Colorado Senate restores funding to Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which tracks drug use and other issues

Right now, the state can use the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey to track how marijuana legalization is changing students’ use of the drug.

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Kids toss footballs during the Denver Broncos Training Camp. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

State legislators are moving to keep the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey and its ability to track how marijuana legalization is changing students’ use of the drug.

Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee restored funding for the survey Wednesday during a long night of votes on budget amendments. Earlier this week, the committee presented a plan that would likely have caused state officials to stop or scale back the biennial survey.

Having to scale back the biennial survey or losing it all together could cripple the state’s ability to monitor and study cannabis use among teens, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey is the only comprehensive survey on the health and well-being of Colorado youth,” said Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer of CDPHE in a statement. “Without funding, we won’t be able to provide the kind of credible health information schools, community groups and local public health agencies need to improve the health of the young people they serve.”

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey asks students questions about their thoughts on and use of alcohol, marijuana and tobacco and other substances as well as about their behaviors surrounding mental health, sex, food, violence and physical activity. The state partners with the University of Colorado to administer the survey and provides the results to local governments and organizations to help agencies see where to focus their prevention efforts and juvenile health programs.

“We’ve been asking these questions using the same methodology since the early ’90s,” said Leo Kattari, coordinator of the survey for CDPHE. “What this tells us is how we’re doing over time. We want to know where we’re doing well and where our gaps are. That’s for marijuana, but it’s also for nutrition, physical activity and other things we ask about.”

Though the survey has been around since 1991, it wasn’t until 2013 the survey went from being taken by hundreds of students in some areas to thousands across the state. The expansion was the result of multiple state agencies combining their surveys and the partnership with CU, Kattari said.

“For example, what we know from the Healthy Kids data — and what we could lose — is knowing when a young person has a trusted adult in their life they are less likely to use marijuana,” he said.

The survey’s also showed legalization has yet to lead to a spike in teens using marijuana.

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey has become controversial as it has expanded. It has long rankled conservatives, who consider the questions an invasion of student privacy. Some also question Colorado’s ability to keep the results anonymous, though survey administrators insist they don’t track students and have never had a security breach.

The state’s portion of the survey cost is paid for with $745,000 in marijuana tax money.

Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud, a member of the Joint Budget Committee and an opponent of the survey, said that by asking about thoughts of suicide, attempted suicide and drug use, the survey suggests these are common things that many children experience.

“This drags every child down to the lowest common denominator,” he said.

Lundberg said taking away funding would send a strong message to public health officials that they need to change the survey.

“We’ll fund it as soon as you clean it up,” he said.

Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose, one of two Republicans (the other was Sen. Larry Crowder of Alamosa) to join Democrats in voting to restore funding, said the survey provides valuable information that can save lives.

“Do you ever know of a child who committed suicide?” he asked. “I have.” Coram said he wished he and others had known the warning signs and how to intervene.

High school students were asked in 2016, “During the past 12 months, did you make a plan about how you would attempt suicide?”

The question was followed by a question about how many times the child attempted suicide in the last year, which struck Lundberg as inappropriate.

“As I parent, I look at this and think, I wouldn’t want that entire range of questions posed,” he said.

Parents are notified ahead of time that the students will be participating in the survey and can have their children opt out, according to the state. If the funds weren’t restored, it’s likely the state would have had to go back to the smaller sample size or find a new pot of money to keep the questionnaire in its current form.

Democratic Sen. Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge said Colorado loses too many teenagers to overdose deaths and suicide. Information from the survey helps guide intervention efforts.

“What we lose if we scale back is local data,” Kattari said. “It becomes a small statewide sample, and it’s really over representative of the metro area. We lose subgroup data, so we can’t find out what’s happening among students of color, we don’t know what’s happening by grade and age or LGBTQ students. So we lose knowing what happening to specific populations of young people.”

The survey is next scheduled to be administered in the fall.

Denverite Assistant Editor Erica Meltzer and Associated Press reporter Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report.

Business & data reporter Adrian D. Garcia can be reached via email at agarcia@denverite.com or twitter.com/adriandgarcia.

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