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Local high school tightens substance control policy

School officials say wider access and unclear laws have led to increased student use of drugs

Portsmouth High School revamped its drug policy last month to strengthen consequences for drug use and authorize random breathalyzer tests at extracurricular events. These changes stem from the release of an April report documenting high rates of student substance abuse from the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition, a community group focused on preventing drug abuse.

School administrators first tested students using breathalyzers, which measure blood alcohol content, at a homecoming dance Sept. 28. All 71 students — randomly selected from the dance’s attendees — passed the test.

“There wasn’t one student that they tested that violated that policy,” said Ray Davis, coordinator of the coalition. The random testing “was not used for retribution against any particular kind of student,” he added.

The Portsmouth School Committee approved the new policy last month after the coalition released its report, which surveyed more than 1,200 students in Portsmouth’s junior high school and high school. According to the report, alcohol and marijuana showed “significant increases in user rates” as students grew older, with about two-thirds of seniors reporting having consumed alcohol in the last 30 days.

The statistics are “a badge of dishonor that we think we could actually lower,” said School Committee Chair David Croston.

The high rates of drug and alcohol use may be partially attributed to the town’s access to marijuana, Davis said. Portsmouth is home to the Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center, one of two centers in the state that legally grow and distribute medical marijuana. One hundred to 300 additional independent growers are licensed in the town, Davis said.

There is “more than an ample supply of marijuana that is available for purchase,” Davis said, though he stressed that he is sure the center does not distribute marijuana to underage users. “It’s being sold, it’s being given, it’s being taken.”

The state’s recent decriminalization of possession of less than one ounce of marijuana might also have contributed to the phenomenon, Croston said.

“Kids believe it’s legal,” he said. “We have a mixed message, and the kids are picking up on that.”

Davis said the Portsmouth School Department is adopting multiple strategies to minimize underage drug use, including flyers, information sessions and new curricula.

There is “no question the changes have strengthened” the school’s drug policy, said Portsmouth parent Elizabeth Morley. “It’s great that Portsmouth is really moving forward to help put those pieces together.”

Morley, whose son graduated from Portsmouth High in 2008, added that “the point of the policy is prevention.”

Croston said administrators “don’t see (the breathalyzer tests) as a policy that will be used consistently throughout the year” but rather as a monitoring tool for specific events.

Administrators plan to reconduct the study in December and monitor responses to the policy, Croston said. “We’re going to keep tracking on an annualized basis” to ensure policy decisions are rooted in data, he said.

Both Davis and Croston said the community’s primary priority is to keep students safe from accidents like drunk driving.

The drug policy “is a piece of a plan across the board,” Davis said. “We have a lot more work we need to do.”


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