Palo Alto HIGH School


Art by Kate Xia

Dhruv Shetty, Holden Lee, and Kate Xia

Clouds of smoke waft through the room while music blasts so loud it can be heard from down the street. As a senior walks into a high school party at 11 p.m., it seems like everyone is high, drunk or a combination of the two. 

While marijuana is not a new phenomenon in high schools, ever since recreational marijuana was legalized in California in 2016, adolescents’ perceived risk of cannabis use has steadily declined. 

Regardless of the real dangers of using marijuana, the medicinal properties of it have led many to think the drug is not harmful, according to a study in the Journal of Addictive Behaviors.

While marijuana is legal in California, in Palo Alto, storefront dispensaries for medical and recreational purposes are illegal. Cultivation of marijuana is also prohibited by city law. 

With its legalization in the state, though, marijuana has become readily available to students. This has led to a more positive perception of marijuana, despite its potential negative effects and chance for addiction. 

But according to California Health and Safety Code Section 11357, if someone under 18 and possess more than 28.5 grams of cannabis or eight grams of concentrated cannabis, they can face up to 60 hours of community service. 

If they are over 18 and possess more than that amount, they can face six months in a county jail or a fine of $500.

Derived from the flowers of Cannabis sativa, marijuana is a cannabis product containing two main chemicals, cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). 

CBD has been marketed as having medicinal properties, and THC is the psychoactive element that may cause people to experience a sense of euphoria. 

Courtney Woo, a sales executive at the cannabis company CannaCraft, said that prior to 2016, marijuana was only legally used for medical purposes.

“(Cannabis) had been medical for over 20 years prior to the industry going recreational,” Woo said. “If 

you wanted to consume or purchase cannabis legally, you would have had to see a doctor, get a medical card, and from there, you would go to a dispensary.”

Marijuana appeals
to students

The neurological and believed medicinal properties of marijuana, paired with an increased accessibility due to its legalization, make it a popular drug among students.

But Stanford Professor of Addiction Medicine Anna Lembke said the THC concentration in cannabis products have increased in recent years. 

“Thirty to 50 years ago, cannabis contained about 10% THC, and people were most often weekend recreational users of low potency cannabis,” Lembke said. “The trend we’re seeing today is ever higher potency forms of cannabis with up to 90% of THC in cannabis products.”

Due to the structural similarity between THC and anandamide, which is a naturally occurring chemical produced in the body, Lembke said the body recognizes THC as anandamide. When THC instead of anandamide binds to receptors in the nervous system, it alters a person’s neurochemistry and brain communication. 

“Anandamide or cannabis and cannabinoid receptors are widely distributed throughout the central nervous system,” Lembke said. “Cannabis binds (to) those anandamide receptors and stimulates them in a much longer and potent way than our (internal) cannabinoid system, leading to changes in perception of time, euphoria, decreased anxiety, elevated mood, increased appetite and other myriad functions.”

Nancy Haug, a clinical psychologist at Palo Alto University, said the medicinal aspects of marijuana can increase the appeal of it as well.

“For people who have underlying psychological problems like depression and anxiety, it might be an attractive option, and they might be more susceptible to developing addiction,” Haug said. 

Additionally, Stanford Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Michael Ostacher said medicalizing marijuana is simply a way to rationalize use of the drug.

“Medical marijuana is a marketing term that people have used to legitimize the use of cannabis for recreational use by somehow making it a human right to allow people to use it,” Ostacher said. “If they have access to it, they can’t get legitimate treatment for their medical problems.”

Furthermore, Lembke said some of the medicinal effects of marijuana have not been fully researched. 

“I have a lot of patients that take marijuana who say, ‘No, that’s not a drug. That’s my medicine,’” Lembke said. “If I suggest they should quit smoking cigarettes, they agree, but when it comes to their cannabis, that’s medicine. But, in fact, there’s not a lot of evidence.”

