Los Alamos Police Department Sgt. Chris Ross, head of the LAPD Community Liaison Division, which includes the Department’s School Resource Officers. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
There has been some recent chatter in the community about youth and drugs. The Los Alamos Juvenile Justice Advisory Board held a meeting November 17 “to host a very important and timely discussion about current levels of substance use among middle and high school youth and in the community”. Key staff from Los Alamos Public Schools, Los Alamos Police Department and the Los Alamos Teen Center were invited to attend and join in the discussion.
The Los Alamos Reporter attended the meeting, which was open to the public, via Zoom, and was later asked to take into consideration privacy concerns for youth, not only the information shared by a teen participant, but also youth involved scenarios that were provided by other participants. The focus of the meeting was described discussing the depth of the youth substance use issue and creating steps to address the issue. As a result of the concerns raised, the Reporter decided to sit down instead with LAPD Sgt. Chris Ross to get his perspective. Ross leads the LAPD Community Liaison Unit whose members serve as resource officers at Los Alamos Public Schools.
Ross started out by discussing a 2018 study by the Colorado Department of Public Safety on the statewide effects of the state’s legalization of cannabis in 2014.
“Overall from 2014 to 2018, their crime increased – both violent and property crime. Is there a direct correlation to it, no, but when you start looking into it, you have an increase in property crime related to cannabis. You have an increase in violent crime because of legalized cannabis. The one thing that was really concerning was that organized crime in Colorado exploded because of legalized cannabis because anybody could essentially become a grower, producer and distributor by taking advantage of the loopholes of the law in terms of being able to grow,” Ross said.
He referred to a multi-part series by KRQE TV in Albuquerque on the effects of cannabis legalization on Colorado: https://www.krqe.com/news/marijuana/. Ross said there were many international organized crime units that showed up in Colorado and capitalized on the way the Colorado laws were written.
“It’s the same as the law that was written here in New Mexico. There are a lot of long-term effects that we don’t know, but in the short-term we can see that it probably hasn’t been as beneficial as they’ve said it would be. In that series District Attorney George Brauchler of Colorado’s 18th Judicial District indicated that all the stuff they told us legalizing cannabis was going to take care of, never happened. It was all smoke in mirrors. The black market never went away, it’s actually stronger because it’s easy to grow and to sell and distribute. Because of the price of cannabis,, going through the dispensary doesn’t always make it easy for people to go to,” Ross said.
He noted that the thought was that cannabis usage would be on a par with alcohol.
“You don’t see people breaking into liquor stores and murdering the clerks to get the money in the vault but we’ve seen that in Colorado. There are security guards that have been murdered at dispensaries because people were there to get to the cash or the products that are there in the store. Brauchler said they had 16 cases since they’ve legalized that were murders around the legal dispensary side of it. You don’t see that that often at a liquor store. I’m not saying that liquor stores don’t get robbed but you don’t see that murder element to it – people willing to kill to get to the cash cow that’s sitting in the safe,” Ross said.
He noted that the negative impacts on society aren’t necessarily outweighed by the economic benefits that the state of Colorado has received.
“Overall crime is an issue. The juvenile use is an issue. They were saying that almost 40 percent of all expulsions statewide in the schools were related to cannabis. That’s a lot when you realize that those were all related to drugs on campus,” Ross said. “Teenage use of cannabis went up initially and then it went back down. When you break down the numbers in high school, the older the kids are the greater the percentage of use is on a regular basis,” Ross said.
Getting back to the issue of youth substance in Los Alamos, Ross said he doesn’t think the substance abuse numbers have increased from has been seen historically.
“I think what we’ve seen is the different drugs. We have kids in the middle school using acid. We have methamphetamine and cocaine at the high school in the student population. So it’s the change to different drugs. We haven’t seen heroin yet; it doesn’t mean it’s not there,” Ross said.
He noted that a lot of what officers are seeing is the high-concentrate THC part of cannabis.
“The edibles, the vapes – those are into that 90-95+ percentage of the THC content. The green leafy substance that we recently confiscated had a THC percentage of almost 30 percent. That is really high compared to marijuana that was around in the 70s and 80s which was 3-5 percent. Now you see medicinal and it’s 30 percent THC. So it’s a much stronger product,” Ross said. “We’ve seen some of the effects if it on kids, who for lack of a better word are almost having an ‘overdose’ of symptoms from cannabis.”
He said the THC content continues to get higher with indoor grows, hydroponic grows, and the science available on how to grow marijuana with higher THC content.
“We know it just keeps pushing that threshold higher and higher for all the products, and that’s where the concerns come in. The kids are being exposed to drugs that are much stronger than they were just a couple of years ago and they’re incredibly strong compared to 30-40 years ago,” Ross said.
