By Alexis Solomon and Segan Helle
“I think doing drugs in a non-smart way is bad, and I know that I do that sometimes, so I understand why that stereotype has arisen. But, I feel like some people do [drugs] to distance themselves from reality. That’s not a bad thing, but that’s something that they should be dealing with in a different way. It’s not something that should automatically be created into this stigma against [using drugs], because then you’re isolating the people that are probably in need of the opposite of isolation,” Hannah said.
Hannah* leans on a black lab station in the back of Mrs. Jennifer Ekstein’s biology room. It is lunch time on a Friday, and her friends accompany her, some sitting on the counters, others leaning on the lab station adjacent to her—all of them seniors waiting for Hannah’s interview to finish so they can leave for the weekend. Her thick, curly hair drapes over her shoulders, and she frequently tucks out-of-place strands behind her piercing covered ears as she ponders the questions being asked. Her friends make side comments and jokes throughout the interview, but she focuses more on the questions than on their distraction, peering subtly through her thick-rimmed glasses and smirking at them every so often.
Hannah is a senior at Bonita Vista High School, taking all higher level AP/IB courses and involved in a lengthy list of community service clubs. If one were to look at her high school track record, they would never be able to tell her real story.
Outside of school, her recreational activities involve opiates, alcohol, benzodiazepines, and marijuana. Looking for coping methods to help relieve the stress from her school work and personal life, she often finds solace in her glass pipe. Marijuana has become an almost daily anxiety reliever, while MDMA provides a brief escape from reality, and after a long day, alcohol helps prevent another sleepless night.
“People tend to think I’m automatically a slacker…or that I have a lot of issues, which is true, but people tend to look at me differently, and treat me differently [if they know about my drug use]. I’m getting used to it,” Hannah said.
A recent survey done in 2014 by Monitoring the Future, an ongoing study of American high school students and young adults funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, shows “a decrease in [the] use of alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription pain relievers; no increase in [the] use of marijuana; and a general decline over the last two decades in the use of illicit drugs [by US teenagers].” However, although the amount of teens choosing the path of recreational drug use may be decreasing, recreational drug use is still a very real problem for those who do choose to partake.
“I think it is [a problem], because it’s a form of escapism and [teenagers who use drugs] wouldn’t be trying to escape from our worlds if we were happy,” Hannah said.
According to the Partnership for Drug Free Kids, teenagers frequently feel like drug use is their only option to escape from the stresses of their everyday lives. With an increase in pressure from external sources, especially with the popularity and normality of drug use in music, television and movies, it may sometimes seem like the easiest and most effective escape for many teens.
“I think it’s not the actual act of doing drugs that’s the issue, but what drives [teenage drug users] to do [drugs], like stress from school and social pressures from the media glorifying drug use,” BVHS senior Grace* said.
In the quad after school, Grace sits casually on top of a blue table. Her long hair is pulled back into a ponytail and she fiddles with her black, manicured nails as she waits for the questions to begin. She furtively looks around the hallway that stretches in front of the gap between the counseling center and cafeteria to see who is within hearing distance, making sure none of those close by are acquaintances or familiar teachers. She answers most of the questions quickly, many with a giggle, laughing at the irony of some of her answers. Apart from being involved in numerous clubs on campus, she is also enrolled in all higher level AP/IB classes. Being such an involved member of the student body, many are surprised to learn of her other ‘extracurricular activities’.
Grace reports doing drugs approximately once a week, mostly smoking marijuana and taking “uppers” like vicodin and ecstasy.
“[People view me] completely [different when they find out about my use], because they wouldn’t expect it, so it’s kind of a shock. And then they look at me like, ‘Oh wow, you do? Are you sure? Are you lying?’” Grace said.
Drug use has become a faceless entity, because of how normalized it now is in our society. It is prolific in our pop culture, but drug use is also a topic that students using and not using avoid. Despite the number of opposing opinions and conflicting views, it is quite clear teenage drug use is a problem, and it is affecting our youth early on. A Crusader poll taken of over 300 Bonita Vista High School students found that roughly 25 percent of respondents used drugs for recreational purposes. Thirty-nine percent of polled Bonita Vista students said they began using drugs before the ninth grade.
Liam* is one such student. A junior enrolled in mostly AP classes, he keeps himself busy as a part of the ASB and member of the track and field team. He speaks softly in hushed tones, keeping his gaze transfixed either on his hands or on the wall of the math building ahead, avoiding eye contact. He reports first trying drugs during his eighth grade year, encouraged by his older brother, who he describes as a dealer. Liam has taken oxycontin, adderall, and cannabis, and at one point even became “addicted to oxycontin.”
