Marijuana is now legal for recreational use in seven states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington) and Washington, DC. It is still a federal offense to possess, transport, grow, or sell marijuana. Extension faculty who work with 4-H Youth Development programs are funded under the United States Department of Agriculture, and it is not legal for faculty or staff to advocate or provide education that would support the cultivation, distribution, or use of marijuana.

Each state and many school districts collect information through the Healthy Youth Survey, which helps to show the trends in both use of and perception about substances such as marijuana. For example, the data for a small county (less than 10,000) population in northeast Washington State indicates strong trends in greater access to marijuana and lowered perception of harm due to the use of marijuana and marijuana products (Washington State Department of Health, 2016). In western Oregon these trends are the same and show alarming increases in the eighth and 11th graders who were surveyed. The problem is widespread, regardless of the area's demographics.

Another disturbing trend is the increase in potency of marijuana. New plant technologies have increased the main active ingredient, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which causes the hallucinogenic effects of today's marijuana. To summarize, marijuana is more readily available, is more potent, and is perceived as not being a detrimental risk by users. This creates the perfect storm for marijuana to show up at your camp, especially if you are in one of the legalized recreational marijuana states.

People use marijuana for a number of different reasons. Some users may want to feel better physically, improve their self-esteem, or may want to fit in with their drug-using peer group. The effects of marijuana on each individual may vary based on genetics, the age that they begin using, other drugs they use, and more. Repeated use of marijuana can lead to addiction. Research shows that nine percent of those who use marijuana become addicted. Research also shows that for marijuana users who began usage in their teens, the percentage rises to 20 to 50 percent among daily users. Whatever their reason, there are negative consequences to the drug use. Marijuana contains more than 400 chemicals, including THC. The amount of THC in marijuana determines the strength or potency and the effects. The potency of marijuana has been increasing since the 1980s (National Institute of Drug Abuse National Institute of Health, 2014).

An increase in auto accidents and fatalities is linked to marijuana use (Kilmer, 2016). Marijuana affects a number of physical and cognitive skills required for safe driving. These skills include alertness, concentration, coordination, and reaction time. These same skills are required of staff and volunteers to keep campers safe. Marijuana also has negative impacts on attention, memory, and learning, especially if it is used often. Research has shown a reduction in IQ of frequent teen marijuana users.

High doses of marijuana can cause psychosis or panic while users are high. Some users experience an acute psychotic reaction that can include disturbed perceptions and thoughts of paranoia. A known link between marijuana use and lasting mental illness also exists (National Institute of Drug Abuse National Institute of Health, 2014).

Marijuana at Camp

How will marijuana affect your camp and camp policies? It is illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to use or possess marijuana or marijuana products. It is illegal to use marijuana in any public spaces. Make sure you check your current state statutes regarding marijuana use for your area. Staff policies should prohibit the use of marijuana during camp and off hours. The effects of marijuana on judgment and decision-making can last up to days after use. Depending on the user, marijuana may be detected many days after use. Some organizations have instituted random drug screening before and during camp. Check with your legal counsel and state statutes before instituting any drug-testing policies.

Campers could conceivably bring marijuana into camp in the form of edible "infused" products. These may look like normal cookies, candies, brownies, or even hot sauces. An incredible array of edible infused products can be purchased in marijuana stores and dispensaries or made at home. Many of the edibles will not be distinguishable from the normal goodies campers or staff bring to camp.

In addition to edibles, there are marijuana concentrates. Concentrates can be oils, waxes, and shatters (wafer thin pieces that break). Oils can be "vaped" in e-cigarettes or added to foods; waxes or "budder" can be applied like lip gloss or lip balm. New products are being developed and may also eventually end up at camp.

The use or possession of marijuana by workers, vendors, or guests to your camp is another potential issue. Policies should be clearly communicated to all. Signage, contracts, and orientation to your camp rules should all reflect your policies on marijuana and other substances.

A final but less common marijuana issue is the illegal growing of marijuana on camp properties. Some camps receive notice from local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies of illegal growing operations on their properties. These illegal marijuana crops may even be guarded or booby-trapped. Consult your legal advisors to protect your camp properties and especially leased properties.

In any case, child, adolescent, and family therapist Bob Ditter noted that camp directors' attitudes are central to maintaining safe camp environments. He said, "Taking a firm stance on having a weed-free camp has nothing to do with one's personal views about marijuana. It has to do with maintaining a community based on trust with parents and with the utmost concern for the campers. 'Kids first' is a motto every camp should adopt, and that includes making sacrifices that permit you to be a part of this special, indeed sacred, place for children. Camp directors need to say exactly that to their staff during orientation every summer" (2014).

Camp Policies Related to Marijuana

Policies that may need to be reviewed to limit marijuana impacts on camps include:

  • General staff and camper policies
  • Specific staff on- and off-duty policies
  • Approved camper supplies list
  • Contract language for vendors and workers at camp to comply with camp policies (developed with your legal counsel)
  • Expectations for camp visitors, including parents or other guests (see Sample Policy Language for more information)

Language for each of these should be in concert with camp policies for possession, use, and being under the influence of marijuana, alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs or substances.

