Boulder Valley schools won’t support Gov’s ‘rat cages’ campaign

Boulder\'s Shawn Coleman is caught in the cage in Denver.

As you probably know by now, the Governor’s Office has launched a “Don’t Be A Lab Rat” campaign. Targeted at 12- to 15-year-olds, it kicked off Aug. 11 with lots of TV coverage, as well as ads on YouTube and before films in movie theaters. Large human-sized cages, complete with giant plastic  bottles to simulate laboratory cages, have been placed in locations around Denver, each with various messaging about cannabis’ possible dangers on the young brain, all leading to the question: “Do you want to be a lab rat and find out?” 

The campaign was created by Denver’s Sukle Advertising & Design to the tune of $2 million, and is sponsored by the City and County of Denver, funded by grants from the State Attorney General’s Office, the Anschutz Foundation and the El Pomar Foundation.

Although you can find the cages all around the state, you won’t find them on Boulder Valley School District property. BVSD Superintendent Bruce Messinger announced the district won’t be allowing any cages to be installed on school properties over concerns about parts of the campaign officials feel might stigmatize some students.

“We don’t see human-scale rat cages as something that’s going to be seen as a positive or intelligent way to approach young people,” explained BVSD Director of Communications Briggs Gamblin, adding that BVSD works with a number of city, state and county groups and organizations to reduce drug abuse among its students. “We worry about some of the messages and possible links to schizophrenia and that how they are worded could feed into stereotypes, especially since that is a time when peer approval is so important. We do share the view that 12- to 15-year-olds shouldn’t be using marijuana, and it’s not allowed on school property.”

There aren’t any cages in Boulder yet, either, but that could change. Ashlee Herring, who works with special events and communications for the City of Boulder, said that the city has been in contact with the governor’s office. “We are in conversations trying to determine if it’s feasible, and if it is, what the best locations will be.”

The ulterior motive behind the campaign is the belief that now that cannabis is legal, teenagers will be more likely to try it because they won’t think it’s dangerous.

“From the most recent Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, we know that the percentage of high school kids who think using marijuana poses risks to their health has gone down,” Governor John Hickenlooper said in a press release, “which has raised the concern of health experts who worry the normalization of marijuana in Colorado could lead more kids to try it.”

It’s the old “health experts worry” argument, despite recent statistics which indicate no real upswing in reported teen use of cannabis in states where it’s legal medically or in Colorado. According to the federal government’s own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Assessment, cannabis use by teens dropped from 24.8 percent to 22 percent between 2009 and 2011, the latest year for which figures are available. Numbers can lie, but nothing in recent research indicates an uptick in teens using cannabis.

Apparently, focus groups of young people were used to help develop the strategy, in consultation with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and come up with something that won’t automatically turn off teens.

That’s a tough one. “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” claims not to want to just scare kids, and this is definitely a step up from Reefer Madness or “this is your brain on drugs.” But I’m with the school district on this one. For all its sophistication, it’s still rooted in the tactics of fear. I’m all for helping steer teens away from cannabis, but I also think that teens are smarter than the “health experts” who “worry” so much about them and try to devise ways to deceive them. If I were the governor, I’d be just as worried about adults and parents who allow, directly or indirectly, teen access to pot. How about a campaign aimed at adult responsibility in helping curb teen use?

You can hear Leland discuss his most recent column and Colorado cannabis issues each Thursday morning on KGNU. 


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