On marijuana’s high holiday, San Rafael High students hear lecture on pot, young brains






At San Rafael High School, where marijuana’s 4/20 high holiday was born nearly 50 years ago, administrators marked the day with assemblies for students on the science of smoking dope and getting high.

“Happy 4/20 day,” Principal Glenn Dennis said, greeting several hundred students in the school theater. “I hear it’s a national holiday today. We’re here because 4/20 is part of our history, for better or worse.”

He introduced Ralph Cantor, a 73-year-old East Bay educator who lectures to high school kids about drugs and alcohol.

“Weed is not a simple drug,” he told the group, noting that some people think marijuana is bad and some think it’s good.

“I don’t have that judgment at all,” he said in his native New York accent. “Marijuana isn’t good or bad. It isn’t black or white. It isn’t simple at all.”

Wearing a baseball cap to shield his eyes from the stage lights so he could see who he was talking to, Cantor went on for the better part of an hour about the affect of cannabis on teens — what it does to the developing brains of young people between the ages of 12 and 18.

At one point, he brought up the Waldos, the group of San Rafael high buddies who met at the school’s statue of scientist Louis Pasteur at 4:20 in the afternoon on April 20, 1971 — and continued to meet at 4:20 p.m. — setting off what has become an annual pot-smoking tradition.

“Somebody in the group said, ‘What are we going to do?’” Cantor said. “And someone else said, ‘I’ve got an idea. Let’s just roll ourselves a fat one. That way we can all get loaded and we don’t have to figure out what to do. It’s a done deal.’”

Actually, it wasn’t a done deal. After the Waldos smoked their pot, according to legend, they would head off in search of a mythical weed patch in the West Marin woods that they never found.

But Cantor’s point was well taken. Drawing pictures of the human brain on a white board, he told the teens that partying with drugs interferes with the critical process of finding out who they are. Calling it “a trick,” he said it screws up the “compass” that helps them discover where their interests lie, what direction they’d like to take in their lives.


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“To mess with the compass at this time isn’t going to kill you,” he said. “You’re not going to die of an overdose. But you’ve got work to do. To short-circuit that with weed instead of figuring out these things is a disaster for you now. After 18, I don’t care.”

He went on to talk about marijuana and memory and how long you have to abstain to pass a drug test. (Three days if you just smoke one time).

One student asked if drinking cranberry juice speeds up the process of a clean test.

“A little bit,” Cantor said with a smile.

He spent some time talking about the dangers of hard drugs, particularly downers, mentioning that it was an overdose of opioids that killed Prince and rock stars such as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

He had to stop a few times to chide students who were talking or not paying attention, but for the most part, the teens seemed to relate to his tell-it-like-it-is approach to a drug that is newly legal in California.

“It’s part of your life now,” principal Glenn said. “It’s part of our lives.”

Afterward, 17-year-old Jesus Parra Gutierrez said he was most engaged by the non-judgmental science of Cantor’s talk.

“Speaking not from experience, but from the people I’ve hung around with, I know what pot does,” he said. “I know that there’s medical value to it, that there’s a political part to it, that there’s a large monetary value to it. But I enjoyed the science part, how it affects your brain. What I learned is how weed affects your memory and what’s going on in your mind when you’re high.”

Cantor’s appearance was part of a college access project funded by a grant from the Marin Community Foundation. There were two student assemblies and an evening session for parents.

“We heard great things about Ralph Cantor and aligned his talk to 4/20,” said communications director Christina Perrino.

During the day, students did gather around the Pasteur statue, but not to smoke pot — to socialize and eat their lunch.

“It’s not a huge tradition like it was in the ’70s,” said 16-year-old Cade Breslin, sitting at a picnic table with a group of schoolmates. “As time has gone on, it’s gotten to be less of a big deal.”

His friend, 15-year-old Jason Pham, seemed to sum up the general feeling, saying, “It’s more of a mundane thing now.”

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