The presence of marijuana and other drugs in Montgomery County Public Schools has become so commonplace that during a recent closed-door roundtable with elected officials, student school board member Sami Saeed didn’t bat an eye when one of his peers mentioned seeing vapes smoked in the classroom.
Vape cartridges can contain tobacco — or marijuana.
Saeed described these stories as “almost casual” to his own ears, but said other leaders in the room received the information with shock.
“It really showed me how bad the issue has gotten and how much of a divide there is between what’s actually happening and what the people in charge know about,” he said, adding that one official even had to ask a student to repeat themselves because he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
The two-hour roundtable discussion held Aug. 4 offered Montgomery County students a chance to share candidly with top elected officials about the on-the-ground realities of the youth opioid crisis. Students called for drug education at earlier ages, more treatment resources, less abstinence focus in drug education and greater differentiation between the risks of marijuana—now legally sold to adults as a retail product in Maryland—and opioids, officials said.
“The biggest takeaway for me was how much this problem has evolved in a very negative way,” Del. Joe Vogel (D-Dist. 17) said. “No one is here to say drugs in schools is something new. What’s new is the prevalence of drugs laced with fentanyl and marijuana cartridges clocking 95% THC [tetrahydrocannabinol]. The drugs we’re now finding in our high schools are stronger and deadlier than ever before. We heard a lot of concern from our youth—both for their own well-being and for the well-being of their classmates.”
MCPS spokesperson Chris Cram could not immediately provide data quantifying how many students died of opioid overdoses during the 2022-23 school year, but during that time he said 18 students were administered Narcan for possible opioid overdoses and survived.
The event stemmed from a casual coffee meet-up between Saeed, the school board’s newly elected student member, and 26-year-old Vogel—a Gen-Z freshman who recently entered a bid for Congress. Saeed’s description of the drug problem prompted Vogel to ask about coordinating a roundtable discussion on the topic. He said the two agreed that Saeed would find students willing to share their experiences, and Vogel would bring elected officials to listen.
On Friday morning, nine high school students and a middle schooler gathered for an in-person private meeting with state and county officials, MCPS administrators and community stakeholders to speak candidly about their experiences on the frontlines of the youth opioid crisis. Attendees included Special Secretary of Opioid Response Emily Keller from Gov. Wes Moore’s (D) cabinet, Dels. Greg Wims (D-Dist. 39) and Ryan Spiegel (D-Dist. 17), school board member Grace Rivera-Oven (Dist. 1) and Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard.
Stoddard said students raised key points including modernizing the school health curriculum and expanding treatment resources. Students described the current MCPS-approved curriculum as overly abstinence-focused with a tendency of equating marijuana and opioids as equally dangerous, according to Stoddard.
“There hasn’t been a lot of conversation about how we express the differences in risk between cannabis and opioids in a meaningful way that students will find credible,” he said. “If you make everything out like it’s going to kill you and then you do cannabis and it doesn’t kill you, it undermines your confidence that what you’re hearing about opioids is the truth.”
Students also expressed a desire to see drug education introduced at earlier grade levels, Stoddard said—something he said often triggers pushback from parents.
“Kids aren’t oblivious to what they’re seeing in their household from their parents and older siblings or on social media,” he said. “The reality is, they’re already being exposed whether parents like it or not. It’s important to start having these conversations earlier, or else you’re ceding the floor to the public sector.”
Students recognized and spoke to the clear relationship between the drug overdose epidemic and the mental health crisis in schools, Vogel said.
“It’s no coincidence that we’re seeing a significant rise in the number of young people experiencing despair and the number of young people misusing drugs,” he said. “Recruiting and retaining mental health professionals and securing more mental health resources plays a key role in combatting the overdose crisis.”
Rivera-Oven described the discussion as “a very candid and honest conversation” and said it seemed “really enlightening” to the delegates and officials in the room. She echoed Stoddard’s comments about the dangers of lumping cannabis and opioids under the same threat category and said the students expressed a desire for honesty above all else.
While Rivera-Oven and Saeed said they’re planning to meet with MCPS curriculum oversight staff to discuss modernizing the health curriculum, Vogel said he and other delegates are going to continue collaborating both locally and statewide to expand treatment and rehabilitation resources.
Referencing the recent string of fentanyl forums hosted by MCPS over the spring at various high schools, Rivera-Oven said students shared a desire to hear from more overdose survivors and people in recovery—“real young people who’ve actually gone through this.” She added that “for them, that connection is real.” She said she wants to host overdose awareness events at schools particularly impacted by the opioid crisis, naming Glenmont’s Kennedy High School as an example of a school she believes could use the outreach.
As a fellow school board member, Saeed said he hopes to hold more student roundtable discussions over the coming school year. He said he’d also be interested in collaborating with students and young leaders to introduce legislation aimed at combatting the opioid crisis.
“None of the adults in that room knew about the drugs being used and the casualty with which they’re being used at school,” he said. “Students need to be involved in these conversations every step of the way.”