Friday, May 30, 2014

Donít try this at home

Misconceptions about substance use have long-term consequences

Express Staff Writer

Teens act out a party gone wrong in an event last year hosted by the Blaine County Drug Coalition. Photo by Willy Cook

Second in a three-part series about the challenges
faced by Blaine County teens.

     Let’s start from a basic truth: Even if there was a manual for raising children, most of us would rely on the quick-start guide and skip to the part on troubleshooting once a problem arose.

     It’s a pretty safe bet that most parents don’t gaze down into the crib and think, “I can’t wait until you drink that first beer, or to light up a joint with you.”

     And yet, from a very young age, studies are showing that children are bombarded with messages of the benefits of an altered existence, from how a few beers make love easier and a glass of wine makes child rearing tolerable.

     While we adults fumble with the playbook, our teens are writing their own, some better than others.

     And one chapter getting a lot of revisions from Blaine County teens is on substance abuse.

     In this text, ideally, before, or, at least by birth, a parent has consciously chosen to think past the child’s immediate gratification—an undeniably immense undertaking most days. They will, in this tale—either upon reflection, or based on other people’s tragedies, or in consideration of the facts about the brain damage caused by substance use—set the course for future happiness that is not substance-dependent.

     “The biggest challenge here has been adult apathy,” said Wood River High School senior Chase Hutchinson, who has grown up in the valley. “There has been such an unhealthy amount of support and encouragement for students to try substances as a rite of passage.”

     As a member of Idaho’s Drug Free Youth since his freshman year, Hutchinson said he has been able to navigate the perils and pearls of high school without leaning into substance use, largely because he had peer support not to.

     Hutchinson also counted the late Lane Coulthard as a peer. Both young men belonged to some of the same clubs at school, namely the debate team.

     Pound for pound, by age 18, both had packed a resume with an eye on a life with a compass reading of true north.

     But when graduation is held in the coming days, only Hutchinson’s cap will take flight during the celebratory toss. Coulthard tried a drug for the first time at a New Year’s Eve party. His family believes the drug is linked to his suicide days later.

Express graphic by Erik Elison

     That same night, Blaine County School District Trustee Paul Bates was sleeping at home while a party carried on with underage drinkers present. Bates resigned from the school board after word of the party spread.

     “It has come to my attention that there were uninvited kids there and things that happened that I was not aware of,” he said. “That being said, it was at my house and I am responsible for what happens there. I take ownership of that night. I am deeply saddened and I apologize.”


Two positions with the same goal

     Wending its way quietly through the bureaucracy at that time were advocates of stricter application of what is known as a “social hosting” ordinance, one that would give law enforcement the right to cite party hosts for allowing minors to consume alcohol or use drugs.

     The timing was just a coincidence, but the public’s response to the preceding events lent a fervor to interest in what was being missed in the fine print.

     Parent Ellen Mandeville noted that in the past, social hosting was to create a safe environment for kids to be kids, which included experimentation with life’s lures.

     “It was just seen as the lesser of two evils,” she said, referring to the oft-taken option of a party off in a canyon with no supervision at all.

     Today, is different, she said. It has to be—the death toll is too high.

     “There is a changing climate of what is acceptable in this community.”

     When Blaine County Community Drug Coalition President and Hailey Elementary School Principal Tom Bailey addressed the school board the night Bates resigned, he said, “We are not here to judge what you do with your child in your home. What we are saying is you can’t do it with my child.

     “We started this three years ago, but recently, I think there has been a change in the environment. The silent majority are starting to speak up.”

     Acting Superintendent John Blackman, who has been in the School District as teacher and coach for 30 years, added, “I’ve lost more students than I care to mention for a myriad of reasons, and one of my biggest fears as a principal is graduation. But this is more than just a school issue.”

     Bailey said that firmer enforcement of the existing laws regarding minors and substances, and also offering free random drug testing, isn’t punitive. It is intended to give students and parents tangible implications for their choices and reasons to comply.

     It gives the youth an out to be able to say, “No thanks, I might get tested,” to save face at a party, he explained. It also allows a parent to say, “No, I can’t let you do that on my watch, it’s illegal.”

