By Starrla Cray
WRIGHT, McLEOD COUNTIES, MN The teen scene of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs isn’t the same as a decade ago, and in some ways, that’s a good thing.
In a Wright County survey, for example, the number of youth who reported alcohol consumption in the past month dropped from 31 percent in 1998 to 17 percent in 2010.
“The number of minors is down,” McLeod County Sheriff Scott Rehmann said. “There’s definitely more awareness that we’re out there looking.”
Drug and alcohol-free student groups are also gaining momentum.
At Delano High School, Students Helping Adolescents Resist Pressures (SHARP) has about 50 members. When Carley Boll first became coordinator five years ago, the group was a fifth of that size.
“I think students saw the fun team-building activities we do, and the opportunity to spend time with people who have similar morals and values,” Boll said.
At Dassel-Cokato High School, about 30 students are involved in Teens Against Tobacco Use (TATU).
“I want to make an impact,” TATU member Sarah Irvin said, explaining that the group talks to elementary students, and shows them what healthy lungs look like, compared to lungs exposed to cigarette smoke.
“Tobacco use among teenagers has declined in the last decade,” TATU advisor Brooks Helget said, adding that in 2006, TATU prompted the Dassel City Council to implement a tobacco-free parks policy.
According to the Minnesota Student Survey, which is conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health every three years, 43 percent of 12th-graders reported smoking cigarettes in the past 30 days in 1998, compared to 20 percent in 2010.
Marijuana use steady
Marijuana doesn’t seem to be following the same trend, however.
“I think it’s probably more popular than alcohol,” Lester Prairie Police Chief Bob Carlson said.
In the Minnesota survey, the use of marijuana among ninth-graders has decreased or stayed the same since 2004, while use among 12th-graders has risen slightly.
Seventeen percent of Minnesota freshmen reported using marijuana that year, compared to 15 percent in both 2007 and 2010. Among seniors in the state, 27 percent reported use of the drug in 2004, compared to 31 percent in 2010.
“A lot of it is cyclical,” Rehmann said. “The meth use has been down, but there are some indications it might be coming up a little bit.”
In 2004, 5 percent of seniors reported using methamphetamine in the past 12 months, compared to just 1 percent in 2010.
In 2010, 6 percent of 12th-graders and 4 percent of ninth-graders reported using prescription pain relievers to get high one or more times during the last 12 months.
“Prescription drugs are still a heavily-abused substance,” Rehmann said, but added that new laws are making those types of drugs less readily available.
At the end of January, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel voted to impose stricter rules on opioid drugs like Vicodin, Time Magazine reported.
In order to get an opioid fix another way, some addicted teens have been turning to heroin, Rehmann said.
“The metro area is starting to see a lot of heroin,” he said. “We haven’t seen it yet, but that’s right on our border.”
Alerting others to the dangers of substance abuse has become a passion for Dassel-Cokato High School basketball coach Patty Sterner, whose stepdaughter, Amanda Jax of Mayer, died from alcohol poisoning while celebrating her 21st birthday in 2007.
“I’ll go wherever I’m asked and can financially afford to go,” said Sterner, who speaks in classrooms, driver’s education courses, and other community groups.
Sterner said she encourages students to say “no” to partying, but knows that not everyone will make good choices. In light of this, part of her message also addresses staying safe at a party, and how to help someone who may have alcohol poisoning.
One young woman who heard Sterner speak took this advice while at a party her freshman year of college. The woman saw someone passed out on the floor of a bathroom, and got her to a hospital.
“Other people said to leave her alone, that she’d sleep it off, but she knew better,” Sterner said. “She did the right thing.”
Influenced by peers
The reasons teens abuse drugs and alcohol vary greatly, according to Sterner.
In a Jan. 30 article from drugfree.org, a study showed that teenagers’ decision to have a first alcoholic drink may be influenced by their best friends. Among the 820 teens (ages 14 to 17) surveyed across the nation, it was found that the influence of best friends was stronger than a teen’s own history of troubled behavior or family history of alcoholism.
“They don’t want to be isolated or alone,” Sterner said. “They think the popular people do it, or everybody’s doing it. In reality, people often exaggerate the number of parties they go to and what they do.”
To counteract this, Sterner aims to inspire young people who aren’t partying to be “brave and proud.”
The SHARP program at Delano High School is one way students can demonstrate healthy, chemical-free lifestyles. The group’s three main goals are to develop leadership skills, promote healthy lifestyle choices, and be positive role models for younger students and peers.
“We meet about twice a month before school,” member Colette Bersie said.
SHARP is involved in Delano’s mock crash, compliance checks in Wright County, the National Red Ribbon Campaign (a drug prevention program), National Teen Driver Safety Week, and more.
“SHARP is behind a lot of activities in the community,” Bersie said.
Students who join SHARP sign a pledge to be drug and alcohol free. For many participants, having support and accountability from peers makes it easier to stay away from harmful choices.
Developing relationships with adults is also helpful, according to Carlson, who teaches Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) to fifth- and eighth-graders in Lester Prairie.
“A lot of times, for them the worst part of getting caught is disappointing parents, teachers, and police officers,” he said.
In 2011, the Lester Prairie Police Department issued nine citations for underage consumption/possession.
“I’ve seen a steady decline since I started as chief [in August 2002],” Carlson said. “I’d guess it’s reduced by 60 to 70 percent.”
In 2010, McLeod County implemented a Zero Adult Provider (ZAP) initiative to focus on finding the illegal providers of alcohol at underage drinking parties.
For juveniles (17 and under) who are caught drinking underage, the consequences are determined on a case-by-case basis, according to Rehmann. A first offense might be deferred, for example, which means it doesn’t necessarily go through the court process.
However, the school is always notified, and may impose discipline such as not allowing participation in a sport.
According to Rehmann, one of the ways parents can help their children is to build a strong relationship with them, so they feel comfortable talking about pressures they face.
“They say families that eat together stay together, and there’s a lot of truth in that,” he said.