In January, recreational marijuana will be legal in Illinois, but don’t expect big changes in how Oak Park and River Forest High School handles possession of marijuana on campus. 

Lynda Parker, student services director, says of the current policy and anticipated reaction to the changing state law, “Students are arrested for possession of marijuana and given a suspension, social probation, and a referral to the Prevention/Wellness person. We will review our practices given the upcoming changes in the law to make sure they remain consistent with the law.  Nevertheless, those changes in the law will not affect students of high school age because marijuana will remain illegal for youth under 21 years old.”

Ginger Colamussi, OPRF’s prevention and wellness coordinator, says the most recent Illinois Youth Survey, conducted in 2018, sheds some light on how many students at OPRF use marijuana and what their attitudes are toward the drug.  She looks at the percentage of students who report using marijuana in the past 30 days, a number she says is more indicative of regular usage than looking at students who report using in the past year. 

“Seventy-four percent of our students reported not using in the past 30 days. Clearly, that is by far the majority of our students. It is still a concern that 26 percent are using, but it’s good that students are by and large making healthy choices,” said Colamussi.

Colamussi says the 2018 survey shows that “most OPRF students do not view regular marijuana use as risky. Forty-nine percent of sophomores and 68 percent of seniors think there is slight risk or no risk of harming yourself if you smoke marijuana once or twice per week.”

The Centers for Disease Control reports those beliefs are wrong. The CDC Marijuana Fact Sheet reads, “the teen brain is actively developing and often will not be fully developed until the mid-twenties. Marijuana use during this period may harm the developing teen brain.” 

The CDC cites studies that show the negative effects of marijuana use in adolescence include: decline in school performance, increased risk of mental health issues, impaired driving, and the potential for addiction, reporting that 1 in 6 teens who repeatedly use marijuana can become addicted.

When she meets with students who have any substance abuse infraction, Colamussi says she works to address the reason why students are using and discusses methods of support to help them stop. She also organizes school efforts at education and prevention and says that one of the most effective programs is a group of peer educators known as HYPE (healthy youth peer educators.)

HYPE members serve as role models and educators in the areas of drug and alcohol prevention, suicide prevention and mental health issues.  Colamussi says their role in reaching their peers is meaningful, “Research tells us that there is greater impact from peers talking about these topics. Kids are more likely to relate to peers and more likely to believe their peers.”

During the school year, HYPE conducts roughly 100 workshops for OPRF classmates, and Colamussi, says one version, The Blunt Truth, is focused on sharing the risks of marijuana and vaping.  “It creates a large amount of conversation in the classroom. It’s fact-based, not judgment-based. The HYPE members are equipping their peers with facts so they can make healthy choices,” she says.

HYPE students also run the annual Red Ribbon week every October as well as National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week in April. Sarah Vivas, a sophomore HYPE member, says manning the tables for Red Ribbon Week was a great way to use interactive, fun games to disseminate facts about drug use. “Other students, who would walk by the table at lunch, would stop and do fun activities while also learning about drug awareness. “

Jonny Hugh, a sophomore HYPE member, thinks the workshop entitled Friends Helping Friends offers real-life help, saying, “I think that this workshop is great because almost everyone has been in a situation where you want to help someone but you may not know how. This brings a simple but powerful procedure to helping someone who may be struggling, whether it be about drugs, mental health, school work, or so much more.” 

Beyond coordinating student-driven programming, Colamussi’s office works on producing educational media about the facts and risks of marijuana and other substances. A monthly newsletter known as The Stall Street Journal is displayed in school bathroom stalls and uses humor to convey health and wellness information, including facts about substance abuse. She also publishes a new e-newsletter for parents called Healthy Huskies, which focuses on mental health initiatives as well as substance abuse education.

In November, OPRF hosted the pilot Parent University, aimed at covering a number of topics touching on teen substance use and mental health. Colamussi says a second Parent University is planned for the spring and will include speakers on the topic of marijuana legalization.

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