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Drug problem - Young people

November 11, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

Joe Millward could tell from listening to the radio four years ago that the youth drug problem in Washington County was destined to rise.

When popular music began glorifying drug use, Millward took it as a sign that the drug culture of the 60s was back. It was once again "cool" to get high.

"Kids don't do anything unless there's something in it for them," said the former supervisor for pupil personnel and guidance at Washington County Board of Education.

In 1992, 25 percent of high school seniors reported ever smoking pot. Just four years later, in 1996, more than half said they had tried the drug, according student surveys by the Maryland Department of Education.

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The percentage of seniors who tried smoking crack cocaine jumped from 3.3 percent to 9.1 percent over the same time period.

Experimentation with LSD, or acid, was also up from 13.1 percent to 23.2 percent.

Students also were starting at a younger age.

The 1996 10th-graders reporting using as much marijuana and crack cocaine as the 12th-graders did in 1992.

Those who start younger have a greater chance of being addicted later in life, said Judith A. Brown, clinical coordinator for the Washington County Health Department's Division of Addictions and Mental Health Services.

The problem is countywide.

While North and South Hagerstown high schools get a lot of attention, the rural schools also suffer from drug problems, said Tom Menter, an adolescent addictions counselor at Washington County Health Department.

There are classic signs that a student is abusing drugs, Millward said.

Grades and attendance drop. They alienate themselves from organized activities such as sports and music.

Adolescents already susceptible to mood swings will become even moodier.

A high school student with a drug problem will behave more like a 12- or 13-year-old because the drug causes them to stop growing emotionally, Millward said.

A few exceptional students will be able to function, but not at full capacity.

Students who witness drug abuse by their parents often become withdrawn and defensive when asked questions about why they didn't do their homework. They are more prone to becoming drug abusers themselves, he said.

Each of the middle and high schools in the county has a team of staff members who are trained to spot the signs of drug abuse and intervene to stop the problem.

But often the staff can't keep up.

"We can't intervene as fast as kids are getting sucked into it," Millward said.

Also, school programs alone can't work.

"We've had programs for the last 25 years. If they were that good there wouldn't be a drug problem," Millward said.

Often, parents deny their child has a drug problem, which can be a big roadblock. School programs can't work unless kids get the same message at home, he said.

"You can teach kids facts, teach them how to resist. But you can't teach good character," he said.

If a child gets into legal trouble with drugs, a parents' first reaction is often to hire a lawyer and keep them out of jail.

But that's often the worst thing for a young person, who needs to be confronted about his addiction, he said.

The community as a whole also needs to take responsibility for the future of the children.

"If they don't have support in the community, they're toast. Kids will do something. It's up to the community to direct them," he said.

If the community rallied and declared it would not put up with drug dealers, the dealers would be forced elsewhere, Millward said.

When teenagers and their families do admit there's a problem, they sometimes have trouble getting into an affordable treatment program. Insurance companies don't always cover the costs.

"I see it getting better if people understand there is no silver bullet to this. There's no magic potion," Millward said.

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