Few parents approve of their kids drinking or using drugs. But the reality of underage substance use is far more complicated than simply telling kids to “just say no.”
Brendan Miller* has never tried heroin.
“Absolutely not,” the 19-year-old Langley High School graduate says emphatically. “Heroin is just too far.”
But he’s tried just about everything else, from alcohol to harder drugs. Depending on the situation, Miller, who grew up in McLean, says he might take any number of substances. If he’s looking to relax in a social setting, he smokes weed. If he’s preparing for an exam, he pops a few Adderall, which he describes as a “study drug.” At raves, he might reach for the club drug known as “ecstasy.” He’s also done cocaine a few times.
Miller says he first began using marijuana with friends in high school, strategically timing his smoking so that it wouldn’t affect his schoolwork or athletic performance. He managed to maintain a B+ average while taking AP courses, and eventually gained admission to a prestigious private East Coast university. “It’s just what you do, I guess,” he shrugs. “There’s not much else to do in high school.”
Though he was busted for marijuana possession as a junior in high school (he subsequently completed a Fairfax County diversion program for first-time offenders that required him to attend drug education classes and stay clean for six months), that experience didn’t deter his interest in getting stoned. In fact, he’s ramped up his usage in college and now smokes weed as often as four times a week. “If anything, it’s increased my [social standing],” he says. “I was able to bond with the upperclassmen right away and make connections.”
Not all local teens are like Miller, sampling illicit substances with the nonchalance with which one might pick flavors from a box of chocolates. But alcohol and drugs do have an undeniable presence in the lives of young people in this area.
“I think people struggle a lot…with how to conduct activities without drinking,” says Chelsea Brown,* a senior at H-B Woodlawn this fall. “Every person in my friend group drinks. It’s impossible to avoid.”
Parents, meanwhile, struggle to find the best way to protect and support their teens in the face of this reality. Arlington resident Claire Thomas* recalls one night when her 17-year-old son was leaving for a party where they both knew there would be alcohol. “I’d rather you not drink,” she said firmly.
“I know, Mom,” he replied. “But I’m not going to be that guy.”
According to a 2013 survey conducted by the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth & Families, nearly half (47 percent) of all Arlington students across grades 8, 10 and 12 have tried alcohol. By senior year, 26 percent say they are binge drinking regularly, downing five or more drinks within two hours.
More than a quarter (28 percent) have tried marijuana, and more than one-tenth (11 percent) have used prescription medication without a doctor’s prescription. Roughly a third (31 percent) report having experimented with illegal drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and others.
That experimentation often begins at much younger ages than most parents want to acknowledge. A similar Fairfax County Youth Survey (2013) found that the average age for first alcohol use is 13.4 years. For marijuana it’s 14.1 years. In other words, eighth and ninth grade.
“We always have a few eighth-graders who get caught with marijuana,” says Arlington County Police Corporal Jim Tuomey, a school resource officer in Arlington for the past seven years. Eighth grade is “where childhood meets adulthood, and it’s like an earthquake.”
Is teen alcohol and drug use more rampant today than it was among previous generations? Not really. In fact, the number of teens who drink is on the decline at both the state and national level, according to the most recent biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In Virginia, the number of teens reporting that they had ever tried alcohol dropped from 60.5 percent in 2011 to 55.3 percent in 2013. And the number reporting having consumed five or more drinks in one sitting in the past 30 days fell from 15.7 percent to 14.5 percent in the same time period.
What troubles Debby Taylor are the quantities of alcohol that are being consumed by those teens who do drink. “The amount that is ingested by high school students has dramatically increased,” says Taylor, senior vice president/regional director of Phoenix Houses of the Mid-Atlantic (formerly Vanguard), a nonprofit substance-abuse treatment organization with multiple locations in the D.C. metropolitan area, including in Arlington.
Taylor, a trained psychiatric nurse who, from 1984 to 1989, served as director of the Adolescent Residential/Outpatient Addiction Treatment programs at Arlington Hospital (now Virginia Hospital Center), has seen plenty of destructive behaviors in the course of her career. But she says the drinking and drug habits she witnessed in the ’80s paled in comparison to some of today’s partying rituals.
