
In a so-called "green wave," 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use, and more states — including Arizona, Florida, New Mexico and those in the Northeast — are poised to move that way, either through a ballot or legislative initiative.
Based on how other states have directed tax revenue from the cannabis industry, education or other programs serving children and youth are likely to be considered as potential recipients of those funds.
“Like most states, we will project a large new source of general fund revenue that the governor and legislators can allocate as they see fit,” says Pat Davis, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, city councilor who chairs a statewide working group on legalization. “We did hear from various advocates, including those in education and higher ed, alongside behavioral health and economic development groups, interested in lobbying the legislature for those purposes.”
He added that past polling results in the state showed 69% of residents would support legalization if it included funding for purposes such as education. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has made legalization a priority of her administration.
Colorado, Michigan, Nevada and Oregon direct a portion of cannabis tax revenue toward education, and in California, the 2019-20 state budget includes $80.5 million "to subsidize child care for children from income-eligible families to keep these children occupied and engaged in a safe environment, thus discouraging potential use of illegal substances or drugs."
But revenues from so-called “sin taxes” are considered unreliable. And in the case of cannabis, experts warn the market will continue to be unpredictable for several reasons, including the lack of historical data, understanding what consumers want and sales across state borders.
“Forecasting revenue from a product that was illegal just a few years ago, and remains so under federal law and in most states, presents a unique challenge for state budget planning,” according to a brief from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
In California, for example, tax revenue is falling far short of projections. In Colorado, total revenues now top $1 billion, but it took five years. But in Nevada, where revenue from a 10% excise tax goes toward education, revenues have exceeded estimates.
Increases in marijuana vaping
While most school and district leaders would welcome new sources of revenue, they are also responding to what officials have called a vaping epidemic, and deaths that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say are largely due to products containing tetrahydrocannabinol — the psychoactive chemical within cannabis.
Overall, marijuana use among teens has remained stable over the past few years in spite of more states legalizing the substance, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And while marijuana vaping is still relatively low, use has increased by more than half among 8th-, 10th- and 12th-graders since the Monitoring the Future Survey began tracking it 2017.
The Federal Communications Commission stopped allowing TV and radio ads for cigarettes in 1971, but TV ads for vaping products are growing more common, with one e-cigarette being marketed as a technological “innovation.”
Researchers are also learning the earlier people begin using cannabis, the more likely they are to develop cannabis use disorder, marked by symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, withdrawal symptoms and craving, explains Ziva Cooper, research director at the University of California, Los Angeles' Cannabis Research Initiative.
“A lot of people aren’t aware that withdrawal or dependence actually occurs,” she says.
Tony Sanders, superintendent of School District U-46 in Elgin, Illinois, says school leaders likely wouldn't know whether a student caught vaping is using cannabis or nicotine. But he added that if a student distributes cannabis to another student, he or she could be expelled, while distributing nicotine-based products is not an expellable offense.
With the Illinois legalization law going into effect in January, Sanders has also raised several other issues related to the impact of legalized marijuana on school districts in a paper he wrote for the educational leadership program he’s currently enrolled in at Aurora University.
These include students’ increased access to cannabis products, the use of school facilities by outside groups for events, and whether workplace policies should be updated. He also notes districts might be faced with the decision over whether to allow a high school student to participate in a dual credit program at a community college related to earning a certificate to work in the cannabis industry.
And while the law states a portion of the cannabis tax revenue will go toward public schools, Sanders writes there’s no guarantee general fund revenues won’t decline by the same amount.
“School district boards and superintendents need to take an active stance to advocate for funding to support drug prevention and intervention strategies, and for the support of a health curriculum focused on prevention,” he writes. “We know schools will be on the frontline of this issue, and funding should be in place from the outset to help address the needs of schools relative to drug prevention.”
As both the medical and recreational cannabis markets expand, the location of dispensaries and billboards is another aspect of the industry affecting school districts.
Earlier this year, the National Poll on Children’s Health, conducted by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan, showed almost 75% of parents think dispensaries should not be allowed near schools, regardless of the grade level. Support was also high for restricting dispensaries near child care centers and family child care homes.
And in California, the San Diego Planning Commission is considering a plan to keep cannabis billboards at least 1,000 feet away from schools, public parks, youth centers and child care centers. The Washington State Legislature has also been weighing a bill that would ban cannabis billboards altogether.
"The district cannot risk compromising [federal] funding sources which are relied on heavily for the education of students.”
Superintendent, Ponca City Public Schools, Oklahoma
The Ponca City Public Schools, in northern Oklahoma, also recently faced a decision regarding a monetary gift from a business profiting from cannabis sales — a chain of medical marijuana dispensaries. The business owners didn’t see a conflict because the state allocates 75% of the tax revenue collected on sales to public education.
At this point, the U.S. Department of Education is saying decisions to accept such funds is "a state and local issue, not a federal one."
The Ponca district decided to turn down the dispensary's offer.
“Accepting donations from a medical marijuana dispensary is uncharted territory for Oklahoma school districts in relation to federal funding sources,” Superintendent Shelley Arrott wrote in a statement. “At this time, the district cannot risk compromising these funding sources which are relied on heavily for the education of students.”