When DEA Special Agent Ken Abrams spoke to a group of Westfield High students recently, he laid it on the line and told them the straight truth about drugs.
"Not everyone is getting high; less than 5 percent of the U.S. population uses drugs on a regular basis," he said. "But the scary part is that it starts at 12 years old. Parents can't stop everything. You've got to make the decision yourself."
ABRAMS, with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., was a featured speaker at the school, Jan. 21, during a program called "Teen Species: Up Close and Personal." It was sponsored by the Westfield Community Coalition and the school PTSA, and Abrams' presentation kept his audience riveted.
He made it clear that he knew how easy it is for teens to obtain illegal substances, these days. But he also informed them of the physical consequences to themselves that, hopefully, would make them think twice before getting involved.
Abrams showed the students photos and told them stories about people all over the U.S. who'd used drugs. And his point hit home when he told them what happened to these people, as a result.
"Irma Perez, 14, lived in California and ordered ecstasy over the Internet," he said. "You can get away with things without your parents knowing, but listen. She took one pill and went into seizures. But instead of calling 911 or her parents, her friends called a marijuana dealer and asked what they should do for her. They put marijuana in her mouth because they thought it was medicine."
Abrams told the students to be aware of what a drug can do to them and not to take someone's word for it. He said ecstasy is both a hallucinogenic drug and a stimulant that increases body temperature and dehydrates people.
"SO WHEN they did the autopsy on [Perez], her brain was cooked from the ecstasy pill, it had heated up so much," he said. "If someone tries to give you drugs — even if they're a family member — they're not your friend. This young lady died after five days."
Warning of the dangers of GHB, called the "date-rape drug," Abrams told about Samantha Reid of Cleveland. GHB is odorless and colorless, and someone slipped it into her drink at a party.
"For all intents and purposes, it's like liquid ecstasy — dangerous and unpredictable," said Abrams. "[Drugs] affect different people differently because everyone's metabolism is different. Samantha died, and the guys who gave her the GHB went to jail."
"People think they can dabble in drugs," he said, but there are always consequences. Take Wesley Hudson, 27, of Ohio. "He smoked marijuana and crashed his car while driving some kids to school," said Abrams. "Four people died."
Besides that, he said, marijuana has more than 400 chemicals in it and four to five times the carcinogens as tobacco. "So know what you're putting in your body — be smart," he said. "It's not natural to put something burning [inside yourself]."
Noting the increasing popularity of hookah smoking, Abrams said, "Even bongs with water do not filter out cancer-causing agents, so these things get into your lungs. And marijuana is addictive. Eventually, you stop wanting food or sex and just want the marijuana. And the more you use, the more it'll take to get high."
He said many companies, not just government employers, are mandating their job applicants take drug and alcohol tests. And don't think you can fool anyone, even if you've stopped using, he said: "Employers can take swabs from your hair and find out, up to a year [later]. And if you've been federally convicted of a drug crime, you can't apply for student loans."
Abrams told the teens that today's marijuana is 30-percent stronger than in their parents' day. "It's dangerous stuff and is often laced with PCP and called 'Loveboat,'" he said. But the danger is that, on PCP, "You feel no pain."
Marijuana also affects people's coordination, short-term memory and judgment. "We can't stop the drug problem; it starts from prevention," he said. "Think about your younger brothers and sisters. Would you give them marijuana, knowing it's harmful? I don't think you would."
ABRAMS THEN discussed "meth," a drug already prevalent in New York and West Virginia and heading here. "Meth is crack's big brother," he said. "For people hooked on methamphetamines, it takes a year to get [clean]. And the success rate of treatment and cure is 1 percent."
That's the collateral damage of drugs, he said. "[Meth] is easy to make — you can go on the Internet and find out how," he said. "But is it worth it? And who's going to pay for it? You make your own decision."
Abrams said people he's arrested who'd used meth or heroin hallucinated that bugs were crawling on their bodies, and he showed photos of what they'd done to themselves. "They pick and pick and pick and make open sores throughout their entire body," he said. "It's nasty stuff."
Most meth is in crystalline form (crystal meth) and comes in colors like pink, tan or red, because of what's been added to it. Often, said Abrams, cold medicines such as Sudafed, acetone and even cat litter are added to meth. And, he said, "This is what you're putting in your mouth."
Inhalants — such as sprays, glues and markers — are also deadly. "It's called 'huffing' when people sniff airplane glue in a paper bag," he said. "But it eats away brain cells, and it's irreversible."
Prescription drugs are harmful, too, when used wrong. "Oxycontin is a pain medication that's time-released," explained Abrams. "People who abuse it crush it and take the entire dose in one shot, and it's very addictive. The same thing with vicodin. So things that are good for you can be made into something bad."
He also addressed steroid use. "Statistically, the biggest American users are young ladies," he said. "Everybody wants to look thin and guys want to be muscular. But it's going to destroy your body."
Steroids affect people's hormones, said Abrams, "So guys develop breasts, their testicles shrink and they become sterile. Girls grow facial hair, get a deep voice and have extreme and extensive acne." He said steroid use also causes jawbone growth, bloating, liver damage and depression, so the consequences definitely outweigh any short-term benefits.
AND THEN there's cocaine — also highly addictive and dangerous. "It affects the central nervous system, the lungs and just about everything in your body," said Abrams. "It's usually in powdered form and is one of the most abused drugs in this country. In a recent case, a guy was shipping it in liquid form in rum bottles. We got him, and he's now serving 20 years in prison."
To illustrate the severity of the drug problem, he said, "On 9/11, 2,300 people died. The same year, 3,900 people died of drug overdoses."
Abrams then referred teens to the DEA Web site, justthinktwice.com, adding, "Hopefully, you guys got something out of this. Just remember, before you take a puff on that joint or pop that pill, think about what you're doing."