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Researcher says drug use among teens more dangerous today

Greenwich Post
Feb 9 2003
By Kenneth Partridge, Staff Reporter

According to Carol Falkowski, director of research communications at the Minnesota-based Hazelden Foundation, the main reasons kids turn to drugs and alcohol are simple: To feel good, and to feel better.

Speaking to a group of about 50 parents at Greenwich Country Day School last Friday morning in a program sponsored by the Greenwich Coalition to Combat Underage Drinking, Ms. Falkowski said that while these impulses have always been present in young people, the drug use they cause has become far more dangerous for today’s teens.

“Drug abuse is a topic nobody wants to hear about or talk about, but it’s something that’s pervasive in our world today,” she said, thanking the parents who took the initiative to attend the lecture, her second in as many days.

Ms. Falkowski said she spends a good deal of her time monitoring drug trends across the United States, and as such, she’s had an opportunity to learn firsthand about increased usage rates among teens, particularly with respect to alcohol.

Drinking to get drunk

“If there’s a trend in drinking, it’s to drink as much as possible, as quickly as possible,” she said.

Siting the widespread usage of “beer bongs” — funnel-like devices that allow kids to drink entire pitchers of beer in short periods of time — and popularity of “power hours,” which involve young people downing 21 shots in rapid succession on their 21st birthdays, Ms. Falkowski said things have gotten out of control.

She said 80% of high school students will try alcohol before they graduate high school, a troubling statistic, since studies show those who begin drinking before the age of 15 have a 40% chance of developing alcoholism later in life.

For people who wait until 21 or 22, Ms. Falkowski added, there is only a 10% chance of becoming addicted to alcohol.

Part of the problem, she said, is access.

“It’s not that difficult for kids to get alcohol,” she said, attributing this to unlocked liquor cabinets and older siblings.

Moreover, she said, kids grow up equating alcohol with fun and sex. By the time kids reach driving age, she said, they’ve seen an average of 75,000 ads for beer, liquor and wine. About 20 times more money is spent advertising alcohol than milk each year, she added.

Marijuana

Costing as little as $5 per joint, marijuana is another attractive starter drug for teenagers, Ms. Falkowski said. She said half of all kids try the drug before they graduate high school, many with the belief that pot usage isn’t a particularly big deal, since popular culture has largely downplayed its addictiveness and potential dangers.

“This marijuana is stronger in potency than the marijuana of 20 or 30 years ago,” she said. “More than one person can feel the effects of a joint of marijuana — it’s that strong.”

What’s even more dangerous about a drug like marijuana, she said, is that it impairs memory, judgment and development.

“If kids are always using drugs or alcohol, they’re not advancing,” she said. “They’re just not growing up.”

She said that at some of the drug-support programs her foundation runs in Minnesota, kids who have been smoking marijuana since their early teens arrive in their 20s severely stunted, some functioning emotionally as if they were still adolescents.

Despite popular belief, she said, people can develop marijuana dependency.

“It’s clearly a drug that can be addicting,” she said, reporting that 283,000 people enter drug-treatment programs each year to kick their marijuana habits.

Recent trends

While alcohol and marijuana may be the most common drugs with which young people experiment, a number of others have gained popularity over the years, Ms. Falkowski reported.

In the ’90s, she said, heroine experienced a mainstream resurgence, as many young people — particularly girls — were drawn in by the skinny, waifish look that comes with regular use.

Similarly popular was ecstasy — also known as “X” or “E” — which flourished as rave parties became in vogue in the middle and latter parts of the ’90s.

Ms. Falkowski told of one youth she’d heard about who died after taking ecstasy and drinking three gallons of water, which caused water poisoning. Apparently, his friends had read on the Internet that ingesting large quantities of water with the drug made it safe.

The Internet, Ms. Falkowski said, is another modern phenomenon that has made drugs more dangerous. She called it “a major source for information and misinformation about drugs,” adding that many teens are also using the web to meet other users and arrange parties.

“What kids used to learn on the street corner about drugs they can now learn on cyber street corners,” she said.

So-called date-rape drugs have become another problem, she said, as a substance called GHB is sometimes used by sexual predators who take advantage of the short-term amnesia caused by the drug.

