Deb K. had suspicions about her son’s behavior, but she couldn’t be sure. When he came home, he raced straight up to his room. She had heard him open the sliding door in the middle of the night. To smoke pot outside? Her husband thought she was overreacting, but her intuition told her differently. In desperation, she called the drug counselor at Wayzata High School, where her son was a sophomore. The counselor suggested Deb search his room. “You have to know,” she told Deb. “He’s in trouble, but we don’t know what we’re dealing with.”
Deb took a deep breath, climbed the stairs and opened the door to her 15-year-old son’s bedroom. Oh God, what am I going to find? A small flashlight on the carpet caught her eye. She knelt down, switched on the flashlight, and peered under his bed. There was a fluorescent light attached to a 40-foot extension cord along with a manual for growing marijuana printed off the Internet. She pulled out an accent pillow she had purchased for him. It jingled. She found miniature bottles of alcohol inside. She spied a fishing tackle box—why was that under the bed? She discovered pot, seeds, and a one-hitter tucked into the folding trays. In the garage, where her son had been spending more time recently, she found more grow lights, five marijuana plants, and a stash of pipes.
An hour later, Deb called back the counselor, Judy Hanson. “I’m so sick I could throw up,” she said.
“What are you doing at one o’clock?” Hanson asked.
“I guess I’ll be in your office,” Deb said.
When an aide from the front office summoned Derek from class, he thought that meant he had a free pass for the rest of the day—he could spend the afternoon smoking weed. “See ya,” he said to classmates.
His grin faded when he walked into Judy Hanson’s office and saw Hanson, the school police officer, and his parents, along with his bong, several pipes, and more than an ounce of weed lined up on the floor. His eyes flashed panic. “Mom, what did you do?”
WALK INTO A HIGH-SCHOOL CLASSROOM these days with, say, 20 seniors. If statistics are right, seven of those seniors have smoked marijuana in the last year, but not the mellow weed that baby boomers puffed in the 1960s and ’70s. Pot today is five times more potent, thanks to higher THC content cultivated by improved growing methods. Of the group, 14 of those kids have drunk alcohol in the past year, and six have binged—consuming more than five drinks at one sitting—in the past two weeks.
Like their parents’ generation, these kids party, but they’re going about it in a whole different way. Not only are they drinking with greater intent to get drunk and smoking stronger weed, they’re popping prescription pills—maybe another kid’s ADD medication; maybe the painkillers they raid from their parents’ medicine cabinets—with little thought to prescribed doses. The drugs are a quick text message away, toted in omnipresent yet innocuous backpacks and often consumed under the noses of unsuspecting parents, teachers, and coaches. Fueled by misperceptions picked up online, today’s teens are using drugs in an alarmingly reckless and dangerous fashion. Yet most of their parents have little or no idea.
“There are so many parents who don’t want to know,” Deb says. “For some reason, people don’t think this is happening in Wayzata. Well, they have the same problem in Eden Prairie and Elk River. It doesn’t matter if it’s an inner-city high school or a big mega-million-dollar high school—there are drugs there, and the parents aren’t paying attention.”
LIKE MOST HIGH-SCHOOL SOPHOMORES, Derek K. was still trying to find his place in the school’s social strata. A 5-foot-5 lightweight, he wasn’t cut out to be a varsity athlete. He was smarter than the Hard Hats, the popular group of hardcore fans in overalls cheering madly at football games and later pounding beers at parties. In his polo shirt and designer jeans, Derek didn’t fit with the pierced-and-tattooed crowd either. The day his parents confronted him in Judy Hanson’s office secured his identity. “I told that story, and I was a legend,” he says. “Kids looked up to me. They were just starting to get into weed, and I’d already done that.”
The consequences hardly mattered. Nor did letting down his parents. His social stock had risen dramatically. Little surprise that a month later Derek got caught downing vodka shots with another kid on a phy-ed class outing. Ticketed for consumption by a minor, he had to attend an alcohol-diversion class—where he says he learned how to avoid getting caught. He asked the cop teaching the class how he could tell if a kid was high. “That made it easier to get away with,” Derek says.