“[Back then] kids were drinking a six-pack in one night,” she says. “Now we see high school students…who are drinking a fifth of vodka on Friday night, another fifth of vodka on Saturday night and they’re also doing some sort of drug. Maybe it’s Coricidin Triple-C [an over-the-counter cold medicine that creates a high when taken in large amounts] or maybe marijuana.”
In the 12-month period between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014, Phoenix House in Arlington treated 157 adolescents under the age of 18 in its residential programs, and an additional 43 through its outpatient programs.
The escalation in binge drinking also concerns physicians like William Hauda, an emergency room doctor at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church and a founding board member of the Unified Prevention Coalition (UPC), a substance-abuse prevention program that organizes events in Fairfax County and Falls Church City. (Arlington has a similar group called the READY Coalition.)
“The brain is not fully mature until a person is 25 years of age. That’s why teens can ignore the possibility of negative consequences,” Hauda said at one such event last spring. “You cannot teach a teen to moderate their alcohol use. They don’t drink moderately. They drink to get intoxicated.”
And sometimes that intoxication comes with long-term consequences. Joshua Weiner, an adult, child and adolescent psychiatrist in McLean, recalls treating one traumatized high school student who drank to excess at a party and ended up losing her virginity. “It took a long time for her to get over the context in which she lost it. She didn’t feel like she was of sound mind to have made that decision,” he says. “I’ve also treated 10 to 15 girls over the years who have been raped, and every single one of them was drunk at the time.”
Binge drinking can also have lasting health effects. According to the CDC, teens who drink before age 15 are five times more likely to become alcoholics as adults, compared with those who postpone their first adult beverage until they are legal drinking age.
“I’m seeing 26-year-olds today who have beginning cirrhosis or pancreatitis,” Taylor says. “That’s middle-stage alcoholism. And it’s related to the amount they are putting in their bodies. It’s all quantity.”
In 2010, a California neuroscientist compared the brain scans of young adults who were nondrinkers with those of regular binge drinkers and found that heavy alcohol use reduced boys’ attention spans and girls’ spatial reasoning skills, long after the hangover had faded. Other researchers have found that alcohol can negatively affect the hippocampus, a key part of the brain that is involved in learning and memory. It can also reduce the number of neurotransmitters, which affect mood and energy levels.
The fact that marijuana usage is becoming more mainstream—particularly as certain states move toward legalization—also has some experts worried about its implications for teens. While cannabis has not been researched as extensively as alcohol, studies suggest that weed—especially today’s more concentrated varieties—can similarly affect teenagers’ memory, judgment and both short- and long-term learning.
“[Today’s marijuana] is not the pot you smoked or heard about in the 1960s or 1970s,” George Young, vice president of the UPC, cautioned attendees at a recent community forum. In the 1970s, levels of THC (the principal psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana) averaged less than 2 percent, whereas now they are as high as 30 percent.
And while the number of Virginia teens trying alcohol has dipped in the past couple years, the same is not true for marijuana. Its use has held steady over a two-year period, according to CDC data, with about 32 percent of Virginia teens saying they’ve tried it, and about 18 percent saying they currently use it.
“When kids say they are smoking one joint, they are getting really really high, because of the potency of that joint,” Desiree Gordon, a clinical supervisor with the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, said during a panel discussion at George Mason High School last winter. It’s also more readily available than parents may realize.
High-potency weed isn’t the only drug du jour that troubles addiction experts. Some of the more popular substances on today’s party circuit are the ones that teens can easily obtain from their parents’ medicine cabinets. That includes everything from painkillers like Percocet, to anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax and Valium.
Weiner says he has heard stories of “pill parties” (aka “pharm parties”) in which kids steal whatever they can find at home and throw everything into a bowl. “Then everyone just grabs a pill and takes it, not necessarily knowing what they are taking,” says the psychiatrist, whose patients include students from Arlington, Falls Church, McLean and Great Falls.
Bill Fulton, a Fairfax County Police officer and the father of a 19-year-old drug addict who is now in treatment, questions the likelihood that this kind of sharing is truly happening, though he acknowledges that the drug use is real. “People talk about the bowl [of pills], but I’ve never seen it in 25 years,” Fulton said during the community forum last winter in Falls Church. “Most kids are greedy. They’re not going to give their drugs away and take a handful of whatever out of a bowl.”
