Marijuana school suspensions more than doubled after legalization

Alaska's legalization of marijuana came with a huge spike in suspensions of Anchorage students for using or carrying pot at school.

We voted in 2014 to treat marijuana like alcohol. Alcohol destroys Alaska lives and families. Now legal marijuana is starting to do its damage.

Meanwhile, the alcohol industry is fighting hard and dirty to keep a local tax off the ballot that would address some of its damage. The Anchorage Assembly will vote on that Jan. 23. The municipality already levies a local marijuana tax.

In the fall school semester of 2015, soon after legalization, the Anchorage School District suspended 69 students for marijuana use or possession. The same semester the next year, the number jumped to 97. In the semester that just ended, 166 students were suspended for pot.

There's no research to say why this 141 percent increase happened, but it isn't because of stronger enforcement or changes in discipline policy, said Joe Zawodny, director of secondary education for the ASD.

[The new marijuana industry may not be what we bargained for]

"Because it's legal in the community, I think, the stigma around marijuana use is decreasing," he said. "The data would seem to say there is increasing use."


I agree. By opening marijuana shops all over town, society went from saying marijuana was transgressive to saying it is encouraged. Kids heard that.

"Schools are really a microcosm of the community," said Superintendent Deena Bishop. "It was a community issue. It was voted on. It is where we are as a society. But there are unintended consequences."

For many students, one consequence is getting kicked out of school.

The district suspends students for 10 school days — two weeks — the first time they get caught with marijuana. A student can reduce that by doing an anti-drug program with Volunteers of America.

The goal of the policy is to keep students off drugs, because they can't learn while they're high, and to provide a drug-free school for other students, Bishop said. She also pointed to research that shows marijuana use during the teenage years can damage brain development.

After marijuana was legalized, middle school students also began coming to school high, something that hardly ever happened previously in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, Zawodny said.

Suspensions in those grades went from just one during the fall semester of 2015, to 10 in fall 2016, to 26 last fall (I'm using only fall semester numbers for comparisons).

Oddly, the state's Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed no statistical difference in the percentage of students in traditional high schools who reported using marijuana between 2015 and 2017. I cannot explain that discrepancy.

But clearly, the belief was wrong that legalizing marijuana for adults wouldn't hurt kids. Also wrong, that marijuana would produce meaningful government revenue. And wrong as well, that testing and regulation would work smoothly, as the industry struggles with impurities and unknown levels of potency.

The true belief was that marijuana is not as harmful as alcohol, and alcohol is legal. But the social cost of alcohol is immense.

A recent study by McDowell Group economists, funded by the Alaska Mental Health Trust, put the total cost of alcohol abuse in Alaska at $1.8 billion, of which the government pays 43 percent. Sixty percent of the cost of traffic crashes is due to alcohol, almost $600 million a year.

In comparison, the economic benefit of alcohol is minimal. McDowell said the entire payroll of all businesses in Alaska manufacturing, wholesale or retail sale of alcoholic beverages is only $66 million.

But the industry takes advantage of the political system and Alaskans' tax aversion to make sure it avoids paying for the damage. Alcohol pays $38 million in state tax, about 2 percent of the costs it creates.

Last month, Assemblyman Dick Traini proposed a 2 percent wholesale alcohol tax at the local level. The money would go toward addressing alcoholism and could be used to fund bonds to build a treatment center.

The industry, in anonymous ads, attacked Traini on the radio and online (including on adn.com), caricaturing him with a huge stomach. Assembly members were deluged with fake constituent contacts — Traini said he called some supposed opponents who didn't even know their names had been used.

I got the same treatment in the 1990s when I proposed an alcohol tax at the Assembly, with a brutal personal advertising attack and a flood of phone calls. The purpose was to intimidate other members against putting the tax on the ballot, and it worked.

"What message does that send to my Assembly colleagues?" Traini said. "If you try and support the alcohol tax, we're going to put a caricature of you out there."


The industry cares so much because taxes reduce drinking by severe alcoholics. Social drinkers don't pay much tax, but street alcoholics spend all their money on booze. Impose a tax and they can't buy as much.

That matters to the industry, because heavy drinkers — the top 10 percent — account for more than half of all alcohol sales. These are people who average more than 10 drinks a day, every day.

The alcohol industry holds on to those sales by threatening and buying politicians to keep taxes off the ballot.

Another strategy that works to control alcohol abuse is to regulate the location and sales practices of liquor stores and bars.

In an article this week, ADN's Devin Kelly described a neighborhood protesting a liquor store that sells shooters and fortified beer to street people. Experience in other neighborhoods has shown that getting rid of products favored by street drunks can clean up community problems.

The problems of drug and alcohol abuse cannot be solved — but we can make the situation better and alleviate some of the pain and cost of abuse. It requires small sacrifices by the rest of us.

But in these cases — our weak regulation of alcohol and the new legalization of pot — Alaska has put individual enjoyment above what's good for the community. Call it libertarianism or selfishness, it amounts to the same thing.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.