Asked if the age level for use of the drug has dropped, Ross responded that he thinks it’s kind of consistent.
“You see a little bit of exposure at the middle school, not often but we see some exposure at the middle school level,” he said.
As far as the high school, Ross said if you can get to some of the key players you can gain a little bit of control.
“From a realistic standpoint, we know we’re not catching everybody. The percentage that we’re catching is a fraction of what’s going on. We know that. It’s just like people speeding down the road – we only stop a certain percentage of them, we don’t catch every speeder. It’s the same thing dealing with drugs, whether it’s on campus or in the community. We’re only catching a fraction of them. We’re not catching 100 percent. It’s impossible for us to do that,” Ross said.
He noted that historically one thing that is alarming is that it comes in waves.
“For example, at the end of September, we had a lot of cases in a short amount of time with high school students. When it comes in waves like that, then it makes the problem a heck of a lot bigger or wider than what it could be or it could just start giving us a little feedback about how big the problem is – when you see a lot of kids involved, all in a short period of time,” Ross said.
When legal retail cannabis businesses start opening up April 1 cannabis will be a lot more available,” Ross said.
“There’s going to be a lot more of it come April. Really the biggest thing is going to be the grow aspect because the state legalized the ability for everybody to grow marijuana. Who’s to say you can’t just grow it in your house or backyard and somebody and a child of yours, a student of yours, another relative doesn’t decide to come over, cut a bud off and leave the house. It would essentially be like picking a grape off the vine and taking it for lunch,” he said.
Ross noted that one of the issues Colorado saw at first was a massive expansion of illegal grows which contributed to the black market and the widespread use of cannabis by the youth population.
“It’s difficult to control that because it’s a legal substance. It’s winging it. There has been a lot of guidance from the state but it’s a legal substance. How do we prevent somebody growing a legal plant – we don’t. The tools that we as law enforcement were able to use before the legalization laws such as smelling marijuana, seeing it being grown, things like that, to be able to build our case or our search warrant, those are gone. We don’t have those now because it’s a legal substance. We are going to adapt and evolve and learn what we have to do to build a case in a different way,” Ross said.
He noted that from the schools’ side of the issue there’s a two-sided approach.
“There’s the administrative approach and then there’s the law enforcement approach. They may match up or they may not. The student will face a disciplinary issue and criminal charges or maybe no disciplinary issues but criminal charges, or discipline but no criminal charges. They may not always match up. But I have told our school resource officers that we don’t want to see drugs on campus and we are going to work hard to create a drug-free campus – taking a tough approach,” he said.
Ross continued, “I understand days are going to be made, but I understand that the drug culture is a small fraction of the student population, but it’s not fair that that a small fraction of the student population can impact the ability of all the other kids in the classroom to get an education because they’re sitting in the classroom and they’re high and they’re being disruptive, whatever it may be. I look at it as we have to give an opportunity for everyone to get an education, to have a day on campus and enjoy their day at school without being affected by somebody else’s poor decision. That’s where I have guided our resource officers to look at it and have that approach”.
Ross believes the most important thing is to determine why kids are using drugs.
“A lot of it comes back to a small area of stress, and you fill in the blanks after that. But it’s stress, so it’s trying to find a way to give the kids an alternative to deal with stress. Some of the things I talk about with them is learning to go for a hike up in the mountains or something like that. We all understand through research what the benefits of physical activity are mentally and physically. I also talk about breathing, sitting down and doing some breathing exercises. There’s a lot of great information out there that talks about just five minutes of solid breathing. Find a club, a sport, something positive like a hobby,” he said.
One thing resource officers are seeing is that because of the shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, kids are not getting involved in activities.
“TikTok is not a hobby. SnapChat is not a hobby. Social media is not a hobby. That can’t be your alternative because those are not good alternatives. Those are all detrimental to your health because of what they do,” he said. “The one thing we have to look at and I think we see it in the community after school, is the kids have been in a structured environment for eight hours a day. The last thing they want to do is walk into another structured environment. They want to have a little fun and that’s why we see a lot of kids just walking around Ashley Pond, at the skate park and in the downtown area. It just has a vibe of its own and a little looser atmosphere and you can just do whatever you want.”
Ross said that’s the kind of activity kids need and if it can be combined with some healthy ideas that are fun without adults blowing their whistles.
