Tahoe faces serious youth drug epidemic | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tahoe faces serious youth drug epidemic

William Ferchland

Toxicology results released this week found 14-year-old Travis Beer, an affable eighth-grader who aspired to be a professional skier, took morphine pills that were reserved for his cancer-stricken father.

Beer’s unexpected death in June was a wake-up call for his friends and fellow students while drug counselors revealed alarming stories of adolescent drug use.

“I think it’s getting to be a problem,” said Jessie Polaske, 16, about the youth drug use in South Shore. “It’s getting to be a younger and younger age.”

Earlier this year, 120 high school students were surveyed on drug and alcohol use. Results indicated 57 percent of females and 43 percent of males used alcohol, 30 percent used marijuana, 12 percent used amphetamines and 31 percent used prescription drugs.

A separate report, the 2001-02 California Safe Schools Assessment, showed students in Lake Tahoe Unified had a higher incidence of reported drug and alcohol-related crimes than in all other El Dorado County school districts.

The statistics are being used by the South Lake Tahoe Police Department to apply for grant money which would fund a new police officer position to monitor truancy.

“We want to ensure our kids are in school not only for the benefit of their education but also to preclude their involvement in unhealthy criminal activity such as drug- and alcohol-related offenses,” said Sgt. Brian Williams.

The most serious drug-related crimes occurred almost a year ago. Two teenagers at South Tahoe High School robbed a string of convenience stores with a BB gun to fund their cocaine habit.

Cindi Swalm sees more of her teenage clients using methamphetamine. The drug, also labeled “white trash cocaine” because it is cheap to buy, allows girls to lose weight in a hurry, said Swalm, a drug and alcohol counselor specializing in adolescent addiction.

Swalm said that among her caseload of 30 clients at Tahoe Youth and Family Services, one-third are girls who use meth.

“I think that’s the biggest reason why girls use it – because it’s a quick weight loss,” Swalm said. “It’s not uncommon to lose 10 to 15 pounds in a month (on meth.)”

Even though it’s cheaper than cocaine, some girls are able to get it for free, Swalm said.

“It’s not uncommon for girls to trade sex for drugs,” she said.

Several teenagers at the high school campus on Thursday agreed.

“I’ve seen so many girls lose weight because of that,” said Julio Cuevas, 16.

Meth widespread

If a look at the clientele at Sierra Recovery Center is any indication, meth is widespread in South Shore. Deb Redmon, the center’s clinical director, said about 80 percent of addicts need help with their meth dependence.

While hard drugs are finding their way to high school students, experimental drugs like marijuana, alcohol and cough medicine are being consumed by pubescent teens.

“I’ve seen people down NiteQuil and stuff,” said seventh-grader Nick Hamilton. “I didn’t stick around to see what happened.”

On Wednesday, Swalm said she met with a 12-year-old meth user. Several students talked about hearing snorts and smelling marijuana odor in the bathrooms of South Tahoe Middle School.

“We’ve even had trouble with huffing and I don’t recall dealing with that in the past,” said middle school teacher Holly Greenough. “It seems like the age of the kids trying things, experimenting, (is getting younger).”

Greenough, who was born in South Lake Tahoe, believes drug use among youth is not as widespread compared to when she was a teenager. The potency of drugs and teenagers mixing them with other substances are a concern, she said.

“They take some and they don’t feel it and they take more,” said Lindstrom, 18.

Countering drug use

In Douglas County, Deputy Greg Shields, the school resource officer, said he has made several arrests of students possessing marijuana. Earlier this week a drug dog that visited Douglas High School sniffed two purses that Shields said had a strong odor of marijuana. Shields said no drugs were found during the summer school search but the two girls were questioned.

Steps have been taken to combat youth drug and alcohol abuse. On July 15, Douglas County raised the punishment of the first offense for a minor in possession from a citation to a misdemeanor.

In March, Lake Tahoe Unified School District orchestrated the Drug Store Project, an expansive and realistic anti-drug outreach program for seventh-graders. The program is likely to be repeated in the 2004-05 school year.

Greenough spearheaded a celebration of life for Travis soon after his death. Bands and skilled skateboarders appeared. Admission was the student’s signature on a banner pledging to avoid drugs.

The teacher said some students have been deeply affected by Travis’ death and changed their party lifestyle. Others have shrugged it off as not being serious.

“There’s a myth that I’ve heard the kids talk about that he died because he was allergic to it. That seriously concerns me,” she said.

– E-mail William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com

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