Marijuana still sensitive topic at many schools even as states move to legalize

Abbey Laine is used to hearing “no” when she tries to write about marijuana.

The Florida high school student, a reporter for Lakeland High School’s Bagpipe, has taken her idea to a teacher, student editors and the school principal. The lot of them say the topic is indecent and unfit for print in a student magazine, she said.

Laine disagrees. Florida is currently considering a constitutional amendment that would make room for some medicinal uses of marijuana. And on a personal level, Laine’s experience with cancer as a 2-year-old, and the lingering effects of chemotherapy, have made her passionate about promoting education about medical marijuana.

“If high school is basically about readying students for the world,” Laine said, “then why is the world being censored and kept from them in our school paper?”

As more states consider marijuana legalization — two states, Washington and Colorado, have already decriminalized the drug — the topic is only growing as a legitimate public policy debate of interest to student journalists, experts and advisers say.

“The fact is that with especially with the decriminalization going on in some states, there is more interest in writing about marijuana generally,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

In Colorado and Washington, the process leading to legalization has been heavily documented and scrutinized by regional media heavyweights like The Denver Post and The Seattle Times, which each have blogs and reporters devoted to coverage to the issue, as well as big-time national outlets like CNN and The New York Times.

In both states, recreational marijuana use functions much like alcohol consumption — you have to be 21 years old and you can’t smoke out in the open. Because of that, the impact of legalization on teens is often indirect.

At the same time, even though these laws say teenagers can’t smoke recreationally, that doesn’t mean they aren’t — and it also hasn’t stopped some young people from reporting on the hot-button topic. That coverage poses a whole host of questions and issues for young journalists, reporters and educators say.

Experiences covering marijuana vary

At many high schools in Washington and Colorado, student newspapers have written about the impact of the new legalization laws. Coverage ranges from basic facts about cannabis amendments to more-in-depth explorations of how the laws are affecting students.

Some newspaper advisers say extra care is taken with stories about marijuana use because it’s a sensitive subject.

“It’s kind of interesting because on a certain level it’s a little abstract for teenagers, because it doesn’t mean that they’re going to turn 18 and suddenly be able to get marijuana,” said Bonnie Katzive, who advises to The Howler at Monarch High School in Louisville, Colo., whose students have covered the issue in the past.

Katzive said her students were interested in the potential health effects of marijuana. Two students penned the article “Cannabis Control,” which was published in January. The most controversial element was an illustration of a joint included with the article, but students enjoy a lot of leeway with administrators, Katzive said. (A state student free expression law also gives students in Colorado considerable leeway to publish most content as long as it is not obscene, libelous or creates a “material and substantial” disruption.)

“This is my third year as adviser of the newspaper, and I have never had anyone try to intervene at all,” Katzive said. “They’re generally pretty comfortable with the idea that if a story creates a controversy or fuss, it’s not something the administrators are handling.”

Reader interest in the subject is clear: A 2012 article about Colorado’s marijuana amendment is the most popular article in the Howler website’s history, Katzive said. Monarch students will likely continue cover the issue in the future, she added.

In a separate case at Dakota Ridge High School in Littleton, Colo., administrators used heavier hands when dealing with student journalists covering recreational use.

Because stories in The Ridge Review have generated unwanted controversy in the past, the principal asks to review potentially controversial before they go to press, adviser Linda Chang said. That meant a review of the newspaper’s marijuana story earlier this year titled “High Schoolers Getting Higher?”

“That was like a month in the making, and it doesn’t usually take that long to write one story,” Chang said. “It had undergo four or five revisions. It’s a sensitive issue, and we have to walk a fine line.”

Mariah Bakken, the student reporter who wrote the story, said the school’s principal asked her to “add some facts” to the article, specifically how marijuana can affect health. Bakken said the story’s message was an important one, so she didn’t mind these suggestions.

“I think it’s just a lot more common now that it’s legalized,” Bakken said. “It’s easier to get. It definitely can affect the students. It’s a highly controversial topic, but our principal here is very easygoing as long as we get all the facts right.”

Editor-in-chief Alliee Hindman agreed.

“It deserves to be covered because it’s big in schools,” she said. “We do have students here who are users of marijuana.”

In Washington, The Growl of Sequim High School has published a handful of stories about the state’s marijuana law. Nicoe Williams, a reporter for the newspaper, penned an article about how Sequim was adapting to the law. Williams said that marijuana use is common at Washington high schools, too.

“Obviously, there are high schoolers that use marijuana,” Williams said. “There is a little bit more access now.”

Williams said there hasn’t been an administrative pushback to his story, and he doesn’t expect any.

Joseph Landoni, The Growl’s editor-in-chief, said he thinks publishing these stories is an important way for students to learn about the law and the drug itself.

Young people are in a unique position when reporting on marijuana use and how it affects minors, Landoni said.

“The obvious aspect is that you’re with a group of peers,” Landoni said. “I know pot smokers. They’ll be very upfront. We’ve built a rapport. Those people aren’t going to talk to a (professional) reporter.”

As a result, The Growl’s article detailed very candid opinions about the drug, he said.

“It’s definitely an interesting time,” Landoni said.