“Talking with a lot of the kids, I have heard that no longer having the movie theater has had a big negative impact. It was lost because of the pandemic but it’s lost forever. A lot of them kind of realized they enjoyed just going to a movie after school, on a weekend or on a Friday or Saturday night. When you go to a movie theater, you know what you’re going to do – you’re going to watch a movie. When you’re there, maybe you have popcorn, maybe you have candy, maybe you talk to your friends and just kind of hang out. Maybe you don’t even go into the movie theater, maybe you’re sitting outside, you’re just interacting, you’re just socializing, having a good time and having a break,” he said.
He noted that although there are lots of recreational opportunities in Los Alamos, many of them involve the outdoors and that maybe that doesn’t capture everybody’s interest.
“You have to provide them with something else. You have to have places for kids to engage – to let them kind of be kids. They may do things that adults frown upon but they’re not really doing anything bad,” Ross said.
He believes that for some kids, drug use is just part of the growing up rite of passage.
“They experiment here and there and they find out it’s not their thing and they move on. Other kids that experiment here and there it turns into a life-long problem. Some kids it turns into maybe a 10-year problem,” he said.
Ross noted that fentanyl has taken off in parts of the country and destroyed communities and lives.
“Luckily we have not seen a lot of fentanyl in this area. It’s here. We get updates from federal law enforcement agencies. They all come in waves,” he said.
Asked what percentage of youth are using drugs, Ross said the Youth Risk & Resiliency Surveys (https://www.nmhealth.org/about/erd/ibeb/yrrs/) indicate that in response to being asked if they have used in the last 30 days, 20-27 percent stated that they have.
“The last time they did the survey marijuana was taboo. We may see an increase when we get the results in the coming years when the substance is legal and it doesn’t seem to be so frowned upon to discuss it or to say you’re using it. Maybe those numbers will go up, maybe they won’t. We don’t know,” he said.
The Reporter asked Ross where on campus drugs are found and he responded on kids, in their bags and in their cars.
“We don’t go to the cars; the security guards do that. It’s not our responsibility to search cars. The security guards can because when they’re on a campus, the school administrators have a duty to ensure the safety and well-being of those students. They have a little more leeway with what they call the ‘reasonable suspicion’ standard to be able to conduct a search of a student’s person, belongings or their vehicle. They have much lower tolerance than we have,” Ross said. “Ours is a probable cause standard; they have a reasonable suspicion standard. They have to see something, they have to hear something, they have to smell it. It’s their responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of their campus.”
Ross said the courts are giving school districts and administrators a lot more leeway in recent years to be able to ensure campus security whether it’s drugs or weapons to be able to conduct searches on campus.
“That just goes to what we have seen nationwide, whether it’s school violence, whether it’s drug issues – there’s a lot of leeway there where they can articulate, ‘We had suspicions this student was violating the school rules’, so they can do it. We get involved only at the end if they find anything. We’ll get involved with it early if there’s a gun. If it’s the security guard going out looking at parking permits etc. and they happen to see something right there on the front seat of the car, that’s for them to go and do,” Ross said.
Asked if parents a little naïve about how much drugs are on campus, Ross responded, “Yes and no”.
“Some parents have a pulse or a good idea and others don’t. Parents want to think no. You look at a lot of the letters to the editor recently, it’s all about the decrease in test scores during the last 10 years and all that stuff, and all that does is add stress to the student population. Everybody wants to say look at the grades. We should ask ourselves, are we creating good people. And that’s more important than the ratings you get on a test that is a snapshot of time,” Ross said.
He noted that one of the things he tries to tell kids when they get into trouble is that that moment does not define who they are.
“It’s just a snapshot in life. What you do with it defines who you really are. What you do with where you’re at with that situation or that difficulty or that stress that you’re in – how you deal with it, how you handle it, how you come out of it, that’s what defines you. It’s not just today, it’s what you do with it in the next few days or the next month or the next year. What was of value to you in high school, by the time you’re 23 or 24 years old, doesn’t have the same meaning to you anymore. It changes and you’ve just got to get through it,” Ross said. “When I talk to kids, that’s what I try to let them know. Maybe we’re here because you might have made a poor decision but don’t let this decision compound into more foul-ups for you. Let’s just learn from it. We all learn from our failures not our successes. We learn more from what we’ve done wrong than what we’ve done right. So make some changes and move on and become better at it. The value of creating good people in society can’t be measured by a test score or a Scantron,” Ross said.
“I would like the ability to help these kids become good people and become great members of society and do something that they really enjoy doing in life and make a positive impact on a person. That’s all you can ask for when you deal with kids,” he concluded.
Editor’s note: Statistics recently received from Los Alamos Police Chief Dino Sgambellone indicate that 18 out of the 19 drug cases handled by LAPD in 2021 were investigated by school resource officers at LAPS. Watch for additional articles in the Los Alamos Reporter on the issue of drugs in the community