ILWACO - More than a dozen people turned out Wednesday night at the Ilwaco High School cafeteria with the thought of "It's Our Business" when it comes to drug and alcohol use amongst school-aged children.
"It's Our Business" was the name of this year's annual awareness night at IHS, hosted by Sally Walton, IHS intervention/ prevention counselor, who meets regularly with the students both voluntarily and due to infractions.
"I've got lots of ways to meet with kids and find out what's going on with them," she said while opening the meeting.
Walton works with the students when it comes to helping curb or prevent the onset of alcohol, illegal drug and tobacco use. But really when it comes to prevention, "it's not the school's, police, clergy or community's job - it's the parents' job," she said.
She went on to tell of the things she goes over with the students, including asking them when and not if they had their first drink, to which most reply, "at home." She said that many parents tell their students that they don't want them to drink or use drugs, but when it comes right down to it, they can't stop them either.
"It's never OK," said Walton to that. "Mood and mind-altering drugs affect high school kids' brains."
The first guest speaker on the evening was Skip Nelson, a counselor with Providence Addiction Recovery. A large man with salt and pepper beard and hair, Nelson spoke of how the trend for the average age of onset use has dropped to 10 years old, often using alcohol, nicotine and marijuana. He said often times they get them from their parents.
In speaking of his "just say no" attitude, he told of how when he was young, using drugs was accepted as "just part of growing up," but added, "it doesn't have to be that way anymore."
Next up was Katie Oien of the Pacific County Health Department's tobacco prevention program that includes Teens Against Tobacco Use (TATU), which is used in all five school districts in the county. Tobacco is considered the number one gateway drug and has a high use rate amongst school-aged children.
TATU does activities throughout the year and have raised funds in order to have a special assembly in March on smokeless tobacco prevention - a product that is also used highly in this county.
"It's good because we're having it right before baseball season," she said. "We think a lot of people think it's cool to start."
Another project the program has done is called "Operation Storefront," in which students survey the amount of tobacco ads both inside and outside of stores.
"It's really kind of astounding when you look at it," commented Oien.
The group also regularly tests store operators by having students 14 to 16 years old try to purchase tobacco products. Oien said that due to the program, the amount of stores selling to minors has dropped from 23 percent down to 10 percent. Oien also does training for store owners employees on things to check for before selling to younger-looking patrons.
Sheriff outlines issues as he sees them
Pacific County Sheriff John Didion spoke to the audience about the cost and consequences of drug use, giving a snapshot of how they are impacting the county.
He commented on how when he started his career here, over 20 years ago, the biggest thing related to drugs or alcohol that they had to deal with was the occasional kegger on the beach.
Didion was named the first D.A.R.E. officer in the county in 1988. Didion said it was around that time there was a shift towards high marijuana use in the area, and the county led the state in plants seized. It was in the 1990s that a shift came again, this time to more serious drugs like meth and cocaine. He went on to show the link between the rise in narcotics and the local crime rate.
But the funding that the county used to have for their drug task force has dwindled down to practically nothing in the last few years - the federal funds they once received have since been deferred to Homeland Security - and the future doesn't look much brighter.
"We're looking at a grim reality," said Didion, who explained that without a boost in funding, the sheriff's office would lose up to half of his patrol officers in the next year. "I'm faced with the reality of having to prioritize which calls to respond to."
The hope lies in a law enforcement levy that the county will vote on soon. Some of those funds would be used to breath new life into the drug task force, which the enforcement of would give kids a reason to say no to drugs.
"Right now it's basically a joke, and it hurts me to say that," he said. "If we can be that reason, that's a good thing."
Walton backed up what Sheriff Didion said. She has encountered students at Ilwaco Jr/Sr High School who were using tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, meth, psychedelic mushrooms, LSD and some designer "club" drugs. She said that in Raymond, black tar heroin is becoming a drug of choice for high school aged students.
IHS students Chance McClelland, Kari Knutzen and Ryan Cadwell performed a short skit about peer pressure in which "good students" get talked into forgetting about the things they cared about and start using drugs to fit in - a matter of lying to yourself in order to be accepted. McClelland finished up the feature with the line, "There's just one problem - I hate myself."
The skit was an almost perfect segue to the final speaker of the evening, a high school senior from the Vancouver area named Spencer, a recovering alcoholic and drug user. Spencer also spoke at the drug forum at IHS last year as well.
First-hand account form Vancouver youth
Spencer began his drug use in 10th grade, "Pretty late for the neighborhood I was in," he said. While many of the people he knew had started using at a much earlier age, he fought it for a long time. But two years ago, Spencer started thinking about things differently, he felt as though he did not belong or fit in with the world around him. So one night a friend offered him marijuana.
He accepted and got high for the first time.
"I won't lie, it's of the best feelings I ever had at that time," he said.
He quickly became an addict, an everyday user with a $60 a day habit. He said that initially his parents didn't notice because his grades had actually gone up, because smoking pot initially helped his depression.
He would sneak out of the house most nights and go to school high most days. But then, after awhile the drug stopped working as well. He even quit for 30 days after being challenged in a health class to do so - to prove that he could quit whenever he wanted. But in the end, he couldn't wait to start again.
He later switched his addiction to alcohol.
"I didn't like the taste of any of it," he said of the beer and hard liquor he began to indulge in, "but I had to feed that compulsion."
The other shoe dropped when, under the influence of alcohol, he tried smoking meth.
"After that, I basically went off the deep end."
One time he had been up for several days high on meth and took a test at school. He said he nodded off and dreamt that he had completed the test, only to awake to find himself with 10 minutes left and only one answer done.
Another time, while smoking with his friends, a gun was put to his head because they thought that he had been a "snitch." He said he found out later that the real snitch had been identified by the same people, and was never seen again.
Around the time he became addicted to meth is when his parents finally realized that something was wrong. He said they didn't know what to do and made vain attempts to get him to straight.
"It was the only thing that made me happy, the only thing I could feel love through," he said of his addiction.
Finally, his mother kicked him out of her house after he failed rehab attempts.
"I really couldn't quit using," he said.
That is until Dec. 15, 2002.
He remembers smoking weed with his friends and not enjoying it. It was at that moment that he decided he'd had enough.
"I just decided I didn't want to do that anymore."
Spencer, now clean for over a year, said he has an easier time saying no when offered drugs, saying that he has "lost the craving." He now regularly attends both AA and NA meetings and has graduated from a drug and alcohol rehab program and is satisfied with the progress he has made and continues to make.
"It has improved, in that it hasn't gotten progressively worse," he said. "It's really strange how that happened."
Gerald Eilers, a shop teacher at IHS, spoke up to congratulate the young man on his progress after having watched him speak last year after only being clean a few months.
"I can see a whale of a difference between last March and now," he said.
"I wish I could see it," Spencer replied.
Many in the audience who had also been there last year then bolstered Eilers comment in agreement, to which Spencer confidently and simply replied, "Thank you."