In 2000, President Clinton passed a law attaching sentences of up to 20 years for the crime of intentional drugging. The law was named for Samantha Reid and Hillory Farias, a pair of teenage girls who were killed in GHB attacks.

Many teens are also turning to over-the-counter pills and prescription drugs, Ms. Falkowski said, trends that can be hard to combat, since many of the oft-used drugs are commonly found in most people’s homes.

Ms. Falkowski said many kids take the attitude, “If it’s a pill, it must be safe,” a view she says tends to be reinforced by our culture, since an estimated 85% of all Americans take a pill for something each day.

The meth boom

The Northeast may not have been affected yet, but Ms. Falkowski said many other parts of the country have been in the grips of a methamphetamine — meth, for short— epidemic in recent years.

The high-power stimulant attracts young people because it gives them energy and confidence, she said, allowing them to continue functioning in their day-to-day lives, unlike alcohol, which leaves them unable to drive or go to work.

Kids aren’t the only ones smoking meth, though. Ms. Falkowski said it’s a drug that might appeal to anyone with “too much to do and too little time.” She mentioned cases in which soccer moms have begun taking the drug trying to keep up with their kids.

It can also help with weight loss, Ms. Falkowski said, which is one reason it’s usage has increased among teenage girls.

Prevention

As much as parents like to think programs such as DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) are doing the job, Ms. Falkowski said more needs to be done, particularly outside of the classroom.

“What research finds about prevention is that it’s effective only when it happens not just in schools, but also in homes and entire communities,” she said.

The key, she added, is stressing the same message through multiple messengers.

Ms. Falkowski also spoke about warning signs, cautioning that young people using drugs or alcohol may steal, act secretive or defensive, exhibit mood swings, change friends unexpectedly and lose interest in things they used to care about deeply.

The trouble is, she said, these are common things that all kids go through, even the ones who are playing by the rules and staying sober. She said it’s important to watch for the onset of all of these things at once, however, since that can be the signal something is going wrong.

Another way parents can stop drug use before it starts, Ms. Falkowski said, is to “talk early and talk often,” even if these types of conversations can be difficult.

“I think when it comes to talking about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, a lot of parents are so unsure of what to say they just don’t go there,” she said.

Making matters worse, she said, parents often refuse to believe their kids could have serious drug problems.

“It’s human nature to be blinded by love, and it’s human nature for kids to never admit when they’re doing something wrong,” she said, describing a dynamic that often prevents young people from getting the help they need.

The role of parents

“It could be the parents who need to be here, aren’t here,” said Ms. Falkowski, bringing to light one of the biggest challenges those in her field face: Reaching parents who either don’t see the importance of educating their kids about drugs, or who feel it will never happen to their own children.

Bill Howland, a parent who attended the lecture, said that feelings of “it won’t happen to me” exist for parents and children alike. He said that while talks like the one Ms. Falkowski gave are beneficial for parents, other approaches are needed to reach youngsters.

“What means something to students is someone who’s been through it and can say, ‘This is how I felt and how I was lost,’” Mr. Howland said.

He added that parents have to realize that they have the right to talk to their kids about drugs, even if they’re sometimes met with resistance in the process.

“That’s our job,” he said.

Caroline Cuffe, a parent who recently moved to Greenwich from London, said she believes the Unites States is far ahead of countries like England in terms of getting the anti-drug message out to kids.

“The difference here is that we talk about it all the time,” she said.

She said that in her experience, binge drinking is a major problem in England, though it’s not as prevalent in places like France, where young people learn to drink wine in moderation from an early age.

Earlier in the presentation, Ms. Falkowski said no conclusive data exists showing that rates of alcoholism are any lower in Europe, where there are generally lower drinking ages and more liberal attitudes toward alcohol.

Ms. Falkowski said she encourages her children to be law-abiding citizens, and that parents who hold drinking parties in their homes with the attitude of, “Well, at least they’re doing it under our roof” are only making things worse.

She called the process of trying to figure out how to get the message to these parents “the million-dollar question.”

“You’d like to think it doesn’t take deaths,” she said.