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Drug use starts in youth
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Illegal drugs, especially methamphetamine (or crank as it is better known on the streets), continues to underlie many of our local crime problems; it has adverse effects on the overall quality of life here and it has significant health care implications. That problem has the attention of Stanislaus County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services and the County Board of Supervisors. Accordingly, they commissioned a research project to learn more about the methamphetamine abuse situation in our county. There are interesting, if not alarming, statistical facts that were revealed by the study.

The individuals surveyed were all confirmed methamphetamine users. Of this group, the average age of getting started with drugs was 13 years old, with marijuana and alcohol being the most common substance abused. Both marijuana and alcohol are considered "gateway" drugs which, when used, often lead to the abuse of more dangerous and destructive drugs. Half of the survey participants were 17 or younger when they started using methamphetamine, and close to 60 percent of them reported being introduced to drugs by friends. The role of friends, or the social influence element, is highly relevant to a person's potential for drug abuse. More than almost any other single factor, a person's friends, associates and acquaintances can be the deciding factor between drug use avoidance and drug addiction. This particular study indicated that 94.9 percent of drug abusers had friends that used drugs.

Another disturbing variable discerned by the survey is that 43.8 percent of participants had parents that abused drugs. A person whose friend(s) use drugs, and also has drug-involved parents, is almost a sure bet for falling into the drug-abuse lifestyle. As much as one can argue that each of us has a choice, the drug-free choice may prove much more elusive for those surrounded by these behaviours as opposed to individuals who have the right role models. Since these individuals are not being influenced properly, the burden shifts to the rest of the community to do all that is possible to negate those destructive influences. Community intervention can take place in the form of prevention education, counseling and individual role modeling.

One final noteworthy point is about the ready availability of illegal drugs. Specifically, 80.9 percent of the survey participants reported that drugs were readily available in their neighborhoods. I believe that most people have a similar perception, and it is disturbing to realize that illegal drugs are as readily available for our kids as they are for these confirmed drug abusers. Drug abuse in this society appears to be widespread, crossing all lines of race, class and age. And, while most drug transactions are somewhat concealed from the "average" citizen, the availability of illegal drugs is widespread and they are quite easy to obtain.

To a large extent, crime and gangs exist because there is a booming market for illegal drugs. The study I referenced in this article is just a snapshot of the illegal drug-use situation in Stanislaus County. With one out of four 11th graders drinking alcohol with some regularity, just imagine how many young people are also experimenting with illegal drugs. And they are doing so in a relatively permissive environment where it is often asserted that "everyone is doing it." It is a sad prospect for the future, and as the survey seems to suggest, we are now growing families that pass drug abuse activities along to offspring as though it were a family tradition. We need to figure out a more effective mechanism for intervention, as criminal sanctions and occasional "don't use drugs" messages are clearly not doing the job.