     Rather than reintroduce the “Just say No” model of the 1990s, the new mantra is to create an environment where kids can make informed choices.

     Sprinkle some good adult role models in with expectations of lawful conduct, provide them with boundaries for that conduct, and back them up with tools to defend their lifestyle choices. Sounds easy, right?

     But, who is to say what is correct role-modeling and what is not?

     Blackman said time has shown him that “reform through compliance is backward thinking,” and that he doesn’t want to teach through fear. He is, however, determined to save lives and completely in support of realistic dialogue.

     “Student health (in or outside school) is paramount.”

     The other camp is not comprised of backward-thinking, poorly-parented, lawless folks, either. They too want to save lives. They just take a different approach.

     Explains a mother of two raised in a home with two educated, career-holding parents, who was cited last year for hosting a party for an 18-year-old at which underage drinking occurred: “I let them have the party here because if they didn’t they were going to go out the canyon and I did not want them drinking and driving.”

     She said she had fully informed parents on board, and even lined up to help drive kids home if they did drink.

     “The kids are going to have parties, and they are safer with an adult watching over them than out a canyon somewhere,” she said. “If they want kids to stop having parties, they should be focusing on bringing in fun things and businesses to keep them entertained. Not punishing the parents that are trying to keep them safe.

     “There is nothing in this valley where the kids can go and hang out and have fun. I am not in favor of the ordinance at all.”


Can you be an alcoholic before you can spell alcohol?

     Idaho Drug Free Youth Executive Director Greg Sommers, who gave a presentation on substance use earlier this year to parents and kids, said the aforementioned view is widespread and naïve.

     “There is no way to safely introduce a child’s brain to alcohol,” he said. “What we know is that kids who get their first taste of alcohol at 10 years old, which is the average, have a 60 percent chance of developing into alcoholics later in life, and that that likelihood drops to 7 percent when they wait until 21.

     “The longer we can postpone it, the better. A naturally developed brain is critical to make good decisions as an adult. We want them to make those connections, but if you introduce alcohol, it can short-circuit that.”

     Parents need to take a good look at their own behaviors and adjust accordingly, he said.

     “The phrase ‘Kids will be kids’ is a cop out,” Hutchinson said. “Even with education and scientifically proven studies showing the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol, people still see them as a thing that they absolutely have to try. It is true that there are some parts of our lives that adults have very little control over, but that is no reason not to try.”

     During a recent student town hall, with only two adults from the Blaine County Community Drug Coalition facilitating (and a reporter sworn to protect their identities), it was clear Hutchinson is not a lone voice.

     From an audience of more than 60 kids consisting of athletes, “mathletes,” drama students, average students, some known users, and even a known dealer, from Wood River High School’s upper grades, an anonymous poll was taken.

     The poll showed 88 percent had been to a party with adults where young people were allowed to drink and/or smoke marijuana.

     The majority said alcohol is the most used substance among their peers and that they get it from family or friends. Use of marijuana, prescription and designer drugs such as Molly and Ecstasy is close behind.

     The overriding sentiment was that valley parents don’t care where young people drink as long as it is supervised. And, when asked if “adults in our community model healthy behavior in front of young people by drinking lightly or not at all, by not using illegal drugs, and not abusing prescription medicines,” the answer was a resounding “no.”

     In the discussion that followed, the takeaway was seemingly simple. Our kids want to be parented. They don’t want you to be their buddy; they want parents to be their first moral compass.

     Rather than trying to bond over rituals with detrimental consequences, encourage them to wait. Impress upon them time and place. Shoot the gaps. Call them out. Above all, don’t be hypocrites.

     They gave some examples of how parents sometimes confuse the situation:

  • Parents normalizing breaking the law and drinking with their kid.
  • When a kid asks for help with homework, the parent hesitates until they can grab a beer or a glass of wine.
  • Coming home from a party inebriated and then driving the babysitter home.
  • Partying in front of their kids.
  • Being in the next room from parents smoking pot.

