Teens and Drugs

Posted May 27, 2009, at 5:28 p.m.

Teens using drugs is as bad a mix as toddlers playing with matches. But keeping drugs away from teens — or more to the point, keeping teens away from drugs — is a more complicated endeavor than simply hiding the matches.

A recent BDN story about drug use in area high schools revealed the ease with which drugs can be obtained and used; less clear is the degree to which drugs are being used by students and whether this has changed over time. Those who said they smoke marijuana regularly, for instance, said “most” of their peers did as well. That perspective is probably not shared by all teens. As with most of the moral, ethical and health choices teens face, what they do and don’t do comes down to character. Teens will experiment, and will make the wrong choice from time to time as part of the maturation process. This reality should be part of any high school drug policy.

The story also reported that school administrators are aware of drug use; no surprise there. Brewer School Superintendent Dan Lee said his staff was not passive when it comes to drugs. “We do take a pretty active stand,” he said. “Do we look in cars? Yes. Do we consciously stop students who are acting strangely? Yes.”

Yet those administrators, while concerned about teens in their charge, are mostly ineffective as “drug cops.” Thankfully, this is not what we hire them to do. School administrators and teachers are responsible for educating our children. While health classes include information about drug abuse, addiction and sexual health issues, it is not realistic to burden schools with the responsibility of screening teens for substance abuse. As some of the teens in the story admitted, most of the drug use occurs off school grounds, suggesting a larger role for parental vigilance.

This is not to suggest that drug use is not a serious issue. Even the healthiest and most mature adult can be sidetracked or worse by drug use. Adolescents, whose emotions and hormones are in extreme flux, and whose self-esteem and self-control are often at their weakest, are even more susceptible to the mercurial effects of drugs.

The most effective thing schools — or, more appropriately, the greater community — can do to combat teen drug abuse is to educate parents about the signs. Understandably, parents pride themselves on knowing what is going on in their teens’ lives, but they can be naive or in denial. Parents must work with other parents and agree on boundaries for their children.

A final, critical piece is to give teens honest and accurate information. Teens understand that beer and marijuana are not in the same category as heroin and oxycodone. Recent research suggests that using the former carries a 1-in-10 to 1-in-20 chance of addiction, while the latter carries a 1-in-3 chance of addiction. Risk assessment is a skill teens need, but it requires accurate information.

Superintendent Lee advocated the open and honest approach, coupled with sincere concern. Speaking to an 18-year-old who had run afoul of the law with drugs, he said, “Please don’t cast your fate into the wind.” Good advice.

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