Derek has short brown hair—almost a buzzcut—and brown eyes and a pointed chin. His wide and winning smile is his signature characteristic. He’s charming and easy to like, with the personality of a natural salesman. Now 19, he graduated from Wayzata last spring. By the end of his sophomore year, Derek figures he had gotten stoned with at least 200 kids in his school. They smoked before school, after school—even during school, in bathrooms. “It had blown up pretty quickly,” he says. “Weed was the biggest thing I saw at Wayzata High. There were maybe 100 kids who were stoned all day.”
Weed wasn’t hard to come by. “You could walk up to any circle of kids at Wayzata and ask them where to find weed, they’d know,” Derek says.
Sometimes the deals took place in the school. He placed his money in the paper-towel dispenser of the boys’ bathroom. The dealer slipped out the money and replaced it with a bag of pot. “Everybody knew how to open those [dispensers] with a paper clip,” Derek says.
If he wanted something else, a text message to one of 25 dealers he knew generally did the trick. He’d tap that out during class and be set for after school. When he had dope to sell, he sent a mass text to his list of 150 contacts: “B there by 3:30. Gone @ 4.”
School rules ban the use of cell phones in classrooms, but students frequently text on the sly. Derek’s teachers had no idea he was arranging drug deals in their classrooms. “It can happen right under your eyes, and you don’t even know it,” says Hanson, Wayzata’s chemical-health coordinator for the past 13 years. “Cell phones have opened up a whole new world for kids seeking and dealing drugs.”
Once believed not to be addictive, marijuana is now listed under cannabis dependence in the DSM-IV, the American Psychiatric Association’s catalog of mental disorders. Yet today’s teenagers still believe that the drug is harmless, a misperception often perpetuated by what they read online—a whole new source of information about drug use. One of the bigger pro-drug sites, Erowid.org, has instructions for turning a pop can into a pot pipe, advice for beating a drug test, and this tip: “Caught by parents? Don’t admit it! There’s no way they can prove you’re stoned, just say you feel sick!”
Such sites drive Carol Falkowski crazy. Currently the director of the Minnesota Department of Human Services alcohol-and-drug-abuse division, Falkowski has monitored the state’s drug scene in various roles over the past three decades. “What kids used to learn on street corners from other kids they now learn online,” Falkowski says. “Even withdrawn kids or kids in remote geographic areas can get a whole lot of misinformation and have an online group of buddies with drug-using behavior. There’s a big online culture about drug use, and it’s available for anyone.”
WAYZATA HIGH SCHOOL, actually located in Plymouth, is a megaschool with nearly 3,300 students in grades 9-12 from seven different municipalities, which are mostly white, middle to upper-middle class. Yet, when it comes to drugs, there’s not much difference between the kids in the $100 sneakers and the ones wearing work boots. “The habits and behaviors of teenagers are pretty similar across communities,” Falkowski says. “There’s not much difference between metro areas and outstate with use, especially when it comes to alcohol. Parents need to realize that this can happen to their kids regardless of their income or social standing.”
When Deb K. attended Hibbing High School in the 1970s, students weren’t popping other kids’ ADD meds. She had no reason to think her son was doing that. But he was—along with lots of other kids attracted to the prescription speed. Derek regularly scored in the 90th percentile on standardized aptitude tests, until he discovered that Adderall made him studious. “No matter the subject, I couldn’t get enough of it,” he says.
When he dropped Adderall before class, his mind raced, and he took furious notes. But sometimes his mind sped too fast. “I had 20 thoughts a second, but I was not able to verbalize any of them,” he says. “The teachers couldn’t see it—they just thought I was an attentive student.”
Adderall, Ritalin, and other neuro-enhancers frequently prescribed to children with attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can increase focus and concentration but can also cause shakes, appetite loss, and rapid heart rates. The drugs have lately become popular study aids on college campuses, a trend that’s working its way down into high schools.
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.”
