Douglas County School District's medical marijuana policy spurs impassioned pleas

Some parents and students believe school staff should be able to administer the treatment

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For more than a year, Ben Wann and his family have urged the Douglas County School District to change its medical marijuana policy in two ways: allow him to keep his medical marijuana at school and allow school staff to administer it to him.

Wann, an 18-year-old senior at Mountain Vista High School, says it's a matter of his personal safety. Ben was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 3. He uses hemp oil morning and night to prevent seizures, and relies on a nasal spray with THC to stop breakthrough seizures if they occur.

School board President David Ray pledged on Oct. 22 he'd place a review of the policy on the next meeting agenda, Nov. 12, but the item was removed before the meeting took place. The district released a statement saying it had since learned of a complaint filed against it with a state regulatory agency concerning the policy, and it was postponing the policy review until the investigation is resolved. The Wanns strongly refuted that statement, saying the district knew of the investigation several days before Ray's promise.

“When I heard that the agenda (item) was gone,” Wann said during the meeting's public comment on Nov. 12, “that disappointed me. I trusted from day one when I first met you guys.”

'A vicious cycle'

With the removal of the agenda item, a months-long disagreement between the Douglas County School District and local families about the medical marijuana policy remains at a deadlock.

The question — who should administer medical marijuana to students — is one districts across the state and nation are weighing slowly as they consider the disconnect between state and federal drug laws, potential liabilities and if schools could lose federal funding with such a policy in place.

“It's kind of a vicious cycle and I'm very sympathetic to the families in terms of the current status with that,” Ray said. “It's a dilemma for us because I absolutely understand their concern.”

At present, DCSD policy allows primary caregivers and parents to come to school and administer nonsmokable hemp or marijuana products to students. The products can't be stored on campus and must come and go with parents. School staff may not administer medical hemp or marijuana to students, and parents must release the district of any liability related to the administration or cost of the cannabis products.

Ben Wann's parents, Brad and Amber, have dedicated months to researching policies. They're baffled that staff in Washington, D.C., public schools can now administer medical marijuana, according to multiple media reports. If schools in the federal government's "backyard" can, why won't other districts adopt they policy, they asked.

There are numerous protections at the state and federal level allowing districts to enact such a policy, they said, leaving no reason DCSD couldn't either.

“We have blown entire door holes through their argument,” Brad Wann said.

Brad Wann firmly believes the federal Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment protects schools. The amendment prevents the Department of Justice from using funds to interfere in states that have legalized marijuana. There's also no precedent for the federal government withholding funds from schools because of medical cannabis policies, he said.

He points out schools are already breaking federal law by allowing parents or caregivers to bring a controlled substance on site when they administer it to children.

The Wanns are often joined by Mark and Sarah Porter, who want the same change in policy for their daughter, Marley. The 14-year-old Castle Rock Middle School student was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease at age 7.

"I just want to be able to take my medicine to school, take it at school, with or without the nurse's help," Marley said.

Both families call the present policy discriminatory and dangerous for their children. For working parents in particular, they said, coming to school to give their children medication is burdensome. The Wanns explained they wouldn't be able to reach Ben in time to administer his medicine before a serious seizure would cause brain damage. Multiple complaints have been filed with state agencies against the district in the course of its dispute with the families.

In recent weeks, most district officials have remained tight-lipped on plans for the policy — whether the district would consider amending it, or if not, why.

In response to an interview request with Superintendent Thomas Tucker, a district spokeswoman provided links to the district's medical cannabis policy and the statement on its website explaining the district does not allow personnel to administer medical marijuana.

The online statement says that's because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. Tucker's sole statement regarding the issue on Nov. 12 reiterated that.

“The federal government does have say in medical marijuana. We look at our state law. Our state law says that if the federal government says that this is an issue, with school districts administering medical marijuana,” he said, “the policy statewide becomes null and void.”

Weighing the choice

Colorado law allows school personnel to administer medical marijuana to students on a volunteer basis. A 2016 law allowed primary caregivers and parents to come to school and give students medical marijuana. The law was amended in 2018 to also allow school personnel to volunteer and administer the medications. Districts have the option to opt in or out of the state law.

