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TWIN FALLS — With societal attitudes toward marijuana changing and the the once-omnipresent D.A.R.E. program on the decline, anti-drug education has been shifting from “just say no” to “why not?”

“When you go to a classroom and tell a kid ‘Don’t do something,’ their first question is ‘Why?’” said Steven Gassert, Twin Falls police officer and school resource officer at South Hills Middle School.

What Gassert tries to do is focus on the potential negative consequences of marijuana use, such as the increased risk of crashes caused by driving under the influence. He will soon obtain a new tool to demonstrate this — a set of Fatal Vision goggles that replicate the effects of marijuana intoxication, similar to the more common alcohol intoxication ones he already has.

He also addresses adverse health impacts, the possibility of marijuana being laced with other drugs, and its potential interactions with medicines.

There isn’t any particular class where Gassert talks to the kids — he tries to spread it out between different subjects and grade levels, so he’s not taking up one teacher’s time.

While marijuana is illegal in Idaho, Gassert doesn’t use the law as the students’ primary deterrent. He views his role as educational, providing kids with the opportunity to ask a police officer questions they might not have the chance to otherwise.

“A lot of it is just kind of having open discussions with the kids,” Gassert said.

If a student is caught with drugs, law enforcement and the school administration work together to deal with it.

“We work hand-in-hand, but we also have two separate roles,” Gassert said.

If a student does get caught with marijuana, one response that’s sometimes used is sentencing youth offenders to a diversion program.

“Taking kids to jail really only addresses the short-term side of the problem,” he said. “It doesn’t address the long-term problem.”

This year, Gassert started to use a new online program, made available by the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections, where kids he catches with alcohol, marijuana or tobacco have to take an online course.

“I can put them into that in lieu of or including legal charges,” he said.

As an administrator, Gassert can track their progress. As of the second week of September, he hadn’t yet had to sign up any middle school students for being caught with pot. The program, he said, is more suited for low-risk or first-time offenders than for kids who have been caught multiple times or who are using alcohol or drugs more heavily.

What can parents do? Gassert recommends talking to your kids — TV commercials or movie plots can make good segues to bring up uncomfortable topics, he suggested — and resisting the urge to become angry if you find out your kids are doing drugs. Rather, he said, approach the conversation as a discussion of the risks and trying to find out why they’re doing what they’re doing.

“In my experience you’ll be quite surprised how much you learn from your kids,” he said. “Ultimately, kids want their parents to be proud of them. If they feel like they’ve let you down, they’re going to shut down.”

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