Many of us have seen a dramatic increase in food sensitivities and food allergies at camp. In an effort to limit camper exposure to foods others bring that may cause allergic reactions, and to limit the potential for edible infused marijuana products from entering, camps may want to prohibit campers and staff from bringing outside food into camp. All food would come from the camps' food service or the camp store.

Another option is to allow staff only to bring snacks in original, sealed containers. However, someone experienced with marijuana edibles will need to examine all such food, because packaging can be deceptively similar to conventional products.

Medical Marijuana

Twenty-five states and US districts have medical marijuana laws:

Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Guam, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. 

Medical marijuana may create issues pertaining to employment at camp and reasonable accommodations for staff and campers. For more information on the legalities of medical marijuana and employment at camp, visit (American Camp Association, 2016).

Fortunately, most youth and adults do not use marijuana. Even better news is that new research conducted by Jason R. Kilmer, PhD, at the University of Washington, indicates that kids who believe their parents think it is wrong for them to use recreational marijuana tend not to use it. Results additionally show that kids who believe their community norm is not to use also don't use (Kilmer, 2016). The camp community norm can be a powerful influence on youth. Make sure your camp norm helps to deter use of recreational marijuana and marijuana products. Camp directors can best help campers and counselors by engaging them in meaningful dialogue about the role drugs play in our general society and the factual impacts that drugs have on the health and wellbeing of individuals. Adolescent counselor Stephen Gray Wallace (2007) also suggested a number of simple yet effective strategies for steering youth in a positive direction and away from the perils of marijuana and other drugs, including:

  • Paying attention to how campers are feeling and finding activities for them to do that will both stimulate and challenge them.
  • Promoting positive risk-taking to build confidence and self-esteem.
  • Teaching campers and counselors how to set and achieve personal goals.
  • Encouraging campers and counselors to find and socialize with a peer group that does not engage in the use of marijuana or other substances.
  • Being a good role model.

As legalization of marijuana in other states continues to gain favor, the perception of risk declines, availability of high-potency marijuana increases, and there is a greater risk of marijuana, marijuana concentrates, and infused products making their way to your camp. Many counties have drug prevention education and community coalitions that can provide educational information and additional community partnerships that can work with your camp staff and volunteers. Check with your community mental health services, health department, or sheriff 's department for more information and educational opportunities.

Sample Policy Language
Here is an example of a new Alcohol and Drug Policy adopted by Washington State University Extension 4-H Youth Development Programs (2016):
WSU Extension 4-H Youth Development Program Policy prohibits the possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs, controlled substances, marijuana, marijuana products, electronic cigarettes, or alcohol at any 4-H related event involving youth. The WSU Extension 4-H Youth Development Program strictly enforces state of Washington laws regarding alcohol and does not tolerate the illegal use, possession, or sale of intoxicating beverages, minors in possession, furnishing alcohol to minors, possession of open containers, driving under the influence, and exhibiting unruly or intoxicated behavior. In addition, WSU Extension 4-H Youth Development Program does not permit any form of advertising of tobacco, marijuana, or spirit or beer products, including clothing, at any 4-H-related event involving youth.

merican Camp Association. (2016). Medical marijuana and camps. Retrieved from
CBSNews. (2008, July 16). Girl scout camp marijuana farm busted. Retrieved from
Ditter, B. (2014). In the trenches: In the weeds. Retrieved from
Ghose, T. (2014, June 26). NY legalizes medical marijuana: How vaping pot is different from smoking. Live Science. Retrieved from
The Huffington Post. (2011, October 19). High school students could face charges for passing out pot brownies at band camp. Retrieved from
Hughes, T. (2014, May 8). Marijuana 'edibles' pack a wallop. USA TODAY. Retrieved from
Kilmer, J. (2016). Addressing marijuana: lessons learned and future directions in a changing legal climate. Presentation, Eastern Washington University. Spokane, WA.
McDonough, E. (2014, June 5). 10 commandments of marijuana edible safety. High Times. Retrieved from
National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health. (2013). Marijuana facts for teens. US Department of Health and Human Services Retrieved from
National Institute of Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, (2014). Marijuana: Facts parents need to know revised. US Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from…
Oregon Health Authority. (2016). 2015 Oregon Healthy Teens Survey. Retrieved from http://
San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. (2015, February 1). Public service advisement: Marijuana edibles. Retrieved from…
Spokane Regional Health District (2016). Vaping devices and marijuana. Retrieved from
Wallace, S.G. (2007, January) Epidemic: Translating drug prevention principles to camp. Retrieved from
Washington State Department of Health. (2016). Healthy youth survey.Retrieved from
Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. (2016). FAQs on I–502. Retrieved from
Washington State University 4-H Youth Development. (2016). 4-H Policy and Procedure Handbook. Retrieved from

Mike Jensen is an associate for professor Washington State University Extension, 4-H Youth Development faculty, and state 4-H camp specialist. Mike has more than 30 years of extension experience in positive youth development. His camp background stretches even further. He is active in local and state prevention efforts and is committed to ringing the bell and spreading the word about the potential negative impacts of recreational marijuana and marijuana products on the camp community. Robin Galloway is a professor for the College of Public Health & Human Sciences at Oregon State University. As a member of the 4-H Youth Development faculty with the OSU Extension Service, she has been a camp director working with volunteer staff for 16 years.