Regardless of where the pills come from, though, the results are the same. “At one point I had five kids [as patients] who were addicted to OxyContin,” Weiner says. “Kids think prescription pills are safe because they are manufactured in a lab and they’re regulated.”
But they aren’t harmless. Oxy is just one of the highly addictive prescription narcotics—along with hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone-acetaminophen (Percocet) and fentanyl—that have become en vogue.
“We are seeing a tremendous increase in opiate use, starting with prescription drugs,” says Taylor of Phoenix House. In the most extreme cases, she says, kids who end up liking the drugs’ effects might eventually be tempted to try another opiate: heroin.
“Because prescription drugs are expensive and regulated, kids can quickly find out that heroin is cheaper and easier to get,” she says. (The current reported street value for OxyContin is about $1 per milligram, or $80 for an 80 mg pill.)
Heroin users don’t always fit the stereotypes found in movies, Taylor cautions. “Today I [counseled a group of] roughly 15 to 20 18-to-26-year-olds who are heroin opiate addicts. These are suburban, white [kids] from Northern Virginia.”
Tayler L. Gibson, now in her mid-20s, was once one of those teens. As a middle school student, she looked down on her classmates who drank or smoked pot. “They were stupid and had no common sense,” Gibson told a crowd of parents and teens at recent community forum in Falls Church.
By the time she’d turned 17, though, things had changed. A part-time restaurant job introduced her to a new, older group of friends. That’s when she began using alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs and heroin.
“It was a very quick progression,” Gibson said, recalling how blatantly she had lied to her family during that time. When police found marijuana and beer in her car, she denied any knowledge of it. She again pleaded innocence during a similar incident involving heroin. “I’m a good kid,” she told her parents. “You can trust me.”
Except that they couldn’t. In 2008, Gibson was charged with “conspiracy to distribute” for her involvement in a heroin ring tied to current and past students at Westfield High School in Fairfax County. Only after a jail sentence, five years of probation and 200 hours of community service did she truly begin dealing with her problems.
“I finally got honest,” said Gibson, now clean for four years. “I realized it was going to consume me.”
Federal health statistics show that heroin usage has increased dramatically across the country, almost doubling between 2007 and 2012 to nearly 700,000 users. Heroin-related fatalities are also on the rise, climbing from about 2,000 overdose deaths nationwide in 2000 to more than 3,000 in 2010, according to the CDC.
Arlington County Police say they have yet to bust any Arlington teens for heroin possession, but our area hasn’t been completely untouched by the drug. In 2013, Emylee Lonczak, 16, a student at McLean High School, died after a companion injected heroin into her arm, according to news reports in The Washington Post.
It’s only 10 p.m. on a gentle spring evening, but the small party on the Jamestown Elementary fields has ended before it even started. Six Arlington high school seniors—honor students, athletes and college-bound—have just been busted for beer, thanks to the presence of a just-opened case of Natty Light and the clearly unplanned arrival of two Arlington County police officers.
“You guys are just weeks from graduation, and you’re doing this stupid stuff?” the school resource officer says, exasperated.
Yes, but just barely. All the boys, save one, are stone-cold sober, based on their zero-point-zero Breathalyzer results, and the lone imbiber appears to have had only a few sips, hardly even enough to register. Dressed in baseball caps and Bermuda shorts, they are subdued, polite and respectful—not the sort of kids you’d expect to see lined up under the streetlights next to a police cruiser.
They cringe when they hear that the officers plan to notify not only their parents, but also their schools, destroying their reputation as “good kids” just as they finish their senior year.
“I’d rather my parents ground me forever than the school find out,” one teen says weakly as he walks away from the group to make the dreaded phone call home. By the end of the night, the boys have been released to their parents’ custody.
Teens who find themselves in predicaments like this aren’t the only ones who dread the consequences. Parents are often bewildered as to how to respond appropriately.
Some say they feel hypocritical issuing punishment when they know that their kids are used to seeing them knock back a couple cocktails in the evening or on weekends.
