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Drug, Alcohol Use Up Among Older Teens, District Survey Finds

By Teresa Rochester

April 5 -- Chris, a Santa Monica High School senior, smokes marijuana and has a fake driver's license he uses to buy alcohol for himself and friends. The 17-year-old honor student from the affluent Montana neighborhood eschews cigarettes and hardcore drugs and follows the philosophy that driving stoned is better than driving drunk.

Jose, a 17-year-old Olympic student, says he isn't a big fan of alcohol, but adds, "I like smoking pot occasionally, just to relax… If it's coke or crack or ecstasy or any of those nasty chemicals, I'll just pass. I'm fine."

Ricky, 14, was recently caught with a marijuana pipe on the Samohi campus. Despite his arrest and his parents' anger, the high school freshman said he will likely smoke marijuana again once he is out of legal trouble.

The Santa Monica teenagers, whose real names were not used to protect their identities, are not alone. A survey of 182 of the district's 850 11th-graders conducted last spring found that more than one-third of students currently smoked marijuana and more than half used alcohol.

Binge drinking also increased over the last two years, with 33 percent of the respondents acknowledging that they had drank five drinks in a couple of hours in the 30 days preceding the survey.

While binge drinking among local 11th graders was below the national average, drinking in general not only increased by four percent, it ranked above national and state averages, as did marijuana use. The California Healthy Kids Survey, conducted every two years, also found that use of cigarettes, alcohol, inhalants and marijuana in lower grades had decreased but in most cases was still above state and national averages.

School officials argue that the number of respondents (about 15 percent) is not statistically significant enough to draw conclusions or provide an accurate portrayal of the problem. But they acknowledge that substance abuse among students is an issue of concern.

This response seems, in fact, to reflect a sense of ambivalence about the issue, both within the district and among parents, as well as a sense of denial and a resistance to implement new programs. Teenage substance use, which is as complex as adult use, is not treated as a priority, some officials said.

"Even if our percentages are no worse than anyone else's, if your children are using, it should be a major concern to parents," said Kathy McTaggart, the district's coordinator of school and community partnerships.

"As a community we have not taken the issue as seriously as many other communities," McTaggart said. "We are in denial. When the information is put in front of us that says it is a problem, there is a hesitancy to put resources to work."

The California Healthy Kids survey, administered every two years to fifth, seventh, ninth and 11th-graders as a condition for state and federal funding for tobacco prevention education, made the following findings:

· The number of last year's 11th-graders who drank a glass of alcohol, used inhalants and smoked marijuana during the month preceding the survey has increased since 1999 and was above state and national averages.

The number of students who drank a glass of alcohol rose from 50 to 54 percent. Marijuana use increased to 36 percent in 2001, compared to 34 percent in 1999, and the use if inhalants jumped from 4 to 6 percent.

· Among last year's high school freshmen, cigarette, alcohol, inhalant and marijuana use during a 30-day period decreased an average of 6 percent since 1999. The sharpest drop was in alcohol consumption with 34 percent of students reporting that they had had a glass of alcohol, compared to 47 percent in 1999. Marijuana use dropped from 25 to 22 percent.

But use among 9th graders was above the state average in each category. In comparison to their counterparts on a national level, alcohol use by local freshmen dropped.

· Use among 7th graders in 2001 also decreased, compared to the 1999 results. In each category, except for smoking, use mirrored the state average. The number of seventh-graders who smoked within 30 days of taking the survey fell below the state average.

McTaggart attributes declines in the lower grades to a greater emphasis on consistent education to prevent substance use, such as the program in place at district middle schools that teaches students how to avoid peer pressure and steer clear of experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

At the high schools, drug and alcohol education is primarily taught during a semester-long health class during freshman year. But this may not be enough. Prevention specialists believe that the effectiveness of anti-drug education lasts about a year among students.

"The research suggests it does make a difference," said Elizabeth Malamed, a prevention specialist with the Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center. "But I believe there's a real time limit. It may effect perception for a year limit."

That preventive education is effective can be seen in the decreasing use of tobacco among boys who have grown up in a time and region where smoking is frowned upon in the media and socially. Not surprisingly, the teens surveyed, as well as the three interviewed by The Lookout, did not smoke cigarettes.

Chris, the Montana neighborhood senior, called smoking cigarettes "one of the stupidest things you can do. It's like killing yourself."

According to a RAND-developed prevention program, research shows that teenagers "succumb to distressingly high levels of substance abuse in the high school years once middle school prevention programs are discontinued. As a result, teenagers need ongoing prevention efforts during high school to extend substance abuse prevention gains beyond the middle grades."

Compounding the dearth of continuous education is a general ambivalence toward the complex and highly sensitive issue of student drug use and drinking, which spans all socioeconomic, ethnic and racial groups.

"Santa Monica, like comparable socioeconomic communities, is in denial," said McTaggart. "We have a very active and involved parent community active in how schools allocate their resources. We don't have a comparable advocacy or active parent concern specific to substance abuse. It's just not high on the radar screen."

Last November when a Samohi honor student was stabbed to death at a party where alcohol was served with no parents present, about 100 parents gathered at the high school for a meeting to discuss partying. One observer said he was surprised by the lack of outrage.

"'It won't happen to my child seemed to be the consensus,'" he said.

But how widespread is drug and alcohol use among older students? Administrators can only guess based on the sample of students who took the survey. Degrees of use can vary from one-time experimentation to regular use fueled by any number of problems or pressures in a teenager's life.

"Every student is at risk," said Malamed, who counsels students at Olympic and Santa Monica high schools. "Adolescence is a very tough time. There is a lot of pressure on them and it's something they will face. Someone will offer them something."

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Chris, Ricky and Jose each said that they first smoked marijuana with friends and that the experience was "fun." They continued to use it, though not always frequently.

"I like pot 'cause it just made you laugh a lot," Ricky said. "It just makes you feel good. It's fun to use with your friends."

Chris said he first got high on marijuana after he and a friend raided the friend's parent's stash of the drug. The boys, who were in 8th grade, would get high and skateboard around Douglas Park.

"I think I enjoyed myself," said Chris.

Marijuana use is also dictated by access and money, according to the teenagers, who said the drug is easy to get.

"In Santa Monica everybody has it," said Ramirez. "It's not that hard to get. You make a phone call."

"When you're younger, it's harder to get alcohol so you resort to using drugs instead," said Chris, who has a fake identification card, which he purchased on Alvarado Street in Los Angeles, that puts his age at 22. "It's much easier to buy weed than it is alcohol."

Tired of spending his money on pot, Chris and a friend did some research on the Internet and grew their own plants.

Olympic principal Sue Toyryla said that having a small school makes it easier to keep tabs on kids who may be in trouble with drugs or alcohol. There are 10 known users at the school who have been caught with drugs, Toyryla said.

"A lot of kids are smart enough to stash their drugs off campus," Toyryla said. "It's just like when we were in school. There are those who act the part but don't participate. I do have students who do not use. It's real hard to put your finger on it.

"When you're in school or business, the users find the users. The general feeling is that it's prevalent but there are kids who in private will tell you they don't use."

Samohi co-principal Mark Kelly said that substance use at his school is an issue but no more so than at schools throughout the country.

"I don't think we're seeing more or less," Kelly said. "It's an issue that always needs to be addressed."

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