TWIN FALLS | It's no longer as simple as "Just say no."

With changing attitudes about marijuana and legalization in other states, more students are questioning why the drug isn't legal here and whether it is dangerous. And that has police and counselors changing their approach when it comes to warning kids about the dangers of drugs. 

Police still take a hard-line approach. But they seem more willing to accept that some students will smoke pot and have shifted drug education policy away from scare tactics, never-use pledges and zero tolerance of the DARE era to an open discussion about how drugs affect the body. 

"I don't go in there and say don't do drugs, don't do this don't do that," said Steven Gassert, a Twin Falls police officer and the student-resource officer at Robert Stuart Middle School. "I present it to them based on my experiences, and they make their own conclusion."

The shift comes as more Idaho teens are smoking marijuana, according to the Idaho Statewide 2013 Needs Assessment, which showed a nearly 5 percent increase in the number of high schoolers who said they'd used marijuana in the past 30 days. The study blamed relaxing social attitudes about pot, especially in TV shows, movies and celebrities.

Self-medication is just as big of a problem, said Gassert, who has an office at the school and regularly counsels students about drugs. Parents having a rough patch or school worries can lead students to dull their stress with alcohol or drugs. Gassert relies on his experience with drug users as a police officer, scientific studies and statistics to convince students not to use.

"That's where you gain their respect," he said. "Some kids have changed my views and opinions on things, and I've changed their view and opinion on others."

In Gooding, public schools are partnering with the Walker Center, a drug-rehabilitation clinic, to teach middle school students about factors that can lead to drug use, such as low self-esteem. 

The school started Life Skills classes last week, taught by Arlene Liebe, a prevention facilitator at the center. Students learn facts about drugs along with anger management and how to deal with anxiety, Liebe said.

Monday's lesson closer resembled a therapy session than a lesson in DARE, the substance-abuse prevention program started in the 1980s and taught to a generation of American school children. Liebe focused on self image: Just because you flunk a test or don't make a sports team doesn't mean you're a failure, she told the sixth grade class.

Despite the shifts in drug education, to many students, pot still seems no different from alcohol. They ask why one is legal and the other isn't.

"I tell them it's still illegal to drink alcohol until you're 21," Gassert said. If pot were legalized in Idaho, middle and high school students still wouldn't be able to purchase it.

Rather than telling students their lives will be destroyed by marijuana, Gassert explains the reasons behind age limits, including marijuana's effect on frontal lobe brain development and body chemistry. Adolescent brains aren't fully developed, and it is a key period in forming decision-making skills.

He also warns of the problems of buying a drug off the street.

"It's not like going to the pharmacy and getting medication from a pharmacist," he said. "Yo're picking up this thing from a guy on the street corner. It might be laced with PCP or meth."

While trying drugs might not destroy a future, it can make the path a lot more difficult. Drug charges can hurt future chances in many careers. That resonates with students.

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For students who already have a drug charge, Gassert has a solution that can make their lives easier. He helped create the Juvenile Drug Diversion Board in Twin Falls nearly a decade ago. Children can enter the program when charged with their first drug offense. They get treatment, counseling and take regular urine analyses. A judge dismisses the charges for students who complete the program.

Iain Laird, a counselor at Oregon Trail Elementary School in Twin Falls, also focuses on the effects marijuana has on the body in his lessons.

While some elementary-aged students are savvy, most aren't following national news trends or understand the concept of legalization. His lessons focus on long-term health effects of tobacco, marijuana and alcohol. Yes, pot is legal in some states, he tells students, but using it can cause personal, family and academic problems.

Laird sticks to evidence-based drug curriculum. “People developed it and tested it out,” he said.

Still, students sometimes struggle to grasp the difference between use and abuse. 

Students report that their parents or other family members drink or smoke. Laird tells students that using tobacco or alcohol doesn't make someone bad. It’s the choices in how a person uses.

“It might be tough for them to know if they haven’t seen it,” he said. “Some might not get it until they see someone who is drunk or dying of lung cancer.”


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