     More than a few reported their unease with sharing space with adults at concerts like the MASSV festival and being hit on, or offered drugs and alcohol, by their parents’ friends.

     “It weirds us out,” said one. “They don’t want to talk about how we feel about growing up. They want to bond in the wrong way.”    

     Most were not in support of doing away with MASSV, even though they said drug traffic into the valley noticeably increases around such events. They did think it could be better controlled.

     That type of behavior only adds to the pressure, Blaine County Community Drug Coalition Executive Director Michael David said at the forum.

      “There’s community pressure that if you don’t participate then there must be something wrong with you; and adults have their head in the sand,” he said. “There’s too much collusion across the ages. You want information to make decisions on your own and be better at them?”

     Nods followed.

     Substances can and do make things seem better, David said later. Denying that fact isn’t an option, but delaying use by the under-25 brain can prevent a lot of heartache.

     The problem is that giving an underdeveloped, ill-prepared, sometimes irrational, usually impulsive mind a biological draw to diversions can be their undoing—they won’t stop chasing the feeling. Remember that first kiss? You weren’t thinking about herpes.

     “We have to wake up as adults to the downside of it all,” David said, “and then we must deliver a community that supports a young person who seeks to recover and return to the life they should enjoy here, before their bodies rebelled and took their minds away from their dreams.”


Better to front load success than to pick up the pieces later

     Dr. Tim Elmore is a best-selling author, international speaker and president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit organization that helps develop emerging leaders under the philosophy that each child is born with leadership qualities.

     In a nutshell, it is his view that, “As parents, it is our responsibility to model the life we want our children to live. To help them lead a life of character and become dependable and accountable for their words and actions.

     “As the leaders of our homes, we can start by only speaking honest words—white lies will surface and slowly erode character. Watch yourself in the little ethical choices that others might notice, because your kids will notice, too. If you don’t cut corners, for example, they will know it’s not acceptable for them to, either. Show your kids what it means to give selflessly and joyfully by volunteering for a service project or with a community group. Leave people and places better than you found them, and your kids will take note and do the same.”

     This is where groups like IDFY and the BCCDC come in. Theirs is not an attempt to decide how one parents, but to offer support, options and information. Most importantly, they seek to empower youth, those whose imprint on each other is only a shade more indelible than a parent’s.

     The end goal for these groups is to prevent, delay or reduce substance use. They are guided by the standards set forth by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

     And their movement is taking root. There are 67 IDFY chapters across Idaho. The program here has about 130 members from middle to high school age.             

Kids want to trust adults

     Kids trust whoever is open to them, said Hutchinson. Adults must choose which confidante they want to be.

     “There can be the trust that is often times there because the kids know that these adults will allow them to get away with anything, or there is the other kind of trust that says kids can talk to adults with the knowledge that there won’t be judgment. And the trust will be returned,” he said.

     They are a growing movement, page-by-page writing the book on how a counter-culture to “you’re only cool if you use” changed the rules. 

Welcome to reality

                When the door first opens on this party, it’s full of smiling faces, music, the smell of pizza and raw energy.

                Boys and girls mix and mingle. Some are dancing to music, while others sway to their own tunes. Ping pong balls are flying, supportive cheers are heard, cards are dealt and snacks are consumed.

                But when the guide to this scene calls for a freeze in the action, something else comes into focus.

                There are people dozing across each other, feebly fondling. Those ping pong balls are being bounced into beer-filled cups and that kid doing a handstand to chants isn’t doing yoga—he’s over a keg that weighs more than he does, gulping beer as fast as it will pump.

                “Rock, paper, scissors, SHOT,” is heard from another room. There is a brief debate about how much one person can stand to drink in a go, until the tequila comes out and a new challenge is given. Another shares how his parents walked right past him while he was drinking this alcohol-infused energy drink and didn’t even realize it.

                Instead of bowls of Goldfish and pretzels, there are multicolored tablets, and packets, empty pill bottles. It’s a party bowl! There is the sound of someone getting sick, too. But like a neighbor’s car alarm that goes off too many times, it fades from concern and into the soundtrack.