Potential for censorship

With a hot-topic issue like marijuana, the potential for young reporters to be censored is increased, experts say.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier set a precedent that districts could censor school-sponsored student newspapers if there’s an educational justification and if the paper isn’t established as a “public forum.” Many school districts have cited the ruling as a reason to censor content about marijuana.

“I believe that Hazelwood is still good law and leaves school and school districts with a certain degree of editorial control,” said Wes Bridges, the attorney for Florida’s Polk School District.

Abbey Laine, the Florida journalist, attended high school within this district. Laine ultimately self-published her story about medical marijuana on her own blog, Bridges said that Hazelwood would leave plenty of leeway for the school to step in if she had submitted it to the newspaper.

“It’s certainly appropriate for it to be reviewed,” Bridges said.

Carrie Faust, a regional director of the Journalism Education Association for the Colorado area, said that students in that state, especially, should not encounter any problems like censorship because of the state’s anti-Hazelwood law, established in 1990 in the wake of the ruling.

Anti-Hazelwood laws are scant, though. Washington, the country’s other marijuana hotspot, has no protections against the censorship-friendly precedent. And students who wish to report on marijuana policy in states where it still is illegal could face even more roadblocks.

“Obviously, in many states, (marijuana) is becoming a legitimate public policy debate,” said Dan Kozlowski, a professor at St. Louis University with a secondary appointment at the university’s law school. “The danger is that Hazelwood knows no limits.”

Many schools may believe that issues concerning drug use are inappropriate for young students, or districts might want to remain neutral on the topic, Kozlowski said.

“If it’s a school-sponsored publication, students rarely win when Hazelwood is invoked,” Kozlowski said.

There could also be censorship when visuals or illustrations of marijuana are used, Kozlowski said. Under Hazelwood, if the visuals attract “more controversy” or are “outrageous,” the school might have grounds for action against the student publication.

Kozlowski also cited the infamous “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case out of Juneau, Ala., where a student held up a banner with the aforementioned message on a sidewalk across from the school building during a U.S. Olympic Torch Relay and was then suspended by the school. The Supreme Court ultimately determined that administrators may censor speech that can be perceived as advocating drug use.

“That was obviously an obtuse phrase,” Kozlowski said. “It’s OK for schools to not encourage illegal drug use.”

Even though newspaper stories typically aren’t sending a message of “do drugs,” it’s an argument he could see administrators trying to make, Kozlowski said.

For publications that aren’t sponsored directly by the school, though, the more expansive standard under Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District applies, Kozlowski said, and students would have much more leeway in covering marijuana use.

Tips for students

Bob Young, The Seattle Times’ marijuana beat reporter, believes the issue is one that affects young people greatly — and those effects on youth impact everyone else, too.

“It seems like an extremely important issue for young journalists to report on,” Young said. “Here in the state of Washington, the issue of youth access to and use and abuse of legal marijuana — it’s just hard to overstate the importance of it.”

On a state and national level, Washington and Colorado are essentially acting as test subjects for how states at large can handle marijuana legalization, he said.

“The relative success of this new law will be judged in good part by whether the legal marijuana can be kept from the hands of minors,” Young said.

At some schools, there has been a panic over how easily students can now obtain marijuana, Young said. Parents are worried, and some want to utilize drug-sniffing dogs in schools, Young said. What should be emphasized more, though, is education — and many people are uninformed about both the new law and how drastically it could contribute to drug use among minors, he said.

“I think stories about intelligent or responsible use can also be of use,” Young said.

LoMonte said said he often fields calls from student journalists who want to write about marijuana use, with the most-typical question being how to illustrate the issue.

“Because of the heightened interest in discussing marijuana as a policy issue, people are looking for something to illustrate that story that’s safe to use,” LoMonte said. “We literally have had students say that they have friends with access to marijuana that will let them photograph their pot or even photograph them smoking pot.”

The nightmare scenario in this case is a student being “dragged into the principal’s office” to reveal where he or she saw the marijuana, LoMonte said.

“That always raises a red flag concern in particular at the high-school level because of the uncertainty of what will happen if an administrator demands to know whose pot that is,” he said. “From a legal perspective, that’s the main concern we have.”

There aren’t many cases testing reporter’s privilege at a high school level, so it’s unclear how much power school officials could hold over students when enacting discipline. LoMonte’s always tried to suggest some legal alternative, like visiting a police station or FBI office to see if they’ll allow you to snap some photos from the evidence room. Recently, though, a more-convenient option has become available.

“We recently came up with the idea of reaching out to Colorado journalists for photos of people legally buying and using marijuana and they provided a nice library of stock photographs for people to use online free of charge,” he said.

The CU Independent, a student newspaper at the University of Colorado Boulder, provided stock images of marijuana for student-journalists to publish, so long as the photographer is properly credited.

Young, with The Seattle Times, said it’s important that young journalists continue pursuing this topic. As an adult, it’s harder for him to gain unabridged access to — and the trust of — minors who are using the drug. For students though, who almost certainly have peers who smoke marijuana, there are many stories there for the taking, Young said.

“I would imagine student journalists would have a much better access to minors to talk to them about marijuana: how they’re getting it, where they’re getting it, whether they think it’s less risky,” Young said. “I think it’s really important for journalists to provide those insights. This is a very hot topic.”