Like going to the prom or taking SATs, getting drunk or high is a teenage rite of passage, four Juneau-Douglas High School seniors said in recent interviews.
"I smoke pot to let go, it is a good way to relax," said a bookish, 17-year-old male student, who admitted to habitual use. "It is the only way I enjoy watching television."
The students, a young woman and three young men who spoke on the condition their names not be published, painted a picture of high school life where drinking and smoking marijuana are commonplace, and where harder drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy readily are available.
"I'd say at least 90 percent of the school (students) have at least tried pot," said the girl.
Though the teenagers' claim about the prevalence of drug use may not be true, it also is difficult to refute. No current data definitively describe the extent of the alcohol and drug problem for young people in Juneau. Depending on which local expert you ask, drug use may be decreasing, remaining the same or soaring to epidemic levels.
Editor's note: This is the third in a three-day series that looks at drug trends in the capital city.
Sunday: IV drugs
Monday: The new problem drugs - Meth and OxyContin
Tuesday: Kids and drugs
Of the four students interviewed, three smoke pot a few times a month, have tried hallucinogenic mushrooms and are curious about trying ecstasy. The student who doesn't smoke pot, an athlete, described weekend drinking that sometimes includes consuming 12 shots of vodka in one evening. He also said his friends used "DXM," or Dextromethorphan, the active ingredient in cough syrup, which is legal and available over the Internet.
All of the students interviewed said they know other students who use cocaine. They also said they had seen a "smorgasbord" of drugs laid out at parties. The young woman described watching her friends get high on coke at such a gathering.
"You would watch people go in the bathroom and they would come out (high)," said the young woman, swirling her index finger at the ceiling.
The four students said that although they don't get high during school hours, they knew people who were stoned in class. Because of the open campus at the high school, it is easy to go somewhere secluded to smoke, the students said.
At least 60 percent of graduating students will be involved in marijuana, according to David Moore, a University of Washington substance abuse expert working in Juneau. Moore is leading the school district's effort to revamp the substance abuse intervention program with the Juneau Effective Prevention Project.
Moore has analyzed and cross-referenced statistics from Juneau's 1999 Youth Behavior Risk survey, the Department of Corrections, the Teen Health Center and the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependency. According to Moore, drug and alcohol use in Juneau are above the national average and have increased over the last decade.
"The rate (of marijuana use) among students who drop out is much higher," Moore said. "That is not the normal situation in other communities in the Lower 48. The norm in Juneau is alcohol and marijuana use."
Moore and other JEPP participants have called the situation a crisis, and stressed that many students who use drugs have a problem with chemical dependency and need treatment. Moore's estimates for marijuana use put Juneau above the national average. About 43 percent of American high school students have tried marijuana, according to a 2001 Youth Risk Behavior survey conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a similar survey given in 1999, 24 percent of JDHS student respondents said they had smoked pot in the previous month and 40 percent said they had consumed alcohol in the previous month. Adult alcohol consumption in Southeast Alaska is the highest in the country, Moore said.
"Twenty-seven percent of the high school (students) binge drank last month," Moore said, citing statistics from the 1999 survey. A binge-drinker consumes more than five drinks in a sitting.
JDHS Assistant Principal Laury Roberts Scandling disciplines students caught with controlled substances. She is more conservative with her estimate of the frequency of student drug use, saying statistics she has seen indicate drug use is decreasing. A comparison of the 1999 and 1995 Youth Behavior Risk surveys, for example, shows a decrease in marijuana and alcohol use.
"Chances are we would be about average. ... I wouldn't call it a crisis," she said. " We just don't have accurate data."
No comprehensive survey of Juneau's teenage drug use has been done since the school participated in the national Youth Behavior Risk survey in 1999, because the Alaska Legislature passed a law that made such surveys require positive parental permission, Scandling explained. Previously, parents were given the option to object to the survey and to request their child be excluded. When high school officials sent out permission slips, only 30 were returned, Scandling said, making an accurate survey of the roughly 1,600 students impossible.
Juneau Effective Prevention Project
suggestions for parents of teenagers:
Set clear expectations:
Establish and maintain a clear no-use message, and learn basic information about drugs to help support that message with facts, especially the biological and developmental reasons why it is illegal for people to drink until they are 21.
Do not use marijuana or other illegal drugs.
Support those expectations by:
Expanding the network of supportive adults (at least five) who are interested in the success of your child.
Encouraging your child to be involved in adult-led peer activities outside of school.
Set substance-use consequences in advance:
Consequences should be appropriate for each individual situation. JEPP suggests looking at Juneau School District policy for guidelines. JSD restricts access to fun activities and requires an assessment to determine the seriousness of the problem. After that, students undergo education and counseling. Youth may use the recommendations, such as the 80-hour plan, to get their privileges back. Parents also may use urinalysis and alcohol indicator strips to monitor usage.
The Juneau Effective Prevention Project is a diverse group of community agencies, families and youths who are developing a comprehensive system for youth substance abuse prevention.
Source: David Moore, Juneau Effective Prevention Project
Without the survey, there is no way to know what the numbers are, she said. Moore and Scandling said students involved with drugs often perceive drug use as more pervasive that it is.