                Wait, Why is that middle-schooler hanging out with college kids? That’s so-and-so’s baby brother and his friends. They are having a sleepover. Their parents are out of town.

                There are a few strange faces, a cousin of someone? He came to town when he heard about a party on Facebook. It’s where a lot of trolling perverts find out where their next victim might be passed out, vulnerable.

                And that’s just on the first floor.

                In the basement game room, girls are giving themselves over to drink and boys are waiting for inhibitions to drop. Boys get in a fist fight, someone storms off.

                The party host, the father of the house, makes a cursory pass through the room making sure everyone’s keys are in the bowl, and heads upstairs to play on the computer.

                The doorbell brings another shot of reality: the police. And there is no way out of a problem. Despite the father’s protests that everyone is safe and staying put, this is where the rubber meets the road. Minors are not allowed to consume alcohol, period. Things get way messier if someone is giving liquor to someone else’s kids. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

                The idea of this reality party, hosted by the Idaho Drug Free Youth and the Blaine County Community Drug Coalition, is to illustrate how quickly a party, even one proctored by adults, can go sideways, opening doors to realities they hadn’t anticipated, or, things they would only agree to after a few doses of liquid courage.

                The message is that when young people push themselves to consume more than their brain is ready for, they often do more than what their bodies are ready for, as well. And regret is not something to start compiling when your life has only just begun.

Drugs and the Internet

Online is the place for information and oversharing

     When news of Lane Coulthard’s death started making the rounds in the valley last January, many of the kids went straight to the Web to find out what drugs were being shared at a party he’d attended.

     Not only a resource for gossip, the Internet is loaded with sites soliciting “trip reports” from youths. These are records of the effects of a particular drug, how an individual handled what they could remember of it, and how to counteract the effects. There are some horror stories, some cautions and some incomplete diaries for whatever reason.

     But just as each human is unique, so is each person’s response to prescription medication or other popular drugs, which is what makes experimentation with any drug a risk.

     One may have a trip of a lifetime, while for another it might be the last first trip. Gray areas of comas and paralysis are often included, but kids here are not pretending they don’t enjoy the trips.

     The drug that Coulthard reportedly took was known as 25I, a designer drug similar to LSD. It is gaining a following in the same vein as Molly, which is part of a class of illegal drugs that can be manufactured cheaply.

     “The drugs that boost serotonin like MDMA (street names Molly and Ecstasy) as well as 25I cause serotonin to dump rapidly and make the person feel happy and loving for a few hours,” said Dr. Brent Russell, an Emergency Room physician at St. Luke’s Wood River hospital. “Then a few days later the depression hits. Each dose squeezes half the toothpaste out of the tube, so if you do repeated doses before the body has time to repair itself, you are squeezing the last little bit of serotonin out of the tube, leaving you completely dry and horribly depressed and unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

     Living in an athletic valley means injuries, and injuries mean pain medications. Those are being traded and sold on the street. Heroin users report they got there after starting with pain medications, but heroin, which killed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and journalist/model Peaches Geldof, most recently, is making a comeback.

     Meth is still an issue in the valley, but the emphasis on the dangers of it’s addictive and life-ruining qualities seems to have slowed use.

     The Blaine County Community Drug Coalition says that perception of risk along with perception of disapproval of use by parents increases the change of abstinence, or at least, reduced frequency of use. 

     To help prevent substance use:

  • Talk to your child early about what you expect in his or her behavior toward alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. If your teen thinks that you will allow substance use, he or she is more likely to try drugs or alcohol.
  • Keep your teen busy with meaningful activities, such as sports, church programs or other groups.
  • Expect your teen to follow the household rules. Set reasonable penalties for bad behavior and consistently carry them out.
  • Keep talking with your teen. Praise your teen for even the little things he or she does well.
  • Know your child’s friends. Having friends who avoid cigarettes, alcohol and drugs may be your teen’s best protection from substance abuse.

     The Blaine County Community Drug Coalition is ready to supply information and referrals to the public. It is not sponsored by law enforcement or schools—it is an independent organization. Contact them at



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