Still, for other parents, it’s a matter of complicity. They go to bed upstairs, while a group of kids in the basement are left alone to party freely. “Many times we hear that parents are there and kids are drinking, but they don’t try to stop it,” says Barb Beise, Wayzata High’s assistant activities director, who’s worked at the school for 14 years. “That’s been a big shift since I’ve been here.”
Jessica’s parents had noticed her pulling away, her change in friends, her laissez-faire attitude and disrespect, but they hadn’t connected those things with her drinking—mostly because they didn’t know how much she was drinking. “It should’ve made the alarms go off—we can see that now—but it didn’t,” Steve Garlock admits.
They might have had a better idea about their daughter’s use if they’d looked at her Facebook page. Social media has become what yearbooks were decades ago: a way for kids to create their identity. Jessica saw the pages of other kids partying. “There are so many pictures of friends drinking and partying—I wanted to be part of that,” she says. “If you have a lot of pictures of you partying, you’re going to be called to go party.”
Or invited on Facebook. Kids set up exclusive groups that can only be accessed by those who’ve been invited, then send messages to the group about parties. Some kids even use the exclusive groups to let others know they have drugs to sell. Of course, Jessica’s parents would not have been able to see any of this because she blocked her profile from being viewed by anyone other than friends.
Jessica’s first trip to the emergency room wasn’t enough to scare her. “My parents told me, ‘You almost died,’ but I said, ‘Probably not, if I’m still alive,’” Jessica says. “I figured that happened to everybody who got drunk.”
She started drinking at school, filling her water bottle with vodka. “I don’t know how teachers wouldn’t have smelled it because I would take swigs during class—or maybe they did know,” she says. By the summer, she was drinking daily. One night, high on coke and alcohol, she and her boyfriend had unprotected sex—a common scenario. Jessica got pregnant, but she chose not to keep the baby. The guilt and depression that followed drove her to drink more. Booze wasn’t hard to come by. Friends had fake IDs. She texted her orders. “It was easy to make plans to get a bottle in front of my parents because I could text in front of them and they’d never know,” she says.
After two more trips to the emergency room, Kelly and Steve Garlock realized their daughter had a serious problem with alcohol. They sent her to a boarding school in Iowa for kids with behavioral issues. Jessica returned home 14 months later and stayed sober six days. She ran away a couple of times and stayed with friends. Her parents sent her to treatment in the spring.
Jessica managed to graduate from Wayzata High in 2009, but she wasn’t ready to stay sober. Not until she hit bottom, which happened one night when she and her boyfriend of four years had a drunken argument at a party—and he broke her hand. “I realized nothing good comes from drinking,” she says. “I would never have been in that situation if I wasn’t drinking.”
Both Jessica and her boyfriend have since quit using. She was sober when they conceived their second child. She plans to raise the child with her parents’ help, and they have set up a nursery in their Plymouth home. “I’ve been sober through the pregnancy,” says Jessica, now 18. “That’s what has motivated me.”
BY SENIOR YEAR, Derek’s use had turned him into someone he didn’t want to be. He started stealing: alcohol from unlocked garages, drugs from cars parked on the street, and, at parties, cell phones and iPods from fellow students. He turned violent, picking fights. “I became the shady one no one wanted to talk to,” he says. “I got really lonely.”
His girlfriend broke up with him. His best friend went away to treatment. He got stoned by himself, and his loneliness deepened.
When a friend returned from treatment, he invited Derek to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. “I connected with everything everyone said,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m screwed.’”
He quit using for six months, relapsed, then quit again. He’s been sober since December.
He has started repairing his relationship with his mom. Now, he tells her the truth. She can trust him, he says. Many times in high school, when she was making it difficult for him to get high, he would tell her that he hated her. “He has since hugged me and thanked me,” Deb says. “He says, ‘Mom, I know you did that because you love me.’”
John Rosengren, a 1982 graduate of Wayzata High, is a Minneapolis freelance writer. His last piece for the magazine was a profile of Minnesota attorney general Lori Swanson.