They clear bloodshot eyes with Visine. They hide liquor in Nalgenes. They take Ritalin to boost test results. They numb out on stolen Vicodin and Percocet. They post party alerts on Facebook. They text-message dealers during class. They’re some of Wayzata High’s finest students. How the world of chemical abuse has changed since you were in school.
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Derek found it easy to buy the pills from kids who didn’t want to take their prescription or more serious dealers who got bogus prescriptions. “There are kids who take them simply for the euphoric feeling,” says Andy Clayburn, a Plymouth police officer and a Wayzata High liaison officer. “Then there are the achievers who take Ritalin before a test to help them perform better. You have two very different types of kids abusing the same drugs.”
Pain pills have also increased in popularity over recent years. “We find a kid using prescription pills from his mom’s knee surgery,” Clayburn says. “She may have taken one Vicodin, not liked the way it felt and forgotten that the bottle was in the bathroom.”
Derek used Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin because he “liked to numb out,” he says. Such opiates are the third most popular drug at Wayzata High—and among high-school students statewide—after alcohol and pot. “In the last 10 years, we’ve had direct-to-consumer advertising of pills,” says Falkowski, who is also the author of Dangerous Drugs: An Easy-to-Use Reference for Parents and Professionals. “So in addition to having a larger portion of kids taking meds for behavior issues in the grade-school years, they’re seeing promotion of pill-taking on TV. It’s no surprise that we have an increase in prescription-drug abuse.”
The epidemic of pill-popping is understandable, Hanson believes, given contemporary society’s desire for immediate gratification—and its belief in a pill for every problem. “People want to feel good right now,” she says. “If they feel lousy or stressed, there’s a way to fix that. We’re in a culture of fun and fast and now, and part of that comes from video-game culture—control of the world is at your fingertips.”
Teen users often think that in order to get high, they must take more than the prescribed dose, Hanson says. “They don’t know what they’re putting in their bodies and what the effect will be,” she says. And many kids think that if a drug is prescribed by a doctor, it’s safe. “We’ve done a good job of explaining that cigarettes and methamphetamine are bad,” Officer Clayburn says. “But the biggest misconceptions that kids have are about prescription medications. When I talk to students about this stuff, their jaws drop.”
The deeper Derek got into his use, the more concerned his mom became. She bought a drug-testing kit online. Derek’s results usually came back positive for marijuana. She turned off his cell phone, changed the passwords on the computer, and, as punishment, hid the PlayStation, but he kept using. She even took the door off his bedroom so he couldn’t hide out there. “I was so tired of finding stuff that I knew my son shouldn’t be doing,” she says. “I was scared to death for my son.”
He kept using—often without her knowing. Not even the school with its two full-time cops and occasional patrols by drug-sniffing dogs could catch him. Wayzata is as vigilant and aware as any high school in the state. Hanson, its full-time chemical health coordinator, hosts educational parent meetings, trains teachers, and works closely with the coaches and activity leaders. Yet, even as adults have become savvier and stepped up efforts to catch users, teenagers have learned to keep a step ahead. “Kids are getting sneakier,” Derek says.
They burn incense in their rooms. They load their backpacks with Visine for their eyes, breath mints or gum, Purell or other hand lotions, body spray like Axe for boys or perfume for girls, even a change of clothes. They sip liquor out of water bottles or pop cans. Derek dug a hole in the yard where he could peel back the sod and stash his pipes and pot in a plastic freezer bag. They might start smoking joints because papers are easier to conceal than a pipe or bong. They smoke cigarettes to mask the smell of other drugs. “Chances are, if a kid is smoking cigarettes, he’s drinking or getting high and smoking cigarettes to cover it up,” Derek says. “That’s what I did.”
Of all the drugs Judy Hanson deals with, alcohol concerns her most. She’s frustrated that many parents don’t consider alcohol a drug, perhaps because alcohol is legal for adults or because teenagers drank when today’s parents were kids. Still, alcohol remains the nation’s number-one problem drug—for adults and minors. “Most of our kids go to treatment for their marijuana use,” Hanson says. “That’s wrong. They should be going for their drinking.”
JESSICA GARLOCK NEARLY DIED the first time she drank. On a chilly October night, she passed a bottle of Smirnoff around a campfire with four other ninth graders. They chased the burn with Coca-Cola. Jessica liked the warm feeling that spread through her body. The Smirnoff kept circling the fire.
Soon, Jessica threw up. She vomited blood. She passed out. Her friends carried her to the house of the boy who lived nearby. They asked his mother if Jessica could spend the night so she wouldn’t get in trouble. The boy’s mother took one look at Jessica and called her parents.
For Steve and Kelly Garlock, the sight of their 14-year-old daughter knocked helpless by alcohol was a very different experience from the casual drinking they remembered as high-school students in Hopkins during the ’70s. “These kids drink to get totally obliterated,” says Steve. “It’s like they’re on a mission, which is really scary when they’re out there doing it.”
Three Wayzata students—two boys and a girl—nearly drank themselves to death this past school year. Yet many parents don’t see a problem with teenagers drinking. For some, it’s a matter of ignorance. They have no idea how widespread alcohol use is. For others, it’s a matter of denial. They have heard it but don’t want to believe. “We have a culture where kids have so much independence and money that they do what they want, and the parents look the other way,” says Carol (who asked to remain anonymous), whose son Charlie went through treatment when he was a junior at Wayzata High. “It’s so much easier to look the other way because once you know, you have to do something about it.”