Springtime means thoughts of prom, graduation parties and the promise of a long summer of freedom for most high school students, a time to relax and reward themselves for another year of hard work.
So often that reward comes in the form of a drink, maybe a little marijuana, perhaps a tab of ecstasy or some other illegal drug, just to relax a little more, have more fun, and hey, everyone else at the party is doing it.
U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-10) had those thoughts in mind when he contacted McLean High School about holding a teen substance abuse town meeting, to discuss the dangers of underage drinking, illegal drug use and the rising death toll for teenagers who ignore the warnings.
“More than one in three students between 12 and 17 years old have used alcohol in the past school year,” Wolf told those in the audience at the town meeting Monday night. “Children who start drinking at or before at 15 are more likely to become addicted, use marijuana, methamphetamine and crack cocaine.”
Early education, talking to children as young as six or seven, about responsible alcohol consumption and the very real, very serious effects of illegal drug use might be the strongest tool available to parents to prevent their child from becoming an addict or, worse yet, another statistic.
“The good news is, this is a problem that responds directly to efforts to curb it,” said John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “There are 600,000 fewer teenagers using illegal drugs in 2004 as compared with 2001, but the harsh reality is, we need to look at addiction as a disease,” he said. It is a disease that spreads from friend to friend, starting with the lie that “it’s fun, you can handle it, everyone else does it so it’s not a big deal,” he said.
Teenagers want to fit in with their peers and not feel different or alone, Walters said, making it more difficult to say no or turn down offers of a drink or a smoke at parties or other social gatherings. “When we look at substance abuse as a disease, we can start to treat it better,” he said. “Realizing it’s a disease changes the way we approach it and deal with it, and we can be much more successful that way.”
If a person manages to stay away from drinking until age 20 or 21, “the percentage of those who go on to have problems with dependency is incredibly small,” Walters said. “The prevention, the inoculation, is to not expose our young people to the substances.”
MANY STUDENTS are aware of the problems caused by alcohol and drug use and wonder why adults aren’t doing more to prevent underage drinking, he said.
Despite years of claims to the contrary, research shows that marijuana is addictive, said Ken Abrams, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington, DC.
“Sixty-two percent of teenagers that some sort of treatment center each year are fighting a marijuana addiction,” he said. “ It has all the characteristics of an addictive substance. The human brain is not fully developed as a teenager and everyone reacts differently to substances, someone might be able to walk away while their friend becomes addicted.”
Abrams said methamphetamine, an increasingly popular drug in Northern Virginia, has “all the properties of a stimulant. It is a class one narcotic that is highly addictive and unpredictable.” People who become addicted to meth have a very small chance of successfully completing treatment for their addiction, he said.
In the past few years, inhaling household chemicals to get high has become more popular and dangerous, cutting off the oxygen supply to the brain and potentially causing brain damage or death, he said. Another increasingly popular drug, Oxycontin, taken for its “heroin-like effects,” has seen a 24 percent increase in abuse by students in eighth, tenth and twelfth grades in the past year. “About one in 20 high school seniors admit to using Oxycontin in the past year,” he said.
“The Internet makes it easy for people to purchase prescription drugs illegally, but people who sell and make drugs illegally are not scientists, they don’t know how to properly and safely make the drugs,” Abrams said. “Parents and students, you need to educate yourself on the effects of these drugs,” he said. “Use the Internet for a useful purpose. What you do now may come back and affect you later in life.”
But even omni-present parents can miss their child’s drug problems.
Koren Zailckas, author of the book “Smashed: The Story of a Drunken Girlhood,” said her mom did all the right things: Sending her to good camps, making sure she had a resume full of extra-curricular activities for college, asking all the right questions before she’d go to a party. But Zailckas still developed a drinking problem so severe, she had her stomach pumped at age 16 and kept drinking.
“You can never truly know what your teenagers are up to, it doesn’t matter what you are or what you do, teenagers can find privacy anywhere,” she said. “I found privacy in the morning during a slumber party, in the parking lot before a football game, in the bathroom stall during a student council sponsored dance.”
TRYING TO DETERMINE the right kind of friends for their child will not help either, she said. “It’s not the punks, it’s not the Goth girls with their nose studs, it’s not the weird kids. It’s the nice ones, the good kids, the ones who bring home the honor roll stickers,” she said. “Most kids take their first drink by age 13 and are drinking regularly by age 15.”
By talking to teenagers about her own experiences, Zailckas said she’s learned teenagers like to talk in generalities, about ‘people’ they know drinking, and are much more comfortable making references to people they see on TV drinking than talk about their own personal experiences.
“The only alcohol education most teenagers get is don’t drink and drive,” she said. “In my opinion, that campaign tells the passenger it’s ok to drink up. Until health classes improve in our schools, the burden of alcohol education falls on the parents.”
She is not trying to make parents out to be scapegoats in the alcohol battle, she said, because hers did everything possible to keep her safe and out of trouble. “You can’t fix these problems on your own. It’s through the exchange of our war stories that we realize our failings are not our fault but a cultural problem,” she said. “We need to tackle this problem together.”
After the death of her sister and 20-month-old nephew, Wendy Hamilton’s family had suffered the third and fourth deaths due to drunk drivers, and she’d had enough.
“We take prevention of under age drinking seriously because we take keeping families whole very seriously,” she said. As the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Hamilton said parents and educators “cannot afford to look the other way when teens drink alcohol.”
Telling students not to drink and drive isn’t enough, she said. “We need to tell them to wait until they are 21, the legal age, to drink, and then do everything possible to keep alcohol out of their hands until they reach that age,” Hamilton said.
With recent scientific studies showing that the brain is not fully developed before a person is in his or her early 20s, drinking or using drugs prior to that age can significantly impair the brain’s ability to develop properly, she said. “When something interrupts the brain’s development process, the effects can be lifelong. Alcohol gets in the way of decision making skills, and the earlier and heavier teens start to drink, the more likely they are to have drinking problems,” she said.
WITH THE STAGGER price tag of $53 billion each year, underage drinking is a serious taxpayer problem and even though drinking under the age of 21 is illegal in every state, somehow teenagers are still able to find access to alcohol, she said.
Seven high school students from Fairfax County were killed in 2004, a fraction of the 42,000 deaths from motor vehicle accidents every year, said Samir Fakhry, head of the trauma unit at Inova Fairfax Hospital.
“Crashes are not true accidents, there are things that can be done to prevent them from happening,” he said. “Half of the deaths from accidents occur at the scene. I can’t help people dying at the scene, only trauma prevention can save them.”
The trauma prevention unit at Inova has started bringing in newly licensed drivers and taking them through the trauma unit of the hospital, showing them the consequences of unsafe driving, he said. This program, called Reality Check, hopes to “wake teenagers up” to the real consequences of driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, “to take them into a trauma unit and show them what it’s like to try and resuscitate someone and hear stories from people who have survived alcohol related crashes,” he said.
“One out of every three crash-related deaths are alcohol related,” Fakhry said.
The purpose of events like Monday night’s meeting, Wolf said, is to try to save even one person from dying, to save one family from suffering the loss of a young person that could have easily been prevented.
“It’s not just alcohol. Oxycontin is moving into the area. Methamphetamine is moving into the area, there was just a big bust in the Shenandoah Valley last week. It’s coming into Northern Virginia,” Wolf said.