In an effort to educate teens about the effects of marijuana on the developing brain, Boulder this week will play host to a giant metal cage, complete with a to-scale version of the kind of water bottle hamsters drink from.

But the Colorado Department of Public Health's "Don't Be a Lab Rat" installation, defaced in its Denver debut, already is drawing jeers from the local pot industry — and is opposed by the Boulder Valley School District.

The "Lab Rat" display, targeted at 12-to-15-year-olds, is part of the state's public education campaign about pot's potential to harm a developing brain.

"Schizophrenia. Permanent IQ loss. Stunted brain growth," the campaign's website reads. "Still, some people question this research. Claiming the studies need to go deeper. Look further. But who will be their guinea pigs? Who's going to risk their brains to find out once and for all what marijuana really does?"

The 12-foot-long, 8-foot-high cage will be installed at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the corner of 13th Street and Arapahoe Avenue — near Boulder's Central Park — and will stay there through Sept. 15.

The campaign comes to Boulder after a run at two different Denver locations, the public library and the downtown skate park.

On Aug. 11 at the skate park site, CBS4 reported vandals scribbled over some of the posters on the cage, and that one man even smoked pot inside the cage.

Dr. Larry Wolk, who runs the state health department, told the TV station, "at least they're taking notice."

Opposition in Boulder

Over in Boulder, they're taking notice, too.

Andrew Willey,left, and Brian Houchin, of Proctor Productions Inc. in Denver, finish assembling large cages earlier this month for a campaign by the state
Andrew Willey,left, and Brian Houchin, of Proctor Productions Inc. in Denver, finish assembling large cages earlier this month for a campaign by the state designed to raise awareness about the effects of marijuana on teens' brains. One of the cages will be installed in Boulder this week. (Kathryn Scott Osler / The Denver Post)

Boulder Valley School District, for one, already has announced it will not participate in the campaign.

"We had concerns about the use of human-scale rat cages being an effective tool for getting 12-to-15-year-olds to understand the risks involved with their developing brains," BVSD spokesman Briggs Gamblin said.

Superintendent Bruce Messinger emailed all district principals prior to the launch of the cages in Denver, informing them that the BVSD administration would formally oppose "Don't Be a Lab Rat" on the grounds that "a human scale 'rat cage'" may not be the most effective prop for the campaign's message.

"No BVSD school campus will be made available for the temporary siting of the 'rat cage' or distribution of campaign materials," he wrote in the email.

Additionally, Messinger raised concerns about the campaign posters possibly stigmatizing people who have been diagnosed with mental illness.

Boulder's Shawn Coleman, a marijuana industry lobbyist, called the campaign "racist and classist" for suggesting pot could usher someone behind bars.

"The first thing that happens is you see the illusion that cannabis use equals cage. So using marijuana equals jail," he said. "Black and brown people, these are the people who are by and large the victims of the war on marijuana."

One of the reasons some people voted for Amendment 64, Coleman argued, is that they'd grown tired of racist undertones in the war on drugs.

"I don't necessarily fault the governor's office and their staff for not putting the pieces together," he added. "They're not specialists in social justice or drug policy, but they should have consulted the people who are, before they rolled this thing out."

Delivery, not the message

But neither Coleman nor BVSD take any issue with the state trying to make teens aware of the perils of drug use. It's the delivery of the message they can't abide.

"I don't think it was the intent, and I think the intent came from a really positive place," Gamblin said. "But we just are not convinced that students would perceive it that way.

"This looked like a strategy that feel good for adults, but would not gain the respect of the target audience, of pre-teens and young teens we're trying to reach."

And, as Coleman notes, teen marijuana use has gone down 4 percent in Colorado since 2009, according to state studies.

"The data certainly suggests that putting cannabis behind the counter is having an effect on reducing teen use," he said. "The policy change is actually yielding the results everyone wants, but where is the (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment)? Where is Boulder County Health? Where's Denver Health?

"They're talking about these rat cages. And they can't see how offensive this is."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Alex Burness at 303-473-1389, burnessa@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/alex_burness.