Bucking stereotypes about students who use drugs, the group of students described themselves as "involved," participating in more then one extra-curricular school activity. They had ties to school leadership organizations like student government and sports teams. All were college-bound. Their median grade point average is 3.75.
"I used to worry about pot (affecting my brain) but then I got a (very high score) on my SATs and now don't care," said one student.
Moore also said students don't realize that the health effects of habitual pot smoking may not be apparent immediately. On tests, pot-smoking students scored lower in areas that looked at short-term memory, the ability to think in new models, and reading comprehension, Moore said.
The school district has a strict, multifaceted policy with regard to substance abuse. Students who are caught drunk, high or in possession at school are reported to their parents and the police and are suspended. Drinking can result in a ticket; possession can result in an arrest. Three drug offenses can mean a student is expelled. Students also are given an intervention plan that involves drug education classes and some counseling.
With the new system being developed by the JEPP group, every student who commits a drug-related offense will be assessed to determine the level of his or her problem and given an 80-hour intervention plan tailored to his or her specific needs with oversight by a case manager. A student with a serious substance abuse or chemical dependency problem may receive more counseling and referral to community drug abstinence support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Alanon and Narcotics Anonymous. A student who is not addicted to alcohol or other drugs might have a plan that includes preventative education and community service.
Currently all students who participate in school activities, from cheerleading to student government, must sign a "disassociation policy" in which they agree not to use drugs or alcohol or hang out with people who do. If an administrator can confirm that a student is at a party where alcohol is present, the student can be banned from an activity for 30 days. All the students interviewed were aware of this policy, and objected strongly to it.
"It basically means that there can be no such thing as a designated driver," one of the students said.
What is Ecstasy?
Ecstasy, or MDMA, is commonly known as X or E. The pills usually are stamped with logos from popular or corporate culture, such as the Nike "swoosh" or Tweety Bird.
Average cost ranges from $10 to $30 a pill. A single dose lasts about six hours.
MDMA users report heightened sensory awareness, especially touch. Users report feeling more at ease talking to others and more relaxed in social situations. It is also called "the hug drug" because of these qualities.
It has "mind expanding" aspects, akin to, but milder than, mushrooms or LSD, but it is not considered a psychedelic drug or hallucinogen. Although it is an amphetamine, it is used because of its psychoactive qualities, not simply because it is a stimulant.
The drug, a semi-synthetic chemical compound, was first made in 1912. In its pure form it is a white crystalline powder. It was patented in Germany by the Merck Co. in 1914. It was used in some therapeutic applications in the 1960s and 1970s and became popular as a recreational drug in England in the 1980s. From there it moved to the United States and became associated with the dance party or "rave" scene.
Ecstasy was outlawed in 1985. It is illegal to manufacture, possess, or sell the drug in the United States.
About 50 percent of the MDMA in America is made in Israel and about 15 percent in Holland. South Africa is a major supplier, and evidence indicates China also is developing the drug.
The popularity of the drug has led to a large market for fake or counterfeit drugs, which often are caffeine pills or herbal stimulants made to look like ecstasy.
Ecstasy and rave paraphernalia include candy pacifiers and baby pacifiers, sometimes oversized, because users tend to clench their teeth.
For an in-depth article on ecstasy, see http://mdma.net/misc/ecstasy.html
For more information on recreational drugs in general, see http://www.a1b2c3.com/drugs/
For the students interviewed who said they smoked pot, cost rather than getting in trouble or health concerns served as a prohibitive factor for drug and alcohol use.
"I'm pondering 'E,' I don't really want to pay 30 or 40 bucks a pop," the young woman said, referring to the drug ecstasy.
Students also said that for the most part, pot and other drugs were available to them at school from other students who deal. "Enough pot to get high" costs about $20, they said.
"You could probably get it for free if you are pretty. I never pay for drugs," said the female JDHS student.
Juneau Police officer Blain Hatch patrols the school and deals with drug complaints. He said more than half of the students likely will try marijuana before graduation. He said he hasn't seen any evidence drug use is increasing. Over the last two years, he's arrested a dozen or so students for possession of marijuana, and says he routinely confiscates pot pipes.
"Hands down, marijuana and alcohol are the most prevalent (drugs used by high school students)," he said, noting he has heard rumors about use of drugs such as methamphetamines, ecstasy and cocaine. He also had an incident with a student who became violent after taking DXM.
Alcohol is the most dangerous drug, Hatch said, because it is the most prevalent and because intoxicated students may become violent or get behind the wheel. Students generally get drugs and alcohol from acquaintances or parents, he said.
One of the students interviewed said his parents were aware that he experiments with drugs. Others said their parents had no idea - and would be upset if they did know. All characterized school attempts to dissuade drug use as ineffective. The young man who didn't smoke pot said he abstained out of guilt, choosing alcohol instead because it was more accepted.
"When you smoke pot, you feel like you have lost something you had before," he said. "I don't want to feel like I've lost something."
The students who smoke pot characterized their use as recreational, saying they smoked to "have fun," "relax," or because drinking alcohol had become boring.
"I only have fun about a quarter of the time when I am stoned," said one young man. " We know that it is stupid, but we will probably do it in college."
Julia O'Malley can be reached at email@example.com.