LA QUINTA, Calif. - Billboards up and down the 10 freeway advertise dozens of dispensaries using colorful graphics and colorful language.
"It's made a significant difference," says Chris Geyer of the billboards, "and a lot of it has to do with mindset and availability."
Geyer, an assistant principal at Palm Desert Charter Middle School for over two decades, says the mindset among students he sees is: "It's legal, I'm not doing anything wrong."
Most of Geyer's information about pot use is anecdotal, based on what he sees and hears, but he suspects he knows the reason for the change in mindset among students, "I think that part of it," he says, "has to do with the legalization of marijuana."
Now the numbers back up his theory about what's happened in local schools since January 2017, when recreational pot use was legalized in California.
"The use of marijuana. It has spiked," gestures Geyer. "Over the last year in a half."
Local school districts lump drug and alcohol suspensions into just one category. But among middle schoolers, Geyer says the majority of those suspensions is for: "Marijuana and the oil that's involved."
The year before marijuana was legalized, 81 eighth graders from Desert Sands and Palm Springs Unified School District were suspended for drug or alcohol use. Halfway through the next school year, pot was legalized. And from there, the numbers grew and grew.
During the last school year ('18-'19), 226 students were suspended.
The numbers are even more dramatic among local seventh graders. From 32 suspensions the year before marijuana was legalized, to 149 last year, equating to a 365 percent increase.
Coachella Valley Unified saw similar trends among all students, with suspensions for drug and alcohol nearly tripling from '14-'15 (from 134 students overall) to the most recent school year (386 overall).
Coachella Valley Unified School District
School Year - Total 48900 (c ) Suspension
2014/2015 - 134 students
2015/2016 - 168 students
2016/2017 - 165 students
2017/2018 - 296 students
2018/2019 - 386 students
Because of that influx, local school districts are changing the way they are dealing with kids who are caught with marijuana.
"Once we saw that spike," says Larry Bellanich, DSUSD Director of Child Welfare and Attendance, "we said we gotta start doing something to make sure we're not seeing so much recidivism."
Bellanich says the district now provides three layers of intervention and support, especially for first time offenders.
"Upon a first offense of some sort," described Bellanich, "that a student has been suspended for (drugs or alcohol), we'll immediately provide them with some counseling support."
School officials are also warning parents, friends and loved ones, what to watch out for in the students themselves.
"Changes in their attitudes," describes Bellanich. "Their energy levels."
They also have to warn loved ones about what the drugs look like.
"Marijuana used to be the plant," describes Geyer. "Now it's liquid. And you can ingest it in various different ways."
Edible gummies and vape pens filled with marijuana extracts don't give off the tell-tale smell, and are small enough to fit in pockets, or even the palm of a child's hand. Cartridges fit into electronic cigarette units, some known as Juuls.
"It is easily hidden. It's almost odorless...Some of the products just look like the thumb drives, or the finger drives that you can use for your-- computer," says Geyer.
However, he warns the potency packs a huge punch.
"The marijuana oil is five sometimes, 5, 6, 7 times the concentration level of the active ingredient."
Geyer says what's even scarier is how kids are accessing and trying a substance that is virtually unknown.
"So what's happening is kids are getting a hold of these units, these cartridges, and they don't know what's inside. They don't know what's inside."
Geyer often has to hand over what is found to the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, which tests the substance to see if it's nicotine or marijuana based.
"It's scary. You don't know what you're putting in your mouth," says Geyer.
Bellanich reports students don't often buy what they're using.
"They got it from an older brother, or they got it from a sibling, or they took something from their parents," he says.
"They're getting the materials from people that they know," adds Geyer. "Or they're taking it from people that they know, because it is easily accessible to adults."
"I believe a lot of this is more of a symptom than it is the problem," he continues. "Don't get me wrong. The marijuana or the drugs is a problem, But there's something else going on. There's typically something to cover what's actually going on in their heart."
An internal survey of students at Palm Desert Charter Middle School showed how susceptible kids were to future marijuana use, with more than 20 percent who had never used it, saying they would try it for the first time if their best friends offered it to them.
"For this age group, the friends are like the world," explains Geyer, "Specifically sixth, seventh grade, friends are-- the friendship that students have is monumental." That means it is tough for them to tell on each other. "So they're having to weigh their friendship, along with doing something either right or wrong."
"But 98 percent of our students are doing what they're supposed to be doing," he adds. "And that's what we're trying to promote. 'Hey! Report that.' I don't care how you do it. (The kids) don't want (pot) at school. They don't want it at school."
Click here to report suspicious activity at school or among peers anonymously.
Click here to learn more about how to talk to your kids about marijuana.
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