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Study: School suspensions for drug use could make students more likely to use marijuana

PYMCA / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A new study suggests schools' zero-tolerance policies for drug use may not be effective and could backfire, potentially leading more students to use marijuana.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that students in schools with suspension policies for illicit drug use were 1.6 times more likely to use marijuana in the following year than those who attended schools without such policies.

Researchers at the University of Washington and in Australia found other punitive school policies, such as expelling a student or calling the police, didn't appear to deter marijuana use. But students in schools where teachers were required to discuss the risks of pot with marijuana users were 50 percent less likely to use the drug.

"To reduce marijuana use among all students, we need to ensure that schools are using drug policies that respond to policy violations by educating or counseling students, not just penalizing them," Richard Catalano, co-author of the study and professor at the University of Washington, said in a statement.

Since the study measured correlation, not causation, between school anti-drug policies and pot use among students, the findings don't prove that suspensions caused more marijuana use. But researchers found through further tests that one explanation for the correlation wasn't true: schools didn't adopt suspension policies in response to more marijuana use. That means another unidentified factor led to more marijuana use at these schools, or suspension policies did.

The analysis looked at 2002 and 2003 data from the International Youth Development Study of more than 3,200 seventh- and ninth-graders and nearly 200 school administrators in Washington state and Victoria, Australia. Although the data is old, it's still one of the most comprehensive data sets available to researchers, and looks at two places with distinct anti-drug policies in schools.

The study adds to the evidence that punitive policies aren't effective

prisoners handcuffs

Prisoners in California. (John Moore/Getty Images News)

The study is just the latest in a long line of evidence that shows punitive policies aren't effective. A January study by researchers with the National Bureau of Economic Research found that juveniles who receive harsher punishments are more likely to end up back in the criminal justice system, Bloomberg View's Megan McArdle wrote.

Research looking at other forms of school discipline had similar findings. As Vox's Libby Nelson and Dara Lind explained, studies show that students who are punished by schools are more likely to reoffend and get caught up in the juvenile justice system. While it's difficult for these studies to prove harsh punishments are causing students to act out, the research suggests that strict policies aren't making students behave better, either.

Starting in the 1980s, policymakers passed strict anti-drug policies, such as heightened mandatory minimum sentences, with the intent of deterring drug use with the threat of serious punishment. Many school districts followed by stepping up their own anti-drug policies, some of which involve the juvenile justice system.

But arrests and criminal records can often make it much more difficult for people to rise out of dire economic straits, since, for example, they'll have a harder time getting hired and won't be able to get Pell Grants for college. The lack of opportunities may make people more likely to turn to crime, including drugs, to make ends meet.

"What do people do when they feel trapped and cornered by society? What I saw in my city was people getting more and more caught up in criminal activity," Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told me in an interview earlier this month. "You can trace it way back to an early youthful offense that resulted not in us helping them, not in us intervening to empower them — but in taking children and abandoning them and saying, 'You made this mistake, and we're going to punish you, and, by the way, that punishment is going to continue every day of your life.'"

Watch Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) discuss racial disparities in the criminal justice system

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