Marijuana has also become widely accessible, even for those under 21. A Paly parent of a sophomore and senior who requested anonymity because her son has used marijuana said stores in Palo Alto illegally sell THC products by reducing the dosage. 

“Another mom and I went to a store a couple weeks ago,” the parent said. “The guy behind the counter said, ‘They’re all marijuana products. We sell low doses because that’s how we get around the fact that we’re not a legal dispensary. They’re all the same in terms of the overall milligrams of THC they contain in the products.’”

The parent also said one of her underage sons was able to buy marijuana from this store without age verification, and he told her there were other methods that high school students use to obtain marijuana.

“My sophomore told me there were a couple of dealers that sell to a lot of Paly and Gunn kids,” the parent said. “It’s pretty well known how easy it is to contact those dealers and buy edibles, pre-rolls and lots of THC products.”

Students use on the rise

All students in this section only agreed to an interview if they remained anonymous due to the illegal nature of their actions.

As marijuana use becomes more normalized, it becomes easier for high school students to use it. 

In a Schoology survey conducted by The Campanile on March 27, 30% of the 91 students who responded said they have used marijuana, and 82.4% said they know someone who has used marijuana.

A female junior said her experiences align with this data. 

“I know a lot of people who just have to be high all the time,” the female junior said. “I think the culture at Paly about smoking (marijuana) is very vocalized.”

A second female junior said the stressful academic environment at Paly contributes to the use of marijuana.

“People are just trying to take a break from their weekly studies, because it does become a lot,” she said. “It feels nice to (have) some reward at the end of the week.”

The first female junior also said marijuana use has become especially common in group settings.

“For a lot of people, it’s become a social thing,” the first female junior said. “They don’t really like it, but they feel it will get them the friends they want or the social activity they want.”

A male junior said one reason for marijuana’s rise in popularity among high schoolers is the euphoric feeling it provides.

“It affects everything. You feel lightheaded, and your senses are heightened,” the male junior said. “Everything feels better and funnier, and dopamine is released in your brain.”

A senior said they had a similar reason for using marijuana.

“While I was high, there was no stress at all,” the senior said. “It was like the real world didn’t even exist, and I was off in my own world. I just wanted to be there forever.”

The senior also said they once got higher than usual and felt adverse effects.

 “I got scared that I was dying, and that was terrifying,” the senior said. “I don’t ever want that to happen again, I was really paranoid that my body was gonna fail.”

Despite its potential dangers, Advanced Placement Psychology and World History teacher Christopher Farina said some justify casual usage of the drug.

“For people who use it occasionally and recreationally, they can pretty easily rationalize it,” Farina said. “(If) it’s infrequent, there’s not a lot of harm that you would see with usage once a month.”

The second junior female also said she first started using marijuana as an alternative to drinking alcohol.

“Weed was more accessible than alcohol, and it didn’t seem as severe as getting drunk,” she said. “Getting drunk is very messy and doesn’t make you feel too good the next day, but getting high is a more mellowed out version if you want to get away from reality.”

And the anonymous parent said this perception of marijuana is comparable to her high school experiences with drinking.

“(My son) said it’s pretty prevalent at parties that he’s been to, and it’s just a fun thing to do,” the parent said. “It feels like (how) drinking was when I was in high school. It was really available and pretty common. (There) certainly wasn’t a stigma to experimenting with alcohol when I was growing up. THC products are in that category at this point.”

PAUSD to improve
drug education

Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson said consequences for students who are caught using marijuana on campus have also loosened over time.

“A student, back in the day, if they were caught with two separate baggies of pot, that was with the intent to sell, and that was at least misdemeanor, maybe even felony,” Berkson said. “Nowadays, my understanding is a student could have 27 baggies, which is just under an ounce, and it wouldn’t be a misdemeanor. It’d be an infraction.” 

Berskon said punishments today depend on whether or not a student attends a drug education class as part of their punishment.

