Does MHS Have a Drug Problem?


By Jackson Markow

 An article by San Francisco public radio station KQED distributed to TA's after an assembly presented by Michael Nerney on January 9, 2018

An article by San Francisco public radio station KQED distributed to TA's after an assembly presented by Michael Nerney on January 9, 2018

Comedian Bill Hicks said "If you want to understand a society, take a good look at the drugs it uses."  In that joke lies a grain of truth, as so many of America's successes and failures are evident in its cultural drug habits.  The harsh cultural changes that took place through the Industrial Revolution are evident in the rampant alcoholism of the time, and the modern obsession with productivity can be seen through the proliferation of coffee and caffeine.  But in recent years, changes are taking place in not only the drugs we use but our attitude toward them.  The nationwide opioid epidemic and growing awareness of recreational drugs have spurred initiatives, from safe injection sites to legalization of recreational cannabis, all of which point to a society that is taking genuine action to make policy reflect reality.

And the local is often a microcosm for the national and global, so how do these nationwide shifts emerge in the MHS community?  Many of these changes have become evident locally, from the scathing toll the opioid epidemic is taking on Vermont, to its own recent legalization of cannabis.  And even right here at MHS, changes have been taking place.  A letter was sent home in December discussing administrators' concerns about cannabis use, and several Solon Blocks were spent in January discussing the effects of cannabis and other drugs on the teenage brain.  So all of this begs the question to administrators, staff, students and community members, does MHS have a drug problem?  

To examine this issue further, it is necessary to first know what constitutes a drug problem.  Is a drug problem just having more drug-related offenses?  And more than what?  The past?  The broader state and nation?  Nationwide, teen illicit drug use (other than cannabis) has been declining steadily and is at its lowest point in nearly two decades¹, with cannabis similarly declining of late².  And while Vermont is the state with the highest illicit drug use in the nation overall³, cannabis use overall is also declining⁴.  But the data here at MHS tells a different story.  According to principal Mike McRaith and School Resource Officer Cpl. Matt Knisley, the rate of drug interventions at MHS is up nearly fourfold from last year, pointing to an apparent large upswing in either drug use or use on school grounds.

 A handout distributed to TA's on January 9, 2018

A handout distributed to TA's on January 9, 2018

Based on this data, then, drugs are being used more than in the past.  But does that necessarily constitute a drug problem?  The Spectrum reached out to a number of students and staff, and found a common sentiment among them:  a community has a drug problem when the use of drugs begins to interfere with the present and future lives of its members.  As Cpl. Knisley put it, there is a problem "when [drugs] interfere with your ability to access your education, or your ability to socialize with other people, or to make new relationships - that's when it's a problem."  

But as to whether or not MHS specifically has a problem, there was some divergence of opinions.  Health teacher Carolyn Kiniry stated dogmatically that "there has always been a drug problem," in her 26 years of teaching.  However, others were less certain of the state of drug use at MHS.  When asked whether or not there was a drug problem at MHS, english teacher Sarah Squier stated "I'm not sure, because I don't interact with kids in terms of their drug use.  But I suspect there is."  Tom Sabo concurred, with the opinion that "drugs have always been an issue - are they a problem?  I would think so."  However, Sabo highlighted his uncertainty as well, stating "I don't know what kids are doing.  Are they using edibles, are they vaping?  Is that why they don't smell?  They do seem more detached than kids in the past.  Is that cell phone use?  There are other variables.  So it's hard for me to say."  And students were even more hesitant, with a sophomore who asked to remain anonymous stating that "As a community, I don't think we have a drug problem, but we have a strong, strong drug presence that does really affect us."

Frying Pan, one of the most infamous examples of traditional fear-based anti-drug messaging (1987)

Whether or not there is a drug problem, through, it is almost undeniable that there is change in drug use and attitudes.  And this is where opinions among those we spoke to truly varied.  Some spoke to elevated student anxiety in recent years as a driving force behind shifts, as well as the harms of the opioid epidemic being tied into it.  Others, such as McRaith, made the case for the influential forces of social media pushing cannabis use among teens,  And Squier illuminated the failures of past drug-prevention programs as a potential factor, stating that "I think it's really important not to tell kids, 'Drugs are horrible, just say no,' because the minute somebody tries something and it feels good, then we seem like we've been lying."  According to students, school cultural factors play a big role.  As freshman Maple Perchlik puts it, "People do [drugs] and normalize it at our school, and then the freshmen come in and see all the upperclassmen, and they just continue."

However, the most common opinion by far, shared among nearly all those the Spectrum spoke to, was that the discussion around cannabis legalization is leading to a more relaxed attitude toward cannabis and drugs.  Sabo conveyed this to the Spectrum, arguing that "this national and state conversation around the legalization of marijuana has led to a pendulum swing, where people are being too cavalier about the risks associated with it."  And this "cavalier" attitude could extend to, in McRaith's opinion, "students posting things on social media, which inevitably leads to more interventions".  Others made the case that shifting attitudes would directly increase use and the detriments associated with it.  "It's going to cost us more, from our personal costs in what we are able to do and how we interact with people, and just in our overall wellness it's going to cost us, in the same way alcohol does," said Kiniry.

 Evidence shows that teen cannabis use counter-intuitively dropped after legalization in 2013 (source: Washington Post)

Evidence shows that teen cannabis use counter-intuitively dropped after legalization in 2013 (source: Washington Post)

But new evidence contradicts this widely-held and seemingly logical notion that legalization and discussion around it leads to increased teen cannabis use.  Not only is cannabis use among teens declining nationwide, but in states which have recently legalized that drug, the drop is even sharper.  According to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (US DHHS), four out of the five states that have recently legalized cannabis have seen declines in teen marijuana use within the past year, with an average drop of 1.4%, significantly greater than the nationwide average declide of 0.57% ⁵ ⁶.  Colorado, the first state to legalize, saw teen use drop from over 12% in 2014 to 9% in 2015, a drop of over 3%.⁷

  This phenomenon can be easily explained by a number of factors - including the loss of adults from the black market for cannabis, resulting in drastically lower demand and higher prices, the funding of drug prevention programs by taxes on legal cannabis, and even just increased awareness by parents, teachers and community members.

The most important question, however, and perhaps the hardest to answer, is not whether or not the MHS community has a drug problem or how drugs will change, but how to take action to help those harmed by drugs and elevate the community as a whole.  On this action, regardless of the severity of the problem, it seems that MHS is at the forefront.  The sophomore, when asked, stated that "Education that isn't scare tactics - educating people in a way that appeals to them on how [drugs] affect people and what the long-term implications are.  You have to give people the information and they can choose what they do with it."  Kiniry goes further, arguing that "Information is helpful, but information alone does not change people's behavior."  Emphasized by many that the Spectrum spoke to was the importance of changing when a certain technique does not work, and basing drug policy around the evolving science of its effectiveness.  But perhaps most important of all is an open dialogue.  As Sabo poignantly put it, "It's not putting up posters that people read without any type of discourse or discussion.  This isn't a 'just say no', simplified issue.  This is an ongoing discussion because it requires understanding.  You can say 'right, wrong', it really is understanding - and for understanding to happen, you need to have discussions from many points of view and keep an open dialogue."

Sources Cited