Acknowledging local school officials' objections, Boulder on Tuesday dropped plans to play host to one of the Colorado Department of Public Health's human-sized rat cages at a downtown park.
One of the "Don't Be a Lab Rat" teen marijuana-education campaign's 12-foot-long, 8-foot-high cages — complete with a to-scale hamster-style water bottle — had been slated for a month-long installation at the corner of 13th Street and Arapahoe Avenue.
But Boulder officials said Tuesday morning that they'd put the display on hold while they looked into complaints from the Boulder Valley School District, which declined to participate in the education campaign.
By late afternoon, Boulder decided to scrap the cage altogether.
"The city had been considering it, and in understanding BVSD's input and concerns, and those raised by some in the community, it didn't seem like it would be appropriate for Boulder," city spokesman Patrick von Keyserling said.
BVSD Superintendent Bruce Messinger had objected to "Don't Be a Lab Rat" on the grounds that inviting teens into "a human-scale 'rat cage'" was not the most effective way to get the campaign's message across.
The "Lab Rat" display, targeting 12-to-15-year-olds, is part of the state's public education campaign about pot's potential to harm developing brains.
"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?"
Dr. Larry Wolk, the executive director and chief medical officer at the state health department, said he was "a little disappointed" by the Boulder decision, but said it was up to the city and the school district to decide whether they wanted to participate.
"I understand that everybody has a right to choose what they think will resonate and what they choose to prioritize," Wolk said. "Our intent is to have a campaign that gets kids talking to each other and get adults talking to kids about marijuana.
"We did not intend to relate kids to rats, but to emphasize a point that a lot of research still needs to be done."
Teens not sure cage would have impact
At Boulder High School — the closest BVSD school to where the display would have been — students had varied opinions on whether the message would resonate with their peers.
Jaime Avitia, 15, said that, as an athlete, he would be interested in knowing the possible health effects of marijuana.
"It would be helpful if you could see what could happen to you in the future," Avitia said. "For me, I play sports, so I wouldn't get involved."
But Hal Rutherford, 15, said he did not think the message would get through to teens.
"The kids my age aren't really open to listening to that sort of thing," Rutherford said. "I don't think it would really affect anyone."
'Getting people talking'
Messinger emailed all district principals prior to the launch of the cages in Denver, informing them that the district administration would formally oppose "Don't Be a Lab Rat."
"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.
Briggs Gamblin, a spokesman with BVSD, said the district would not comment on the city's decision.
The campaign already has made two stops in Denver at the public library and the downtown skate park, and Wolk said it has gotten positive feedback, and that this was the first instance he was aware of where a school district or a city declined to participate.
"We've had a lot of positive feedback and folks from around the state interested in the campaign," Wolk said. "They're getting a lot of attention, so on the good-news side, people are certainly taking notice, and it's getting people talking."
But Wolk also acknowledged that the displays have had some issues with graffiti, but said at least it was getting a response.
"Again, it's people expressing themselves one way or the other," Wolk said. "If it helps provoke some reaction and provokes some discussion, we are accomplishing our goals."
Camera Staff Writer Alex Burness contributed to this report.