Many also recall booze and drugs as a rite of passage from their own youth. And they fear that strategic miscalculations in the way they respond to their kids could end up backfiring.
“I think most parents in my community, with children of similar age, will always be concerned with kids coming of age and getting into these situations,” says Paul Johnson*, an Arlington father of two. “We’ve gone from being neighbors, parents and friends who frequently gathered to ‘enjoy’ ourselves, to now needing to examine, modify and perhaps change our own respective habits, if we want to be honest with our kids.”
Johnson says he drinks wine and beer himself, and knows that his teenager does too. “I am aware that my oldest child is experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Do I like it? No,” he admits. “As parents we worry for our child’s health and well-being. [We also worry about] the well-being of anyone who might be put at risk by my child making a poor decision.”
Some parents give their kids the straight story, in an effort to establish open communication from the start. “My parents have told me that they did drugs and drank when they were young and that it’s not as amazing as people say it is,” says Isabelle, 14, a rising ninth-grader at Yorktown High School. “They say that it only makes more room for bad things to happen.”
But it’s hard for parents to know which approaches will prove most effective and which ones could prove counterintuitive. Even parents who model good behavior have no guarantee that their kids will follow suit.
“My husband worked for the DEA. We were vociferous anti-drug people,” Fairfax resident Lori Shapiro told a room full of parents and teens at a UPC discussion on marijuana last spring. “We thought we had [our son] brainwashed. How wrong we were.”
Shapiro says her son started using drugs as a freshman in college, beginning with marijuana and “eventually graduating to everything else,” including cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine (aka “K” or “Special K”), a liquid-state tranquilizer that can be dried and converted to powder for snorting.
Though her son is now in recovery, the family has suffered significant emotional and financial burdens over the past three years. To pay for his residential drug treatment, “we drained our IRA, borrowed money and went into debt,” Shapiro told the audience.
Whether her son will ever return to college is now uncertain. “Those days [of using drugs] have had a lasting impact on his brain,” she said. “He got fired from his first job at McDonald’s because he couldn’t remember the steps to make french fries.”
Stories like this have led parents like Claire Thomas to conclude that zero-tolerance policies for teenagers are both unrealistic and unwise. “I remember people in college who would just get so drunk and endanger themselves,” she says. “I am terrified of my son and daughter going to college and not knowing how to drink.”
Which is why Thomas has adopted the unorthodox and somewhat controversial practice of total candor. “My son and I have an arrangement,” she says. “If he’s going to a party and he’s going to drink, we talk about how much he’s going to drink,” and how he will get home.
Thomas says she talks regularly with her son about the consequences of his decisions—whether it’s drinking with friends or trying marijuana. “I don’t want my children to lie to me,” she says. “I give them a safe place to make mistakes.”
Teen drug and alcohol abuse isn’t always obvious. Not even to parents who have used some of the same substances themselves.
“Arlington parents work a lot, and they get home late,” says Arlington Police Corporal Tuomey, and certain subtleties can often be missed in the rush to put dinner on the table, organize family schedules and do the laundry.
“These kids are good—they’re maintaining a high level of schoolwork, they’re playing sports. Parents don’t think their child can maintain that level of performance” if they are drinking heavily or doing drugs, he says.
Even when kids do show outward signs of distress, they aren’t always identified as being substance-related. “We had one kid who was doing LSD every day after his mother dropped him off at school,” recalls Taylor of Phoenix House. “It would wear off before he came home, so she never saw any issues. Meanwhile, his teachers and the school staff were trying to figure out what was wrong with this kid. They had him in [learning disabled] classes and he was getting treatment for ADHD.”
Weiner, the McLean-based psychiatrist, notes that some kids who drink and get high on a regular basis suffer from issues like social anxiety, and the substances are a coping method. “Anytime I see a kid with a substance-abuse problem, I check for that. If you want to adequately treat substance abuse, you need to adequately treat the underlying psychological problem that is contributing to the substance abuse. When you are a teen, nothing is more important to you than your social standing.”
Of course some kids, like Brendan Miller, think that their social standing can be improved when they have a bag of weed in one pocket and a bottle of Jack in the other.
Alison Rice is a freelance writer in Arlington, where she has lived since 2000.