Colorado High School Offers Treatment To Drug Users | KUOW News and Information

Colorado High School Offers Treatment To Drug Users

Apr 16, 2014
Originally published on April 16, 2014 12:30 pm

Ever since recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado in January, some school officials say they’re seeing more students using it. They also say heavy weed smokers generally miss more class and get lower grades.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Jenny Brundin of Colorado Public Radio looks at a pilot program at a high school in outside of Denver that is now offering drug treatment alongside of biology and Spanish.


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Well, ever since recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado in January, some school officials say they are seeing more students using it. They also say that heavy weed smokers generally miss more class and get lower grades. So now one high school outside Denver is offering a drug treatment program, right alongside biology and Spanish.

From the HERE AND NOW contributors network, Colorado Public Radio's Jenny Brundin reports.

JENNY BRUNDIN, BYLINE: Dr. Paula Riggs is on a mission, and it's because of one number, a number that shocks her. The drug abuse researcher says only 10 percent of kids who need drug treatment are getting it.

DR. PAULA RIGGS: That's a crazy number.

BRUNDIN: That 10 percent who get treatment mostly end up there by a court order a run-in with the law.

RIGGS: But the 90 percent who could benefit are in our high schools.

BRUNDIN: So, in high schools like this one, 10 to 15 percent of the students around me are heavily dependent on drugs, usually pot.

RIGGS: They have cannabis-use disorders, cannabis addiction, and there's nothing in the schools for them.

BRUNDIN: Except here at Adams City High in Commerce City. It's a pilot program, what Dr. Riggs says is the first evidence-based, school-based treatment program in the country. Riggs is the director of the Division of Substance Dependence at the University of Colorado's School of Medicine. The district and Riggs' colleague recently got a grant to adapt an existing treatment model to work in schools. Riggs says a big problem with sending teens to outpatient programs is they can't afford it, or they don't show up.

RIGGS: So we thought we've got to bring it to the school, provide it on-site, bell to bell, in the school for those kids who get in trouble with drug and alcohol-related school offenses.

BRUNDIN: So here's how Riggs' treatment works: If a teacher suspects a kid is high, a radio call goes out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Security to the clinic, we have a student under the influence I need to bring for a substance evaluation.

BRUNDIN: Then this guy...

DARREN DUNSON: Darren Dunson, Sr.

BRUNDIN: Gets involved. Dunson is a dean at the school. The kid is searched, the nurse does an evaluation, parents are called. Dunson, a former Marine, has a way with kids, and usually, they fess up. Instead of suspending them, which is what would normally happen, he offers them a chance to stay in school and attend the treatment program, called Encompass. Dunson says hosting the program in the school makes sense.

DUNSON: For a lot of kids, this is their safe place. This is their home. And I think that inside your home, you should have some kind of support system to help your child when there's a need, and that's what we're doing.

BRUNDIN: If a kid says yes and their parents agree, they get a comprehensive psychiatric and substance abuse evaluation. Dr. Riggs says heavy marijuana users often suffer from depression, anxiety or ADHD, among other psychiatric disorders. Therapists need to know what they're dealing with.

RIGGS: Our studies have shown that it matters if you have depression when you walk through the door of drug treatment, because if that depression doesn't remit, your drug use, even if you stay in treatment, is not likely to go down. So, you've got to treat them both together.

BRUNDIN: Encompass uses a cognitive behavioral therapy. Over an eight-week session, kids learn how their thoughts are connected to their behaviors and actions, and try to shift to more positive and useful ways of thinking. Here's Dr. Riggs discussing that with a 17-year-old girl.

RIGGS: A lot of kids just don't know what - how I'm feeling affects how I'm thinking, and then that affects how I use. You just think I just use.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, that's what I - for the longest time I'm like, I'm just a pothead. That's the deal, is that I'm just a pothead. But now I understand, like I know that it's because when I feel something, depressed, and like, it's like, oh, go smoke weed. And it's like the craving, it's like almost like when your stomach tells you you're hungry. It's like telling me I need to smoke. So I'm just understanding how to, like, be aware with it.

RIGGS: Be more in control.

BRUNDIN: The therapy teaches young addicts how to gain control over those thoughts. Teenagers are at the developmental stage where they're just starting to move from the concrete to the abstract, so therapy focuses on specific skills to practice, where kids can see a lot of changes in a short period of time.

ERICA HERMANN: So what a typical session looks like, it's really very structured. So...

BRUNDIN: Therapist Erica Hermann says each session starts with the student reviewing his or her week. Did they get into any high-risk situations that made it hard to stay clean? How did they deal with it? They go over coping skills and how they can practice them at home. Students get to draw for prizes if they've done two pro-social activities that week, like cooking or playing basketball, or if they have a clean urine analysis.

HERMANN: And then they also get additional draws for consecutive negative urines.

BRUNDIN: Then the meat of the session. The student chooses a specific skill to work on: anger management, regulating negative moods, coping with cravings. They identify triggers for smoking weed: feeling stressed out, a fight with parents, maybe a party.

HERMANN: So we spend a lot of time in this therapy just helping the youth understand why they use.

BRUNDIN: This can be tough, because teenage brains are under construction. Adolescence is a time when kids are learning how to problem-solve, manage emotions and communicate. As they develop those skills, the brain changes, wiring them in for life. But if kids start using drugs as their main coping skill...

HERMANN: Eventually, their brain becomes conditioned to any time they feel that negative emotion or any time they want to celebrate, their knee-jerk reaction is to use drugs, and then it just ends up becoming a habit where that's what they do all day every day. And so you may be working with a 15-year-old who is operating at the developmental level of, like, a 12-year-old.

BRUNDIN: Some kids who arrive at the Adams City High program aren't ready to quit marijuana. They say there are no problems in their life. Hermann has to meet them where they are. If she pushes them to change, they'll shut down. So she listens carefully for little openings, like when they say they won't be smoking pot when they're 30 with a family. She'll ask why, and soon they'll be telling her things that the kid realizes applies to his or her life now, like I want to be motivated and focused.

HERMANN: If you join them, it's so fascinating to see how fast you can actually see somebody move through those stages of change.

BRUNDIN: Results from the first round of participants in this pilot treatment program won't be ready until next month, but both Hermann and Dr. Riggs say doing treatment in schools appears to catch kids before they're at a really severe level, and they're able to make changes more quickly. Riggs says two similar treatment centers in Denver high schools are expected to open next fall. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Jenny Brundin, in Denver.


So, treatment in schools. Yesterday, we heard about parents who have drug-test kits at home. This is all provoking a lot of response. You can weigh in at

Some other stories we're following: hundreds still missing after that ferry carrying mostly high school students sank off South Korea's southern coast. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to meet in Geneva tomorrow with officials from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union to talk about the crisis in Ukraine.

And there's a new study analyzing online reviews of thousands of restaurants on What does the study tell us about us? These and other stories later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.