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Cannabis liberalization policies and trends in cannabis-related school-based discipline: Examining sociodemographic disparities in Massachusetts

Award Information

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Competitive Discretionary
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Funding First Awarded
Total funding (to date)

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2023, $111,000)

Background: School suspension and expulsion during adolescence is associated with multiple adverse outcomes such as not completing high school and later involvement with the criminal justice system. Repeated involvement with the criminal justice system can generate cumulative disadvantage for young people who may face barriers to key social determinants of health such as employment, housing, education, and living in a safe neighborhood. Establishing school disciplinary policies that appropriately sanction unlawful drug use but that do not put youth on a trajectory toward involvement with the criminal justice system is complex. The “school to prison pipeline” has increased youth involvement in the criminal justice system, as schools have adopted “zero tolerance” for drug possession and use on school grounds. These policies have disproportionately affected youth of color and youth from urban settings, with higher rates of suspension, expulsion, and criminal justice involvement, despite rates of drug use that are similar to or lower than white youth. In some states, the legalization of cannabis for persons aged 21+ is associated with a decrease in arrests among adults, but the evidence among youth is mixed. The relationship between these policies and risks of disciplinary action for youth remains known.  

Methods: To address these questions, the proposed research utilizes a mixed-methods approach. Quantitative methods will examine whether proportions of school-based discipline for cannabis-related incidents among youth under age 21 have changed as cannabis policies have become increasingly liberal in Massachusetts between 2005-2021. Sociodemographic characteristics of school districts with relatively high and low proportions of school-based discipline will be identified. Additionally, qualitative methods will be utilized, incorporating a community-engaged research approach to explore youth perceptions of and experiences with school-based discipline for cannabis offenses by collaborating with a youth advisory board and conducting in-depth interviews with persons under age 21. 

Results: Findings will reveal whether cannabis policy changes are associated with changes in cannabis-related school discipline. Additionally, results will reveal the sociodemographic characteristics of school districts with the highest and lowest proportions of cannabis-related discipline. The results will further demonstrate youth perspectives on and experiences with school-based discipline and criminal justice system involvement for cannabis-related offenses.  

Conclusions: The findings will shed light on trends in school-based discipline for cannabis-related offenses over time, in the context of increasingly liberal cannabis policies. The findings can inform policymakers as well as health and education advocates who seek to understand and mitigate potential harm from cannabis policies upon youth.  CA/NCF

Date Created: September 14, 2023