Suspending kids from school for using pot is not an effective deterrent, in fact it can lead to more — not less — use, according to a study by researchers at the University of Washington and in Australia.
Counseling and promotion of an abstinence message in schools were found to be much more effective, according to an article about the study that was published March 19 in the American Journal of Public Health.
The study, conducted in 2002 and 2003, compared drug policies at schools in Washington State and Victoria, Australia, to determine how they impacted student marijuana use.
The researchers were initially most interested in teens’ use of alcohol and cigarettes, according to a news release about the article from the University of Washington. But after Washington legalized recreational marijuana use for adults in 2012, researchers decided to reexamine the data to see how legalization might influence students in Washington versus their counterparts in Australia, where pot remains illegal, said Deborah Bach, a social science writer at the UW.
They found students attending schools with suspension policies for illicit drug use were 1.6 times more likely than their peers at schools without such policies to use marijuana in the next year. That was true for the whole student body, not just those who were suspended.
“That was surprising to us,” said co-author Richard Catalano, professor of social work and co-founder of the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. “It means that suspensions are certainly not having a deterrent effect. It’s just the opposite.”
This echoes reporting we did in the Kitsap Sun about student discipline in general, in which educators and child advocates from many corners said suspension and expulsion are ineffective at reversing undesirable behavior.
Conversely, in schools with policies of referring pot-using students to a school counselor, students were almost 50 percent less likely to use marijuana.
Washington and Victoria, Australia were chosen for the study since they are similar in size and demographics, but differ considerably in their approaches to drug use among students. Washington schools, at least at the time of the study, were more likely to suspend students, call police or require offenders to attend education or cessation programs, the researchers noted, while Victoria schools emphasize “a harm-reduction approach that favors counseling.”
Researchers surveyed more than 3,200 seventh- and ninth-graders in both 2002 and 2003 about their use of marijuana, alcohol and cigarettes and also about their schools’ drug policies and enforcement. Nearly 200 school administrators were also surveyed. In both survey years, pot use was higher among the Washington students. Almost 12 percent of Washington ninth-graders had used marijuana in the past month, compared with just over 9 percent of Victoria ninth-graders, for example.
Tracy Evans-Whipp, the study’s lead author, said although the research predated Washington’s legalization, the findings show what types of school policies are most effective in discouraging teens’ use of the drug.
The study also showed “a consistent link” between increased acccess to marijuana and higher rates of self-reported use by adolescents, Bach notes.
“To reduce marijuana use among all students, we need to ensure that schools are using drug policies that respond to policy violations by educating or counseling students, not just penalizing them,” Catalano said.
Others involved in the research are are Todd Herrenkohl at the UW, Stephanie Plenty at the Centre for Health Equity Studies in Sweden and John Toumbourou at Deakin University in Australia.
Chros Henry, Kitsap Sun education reporter