Drug and alcohol trends among teens and young adults today are both familiar and different. Today’s high schoolers, middle schoolers and college students continue to use mind-altering substances that appealed to previous generations: alcohol, opiates, marijuana and hallucinogens. But now, we can add to the list vaping and prescription drug abuse, among others.
Alcohol is still the most commonly used and abused drug among youth in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“Teens, they still drink too much — no question about it,” says Mike Gimbel, a longtime Baltimore County consultant and a former addict who works with area schools on substance-abuse issues. “In 2017, nearly 2,000 college students died from alcohol, and more than half a million were involved in some sexual assault when one or both people were intoxicated.”
Gimbel knows a thing or two about addiction. He led Baltimore County’s Office of Substance Abuse for more than a decade, and now, more than 40 years after his own struggle with addiction, he continues to preach to students and educators across the county on the dangers of substance abuse. His life’s work and purpose is to help individuals and families impacted by addiction, he says, and both education and prevention are vital. And, he adds, both should start in schools.
“Educators are our best hope when it comes to younger kids, but then the second step is intervention,” he says. “We can’t let it go. If a kid gets suspended or expelled or they get in trouble for drugs and alcohol, instead of throwing them out of school, put them in a special school where they can get some counseling and education, or at least provide them with some help and options.”
A revamp of school curriculum could also be beneficial, Gimbel says.
“They need to update the curriculum constantly and it should start in elementary school and go all the way through the 12th grade,” he says. “It’s important with all these new drugs and trends, to update it and change it as often as possible. There also needs to be educational training for the counselors and school nurses who are important in identifying what’s going on with the kids.”
What are the new trends? Many parents already know that vaping and Juuling have steadily taken over the scene.
“As marijuana starts to move in the direction of legalization, it appears that kids are using it more because society is sending a message that it is accepted,” says Officer Don Bridges, a Baltimore County Police officer assigned to the county schools. “But we (school resource officers,) are never going to stop regardless of what is going on regarding the trends. When you get the opportunity to get into the classroom and to interact with young people, they share a whole lot with you. Our job is not to scare them, but to educate them as to what the dangers are. I tell them all the time; your concern needs to be what it does to your body more so than anything else.”
Gimbel agrees, adding that as teen vaping is reaching new heights of popularity, schools and parents should be on the lookout for new vaping paraphernalia.
“Vapes, they look just like a flash drive or your computer and they come in little cartridges,” he says. “What parents and schools don’t realize is many of these kids are taking the liquid nicotine out of the Juul cartridges and refilling them with liquid marijuana. They call it ‘Juul juice.’ I’ve never seen a craze get so popular so fast.”
Parents can expect more changes to marijuana laws and prosecutions. Earlier this month, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced she would no longer prosecute marijuana possession cases within city limits, regardless of the amount of the drug in a person’s possession or a person’s prior criminal record. At the same time, the Baltimore Police Department issued a statement saying its officers would still make marijuana arrests.
It’s an example of a debate going on across the nation, and parents may have to sort it through with their teens who see peers using marijuana. Gimbel says he believes that early intervention from the court system can help deter someone away from harder drugs.
“Most heroin addicts started with marijuana. It can be considered a gateway drug,” Gimbel says. “What (Mosby) should have done, instead of just saying, ‘I’m not going to prosecute anything’ is say, ‘While we’re not going to prosecute these cases in criminal court, we’re going to put them into a diversion program, we’re going to write a citation, and these people will be required to go through an education and counseling program.’ I mean, how are we going to break this cycle of addiction if we don’t get to people early?”
Another community member leading the fight to prevent addiction is Joan Webb-Scornaienchi, executive director of HC DrugFree, a nonprofit that provides resources and education on prevention, treatment, recovery and health and wellness for Howard County residents.
“Our focus is prevention and education, and I like to say that we focus our time educating the community, pre-birth to post-death,” Scornaienchi says. “Our goal is to prepare the community for the future generations to be born into a drug-free, safe community to drug-free parents.”
HC DrugFree provides a free medication storage box program for residents and a disposal service for needles, syringes and EpiPens. The nonprofit has also collected an estimated 5,000 pounds of unused medication in collaboration with the Howard County Police Department, according to Scornaienchi.
“I say post-death because families bring us what’s been in their homes after the death of a loved one,” she says. “We don’t want our children taking any of it, and we don’t want it in the bay and our environment when medications are flushed down the toilet. It keeps our community safer if people aren’t buying it or stealing it or breaking into homes to get it. So collecting it is good for all of us.”
Her efforts come as the county has seen a spike in drug and alcohol-related deaths over the years. A report from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says that in 2015, the number rose from 20 in the first nine months to 32 in the same period in 2016.
HC DrugFree training programs include overdose response training, and there is a parent-focused website that promotes college student-parent conversations about drinking. Covered are also conversation starters around high-risk situations often associated with high-risk alcohol — spring break, 21st birthdays, housing and roommates, among others.
Scornaienchi agrees that more in-school education should be required.
“It should not be just one-time programs. We all should support more K-to-12 education and not just drug education — it’s all behavioral health,” she says. “In Howard County a lot of the drug education is in ninth grade. So if kids in 10th and 11th grades get exposed to something new, they’re not able to be in class talking about it.”
She adds that adult education is just as beneficial as student learning.
“I think that we as a society need to support more parent-adult education,” she says. “If I talked to a parent on Monday and told them about vaping, they’re going to remember that. Then they should be there on Friday night when their child goes out to reinforce whatever that topic is. They should be there when their child walks in the door to see the condition of the student. As the trends change, we have to make sure that we continue to educate the adults. I think it’s important that parents continue to develop that relationship where their children can come to them.”
So, what more can parents do to help?
Parents can start by paying attention to unexplained changes in their child’s behavior including school and work performance, general mood and sleeping patterns. These changes may be signs of substance use, Bridges says.
“Talk to your children when they come home. You birthed that child. You should be able to see if there is something off,” Bridges says.
Teens should also feel comfortable sharing anything with their parents, including questions about drug or alcohol use, Bridges adds. “When you are a teenager and you leave your home, you are going to have the opportunities to engage in a whole lot of things. I would recommend to parents to have that conversation with your child about what they might be exposed to. It could be anything; marijuana, heroin, anything. We have got to make sure that we have conversations and provide them that support.”