“My brother opened it up and I’ve always been a dependent person, so drugs are just easy to do,” Liam said. “[Drugs are] like a crutch, so when things aren’t going your way, and you just need something or you don’t have someone to depend on, you have something to depend on.”
However, alongside the commonality of drug use comes many, often harmful, social stigmas. Drug users are often stereotyped as careless slackers, or unmotivated students with bad grades. But drug use does not discriminate. It can affect all students, regardless of the classes they take, their age, gender or ethnicity.
“I think it’s an ongoing teenage cultural issue, and it’s presented to all students. Honors, AP, IB, Regular Ed, Special Ed— all students could succumb to the possibility of doing drugs. It’s certainly available, [with] all of the parties, especially with legalized marijuana. I think that adds a note that it’s okay,” counselor Brian Smith said.
Many people often forget that addiction is a disease, and those who turn to drug use are often in need of much deeper guidance. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, “An addicted person no longer chooses to take drugs—rather, their brains have been altered by drugs to the point where free will has been cruelly ‘hijacked,’ and the desire to seek and use drugs is beyond their control.”
“I think people tend to think that a drug user is automatically an immoral person, someone who isn’t to be respected, and I feel like a lot of people who use drugs are trying to escape reality, which means that there’s something going on in their life. That means that they shouldn’t be ostracized and created into this archetypal outsider. I think this kind of stigma that surrounds drug use is pretty detrimental. It’s extra detrimental, exponentially so, for a lot of people who are already on the path for drug addiction,” Hannah said.
The existence of this strong, negative, taboo created against drug use is not always enough to prevent it, however. According to the Crusader poll, 70 percent of students feel that there is not enough being done to educate and prevent teenage substance abuse.
“Do we have any programs in place [for] prevention? No, other than the health class. [We are] trying to get information out…before students have the opportunity to experiment, but [there is no] program. What we do have is that, after the fact, if it comes to our attention that a student is struggling with a drug dependency, we will refer them to South Bay community services and they can meet with the students and the parents. They have support groups there that could assist them at whatever level of intervention they need,” Smith said.
According to Smith, the support groups that once existed years ago at BHVS have long since disappeared, due to a lack of attendance and an overall resistance from student users to receive administrative help. Aside from extracurricular activities, such as Red Ribbon Week, an annual alcohol, tobacco and drug prevention awareness campaign, the only education a majority of students will receive on drug and alcohol use is through a mandatory, one-semester health class, taken primarily by seniors who often opt to take it online.
“If [teenagers] are [being educated on the effects of drugs and alcohol], I’m not seeing it…I think many of the youth these days will agree that far too much of the education when it comes to drugs is coming from Google, as opposed to those who they actually learn from,” BVHS Student Resource Officer Pricilla Graton said.
According to Officer Graton, BVHS has a zero-tolerance policy, and the minimum punishment for even a minor infraction is an automatic suspension. Depending on the severity, punishment can also entail transfer or expulsion from campus. Though the consequences of drug use may seem clear, many teenagers may not understand the magnitude of their decision to use drugs.
“When it comes to the law enforcement side, you’ll inevitably have a record, and that’s not something we want to do. We want you to learn and not have to suffer the consequences of having a record, but let it be known that choices are choices and when you make the choice to do these things it’s you that’s making the choice to create a record for yourself. We simply have to enforce it,” Officer Graton said.
However, no matter how educated students are, boredom continues to pose a threat to teenage sobriety. When students find nothing better to do on a Friday night, it seems more often than not they will resort to recreational drug or alcohol use. According to a poll that surveyed 250 students that have engaged in recreational drug use, 26 percent said they did so out of boredom, while another 46 percent said they were simply curious.
“[A valuable tool for preventing drug use would be] having really good social options for students during the evenings outside of school…There’s [no] place for teenagers to hang out. They’re almost forced to form and have their own parties, at homes, or at parks, or at the beach because they can’t get in anywhere,” Smith said.
According to both Smith and Officer Graton, improvements in drug education remain to be the goal, including finding new outreach programs for addicted students and providing reliable resources earlier on, such as informed professionals, rather than peers or simply the internet. Providing these resources can be the step needed to facilitate a relationship between teenage users and their recovery.
“I never wanted to be a drug addict, if I could classify myself as that. It just sort of happened,” Liam said. “No one wants to be addicted.”
*Names have been changed at the request of student sources for their privacy and out of fear of legal repercussions.