An effort is underway in Sebastopol to target an unusually high rate of marijuana use by west Sonoma County teenagers, particularly in high school, where more than half of the 11th-graders admit to having smoked pot.
"It is a severe cultural problem. One of the counselors calls it epidemic proportions," said Diane Davis, coordinator of the West County Coalition for Alcohol and Drug-Free Youth, a county health department program.
Sonoma County teens use marijuana at a higher rate than the state average, and the west county has the highest rates within Sonoma County, according to the California Healthy Kids Survey, taken every two years.
Keller McDonald, superintendent of the West County High School District, said incidents of students caught possessing, using or being under the influence of marijuana on campus is minor, but he believes the survey is accurate and raises concerns.
"We see it as a health concern and a cultural trend," McDonald said. "The use and the cultural trend does have an effect on student achievement. It is connected with overall student health."
The effort to combat marijuana use by teens involves schools, police, alcohol and drug counselors and members of the community, according to Police Chief Jeff Weaver.
The efforts include providing a resource guide for parents, implementing anti-drug and alcohol use programs in the middle schools, and bringing in a speaker next week to address middle school and high school students and parents.
According to the latest California Healthy Kids Survey, taken in 2011, 55 percent of west county 11th graders and 29 percent of west county 9th graders said they have smoked marijuana.
In comparison, 51 percent of Sonoma County 11th graders and 29 percent of 9th graders said they have smoked marijuana. The statewide figures are 42 percent for 11th graders and 25 percent for 9th graders.
Davis said teenagers tell her that marijuana is very easy to get and they consider smoking it a normal thing to do. In large part, she blames that viewpoint on the permissive attitude held by their parents.
"There is an attitude around marijuana use that it is not that harmful, it is not a big deal," Davis said. "Parents play a role. Parents have similar beliefs, they say 'We did it as kids and look, I have a full-time job.'"
The problem, however, is the marijuana available now is five to seven times more potent than pot used in the 1970s and much more likely to affect the adolescent brain, Davis said.
Research shows that in 13, 14 and 15 year olds, it hinders brain and IQ development, causes a lack of motivation and drive, and impacts short- and long-term memory, Davis said.
Michael McCracken, coordinator of Project Success Plus, an anti-drug and alcohol use program at Analy High School, said the addiction cycle for young adults is five to eight months, a very short period of time when compared to adults.
Marijuana use among teens often results in absenteeism, lower grades, problems at home and administrative sanctions, McCracken said.
Weaver said he became aware of the extent of the problem last year, when he was helping a local family who had three of their four teenaged children run away.
"It was a picture-perfect family otherwise," Weaver said. "We found they had easily gotten into drug use and alcohol use. When I looked into it, I found there was a bigger underbelly than I knew."