Since the 2018 amendment, two of the state's 178 districts have changed their policies.

Clear Creek School District is the only district in Colorado that allows staff to administer medical marijuana products and didn't until October. The Eagle County School District allows staff to administer CBD products only.

Clear Creek Superintendent Karen Quanbeck said the district began researching its new policy when two families asked them to in July.

“That really was the first step, to listen,” she said. “To move past that knee-jerk reaction of there's no way this is possible in the land of schools.”

They ultimately approved the new policy to help children whose only or best option in treating medical conditions is cannabis, she said. The policy closely follows guidelines outlined in the 2018 state law, she said.

The marijuana must be in a non-smokable form, securely stored during the day and removed from the school after hours. The district still has oversight over who volunteers to administer cannabis and families must form an official care plan with school officials.

Quanbeck said the district carefully considered the intersection of state and federal drug laws. While marijuana is legal in Colorado, it remains a Schedule I drug at the federal level. The legal questions were daunting, she said.

“It really felt like we've got kids who are caught in the middle of laws that are in conflict of each other,” she said. “How is that fair to that child?”

Quanbeck said the district's biggest worry was whether the federal government might pull funding from districts with policies like theirs.

State Rep. Dylan Roberts — a Democrat who represents Eagle and Routt counties — sponsored the 2018 bill that permits district staff to give students medical marijuana. He strongly doubts the federal government would withhold funding from schools.

As a precaution, he said, the law states if there is any indication the federal government would do so, a district can immediately rescind its policy. Roberts said he can't say if districts would be given any warning before funding is pulled.

“That's a good question,” he said. “It's one I can't answer specifically, not being a federal regulator, but I would imagine there would be at least some indication prior to allow the school to make the changes.”

Quanbeck also said she could not say if the federal government would give districts warning before penalizing them. To be safe, Clear Creek's policy has the same prevision the state statute does.

“We cannot risk the financial sustainability of our district,” she said.

Roberts said benefits of the policy “outweigh any of the scare tactics coming from any of the anti-cannabis people.”

“At this point, over a year removed from the law being signed,” he said, “I would have hoped that a lot more than two districts would have adopted it.”

A waiting game

Following Ray's Oct. 22 statement that the Douglas County School District's policy would be reviewed, Roberts said it would be significant for a district its size to consider letting staff administer medical marijuana. DCSD is the state's third largest school district.

“If a large school district like Douglas County adopted this, I think that would be a big watershed for this,” Roberts said. “If they can at least start having the conversation, that is positive momentum.”

When speaking with Colorado Community Media on Nov. 6, Ray said the board's first step would reviewing the medical marijuana policy to determine if there was interest in amending it.

In those conversations, the board could determine if district administrators had provided them the best recommendation, he said.

“I think it boils down to, who should be responsible for administering a drug or medication that is not FDA approved, a medication that is not prescribed by a doctor,” Ray said.

He suggested examining the policy in place to see if families can designate someone who is already on school grounds as a primary caregiver. He wasn't sure if district personnel could be designated as that person.

“There's a lot of things in the current policy that haven't been explored,” Ray said.

Jennifer Mueller, general counsel with the Colorado Association of School Boards, said the organization does not recommend a specific policy but says school boards should consult with local counsel on medical marijuana procedures.

Because marijuana remains federally illegal, the organization's sample policy prohibits school personnel from administering medical marijuana unless the staff member is the student's parent or guardian. School boards can still adopt a different policy than CASB's sample.

“While Colorado school boards are not required to adopt a policy on this subject, CASB recommends that local school boards adopt a policy so that the board's policy will be clear regarding when and how the administration of medical marijuana to qualified students is permitted,” she said.

Ray promised this wasn't the end of the conversation in Douglas County, but how soon the district might revisit its policy review remains unclear.

“I understand (Ben's) disappointment,” Ray said. “Once the investigation is concluded, just as I stated then, we certainly would not have any issue with reviewing policy JLCDB.”

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