Our kids are seeking new ways to get high, and it might just kill them.

By David F. Salter

More Americans die from drug overdoses than in car crashes.

That startling fact, from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, is not getting any better. From that organization we also learn that 90% of addictions begin in the teen years. Kids who learn about the risks of drug use from their parents are significantly less likely to use drugs, yet 20% of kids report they never get that advice from mom or dad.

According to the Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS), alcohol remains the number one substance of abuse by our school kids, with marijuana number two. Next on the drug abuse list is non-narcotic pills like stimulants and tranquilizers, followed by prescription narcotics, which leads to abuse of heroine, also know as an opiate.

Our kids are receiving mixed messages about marijuana, and that leads to an increase in experimentation and use of the drug by kids. Even though it remains a Federal offense to sell, purchase, carry or use marijuana, certain states have ignored the Federal law and have passed legislation that legalizes marijuana for medical use, and in some states, for recreational use.

Our kids see this and believe that if there are laws that say marijuana is helpful as a medical treatment, and if our kids see that some states say it’s okay to use marijuana on a recreational basis, their thinking is, ‘how bad can it be?’

The fact is that all medical doctors confirm that the human brain does not reach full maturation until around 23 years of age, so any use and abuse of marijuana (and other drugs) will have a negative impact on our children’s brain development. Second, according to medical doctors, a person can become addicted to marijuana, contrary to popular belief. In fact, for the first time ever, we are seeing kids having a substance abuse disorder because of marijuana use instead of alcohol. Finally, marijuana has a negative impact on motor skills and brain function. Kids who use marijuana are less motivated, have difficulty with basic coordination, can have difficulty with memory…all which lead to a reduced performance in school and school activities.

“They start out having a few beers, smoking a blunt, and they say, ‘oh, this is great, let me try something else,’” said Denise Holden. Holden is CEO of The RASE Project, which offers free training and educational workshops throughout central Pennsylvania that address addiction, the family and the recovery process. “Teenagers are prone to being rebellious, and they like to experiment. They’ll try drugs in their parent’s medicine cabinet. What starts out as a good time, after they do it, they like it and they miss it.”

According to the PAYS data, marijuana is used by about 17% of Pennsylvania students. Creeping up the list, however, are the other drugs previously mentioned.

“There were enough prescriptions written last year for narcotics that equals a 30-day supply for every American,” said Beth Mingey. Mingey works for Holcomb Behavioral Health Systems, which is the largest system of its kind in eastern Pennsylvania, and the organization also oversees three NOPE chapters (Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education). “These are in almost every medicine cabinet in the country, and they’re legally prescribed.

“Our youth have easy access to it, and they don’t think it’s harmful,” Mingey went on. “It’s coming from a doctor, and their parents might take it, so kids don’t think it’s really a big deal.”

Mingey said that nearly 10% of high school seniors have tried prescription narcotics to get high. Kids usually get exposed to these drugs legally, through a sports injury or dental work. A percentage of kids love that feeling, and they will seek it out beyond the prescription.

“Opioid addiction can happen as fast as 2-7 days,” Mingey said. “That’s how strong those drugs are, depending upon the dosage and frequency. When you combine the thinking that it’s not harmful, with the exposure, and a certain percentage that will like it, the wrath of addiction can be a disaster within several weeks.”

What this leads to is the news stories that everyone’s heard and seen, signaling the increase in heroin use, addiction, and deaths by overdose. The reason kids, and people in general, transition to heroine is basic economics. It might cost $80 for a prescription medication, but an individual can purchase a bag of heroine for $5 on the street.

Mingey said that, unfortunately, the ‘cleanest’ heroine in the country currently comes out of Philadelphia. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, heroine was cut with seemingly harmless products like baby powder and quinine. Now, drug dealers use more potent, and deadly agents to do the same job, like fentanyl and carfentanil. All it takes is a little bit too much of one of those agents used in cutting the heroine, and death can be immediate.

“Once you have dependency, you have drug-seeking behavior,” Mingey said. “They will steal from other people’s medicine cabinets. Once the physiology of kids brains are taken over because of physical dependency, it’s like the flu on crack. Reasonable judgment doesn’t really exist.”

What Signs Can Mom and Dad Look For?

Holden says that teenagers, in general are prone to behavioral changes, but look for signs that are more dramatic. Are there changes in their grades or their interests?

“Is your child isolating his or herself? Are they changing friends…are you seeing different kinds of folks entering their lives? Are they more secretive? Are they paranoid?

Physical changes also can occur.

“If they are under the influence, they will scratch because opiates make your face itch,” Holden continued. “Are they always falling asleep or nodding off at odd times?

“Sometimes there might be no signs because they hide it well,” Holden went on. “Are they always needing money? Are they giving away things…like does a laptop disappear? They will get rid of this stuff to get money to buy the drugs.”

What Can Mom and Dad Do?

Mingey said that parents who take responsible actions could address the prescription epidemic.

“If your child’s been prescribed (for a legal reason) parents need to monitor and dispense that drug,” Mingey said. “That’s also true of your spouse or anyone. If there’s a legitimate medical reason, then lock them up and protect them from falling into your children’s hands, our children’s friends, or the plumber…Most of us hold onto those prescriptions, but they must be disposed of in drop boxes at the local police station.”

If you think your child has already gone down the wrong path, there are resources available.

“Each county in Pennsylvania has a single county authority that provides drug and alcohol intervention, prevention and treatment options;” Holden explained. “So call the county.”

Holden also pointed to a local non-profit that specifically helps parents of children who are engaged in drug use. John Cribari’s daughter, Natalie, died from a drug overdose, and he started the Natalie Cribari Drug Awareness Fund. The organization does a lot of fundraising and outreach in Dauphin County.

“Addicts can be very manipulative and very charming,” Holden said. “They can talk you out of what you’re seeing. Being involved in a parents group like that tells you that you’re not wrong, pay attention to your instincts and never stop trying to do what’s necessary.”

Silver Award for News Feature from the Parenting Media Association