“Usually it starts with a five-day suspension, but then they are offered to go to a drug and alcohol counseling class,” Berkson said. “If they agree to that, then it becomes a two-day suspension.”

PAUSD is also planning to take measures to prevent marijuana use by making Living Skills a required freshman course, Superintendent Don Austin said. 

“Classes like Living Skills will become a freshman mandatory course,” Austin said. “One thing that we hear is that some of the information that’s in that class, students aren’t getting until they’re seniors. So we’re going to correct that.” 

Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson said education has to start even earlier, and both students and parents need to know the consequences of marijuana use. 

“It has to happen before high school,” Berkson said. “You are going to move Living Skills to freshman year just for a drug unit that lasts how long? And how effective is that going to be? I think it has got to start at a younger age.”

Austin said there is only so much a school district can do to combat student drug use. 

“Our students are smart enough and hear enough and read enough and are presented with enough information,” Austin said. “If they’re choosing to use marijuana in high school or middle school, it’s largely not due to a lack of understanding. They have access, and they’re making a choice.”

Health problems arise
from long-term use

Although marijuana has become increasingly normalized, Dr. Nancy Haug said there can be significant withdrawal symptoms associated with its use. 

“Sometimes people don’t realize what they’re experiencing because the withdrawal tends to be delayed a few days,” Haug said. “What happens is they might stop using and a couple days go by, and then they notice they’re feeling really anxious, or they might experience physical symptoms like stomach pain, headaches or temperature dysregulation.”

These symptoms arise as a person’s body tries to adjust to the influx of THC, Haug said. 

“Once the drug wears off, you actually wind up feeling worse because there’s a depletion of those neurotransmitters,” Haug said. “There has to be some sort of reset or homeostasis, so there’s an imbalance, and for some people, it’s really uncomfortable to experience that low crash.”

This can be especially harmful for people with existing medical conditions such as anxiety or depression. 

While people may perceive marijuana as a relaxing drug, Haug said it can actually worsen these conditions. 

“(Marijuana) is most likely causing (anxiety and depression) or at least maintaining them,” Haug said. “You have to distinguish what is relief from symptoms and what are the effects of getting high, because you may feel good while using it, but does that mean it’s treating your anxiety and depression?”

And Stanford Clinical Professor of Anesthesiology Kyle Harrison said marijuana use not only worsens existing anxiety, but also increases the likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder.

“Ten percent of the population has an anxiety disorder,” Harrison said. “That goes up to 20% with cannabis use, and then it goes up to 40% if you develop (an addiction).”

Although a fatal marijuana overdose is unlikely, Stanford Professor of Pediatrics Bonnie Halpern-Felsher said it is possible to consume too much and develop cannabis hyperemesis which causes significant physical harm.

“Some people who use too much cannabis vomit, get very sick and wind up in the hospital,” Halpern-Felsher said. “Especially with edibles, they may not feel the high right away, so they keep eating more. By the time their body recognizes that they’re high, they’ve had too much.”

Using marijuana before the age of 25 can also increase the chance of developing a cannabis use disorder, Ostacher said. 

“You can make connections in your brain more readily when you’re younger,” Ostacher said. “During that time, exposure to substances like cannabis is more likely to lead to addiction. Almost every person who becomes addicted to nicotine started smoking before they were 18. It’s no different for cannabis.”

Halpern-Felsher said early exposure to marijuana may increase the vulnerability to other substances such as nicotine. 

“(Marijuana) has a priming effect because you’ve stimulated the receptors in your brain that get addicted,” Halpern-Felsher said. “And then when you are addicted to one substance, your brain is primed to be able to be addicted to another substance. A lot of teenagers start with marijuana and move to nicotine.”

Because of these potential long-term health problems from consistent marijuana usage, Harrison said he encourages people, especially teens, to seek support if they are beginning to use marijuana compulsively. 

“The longer you’re under the exposure, the more damage is occurring, and the harder it is to retreat,” Harrison said. “If they start noticing they’re needing to use it more regularly, they should get help.”