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Larry Fritzlan: Marin teenagers, drugs, and why '420' should matter to parents

by Larry Fritzlan | Marin Independent Journal, April 20, 2008

THIS IS THE sixth year that I have written about "420," the day that many teens will get high on marijuana, many for the first time. 420, pronounced "four-20," happens on April 20 and is for some teens the equivalent of Mardi Gras and New Year's Eve combined.

Two Marin families have written powerful books on the terror of their teen's substance abuse. "The Lost Years: Surviving a Mother and Daughter's Worst Years," by Kristina Wandzilak and her mother, Constance Curry and "Beautiful Boy," by father David Sheff, tell poignant stories of Marin teens who almost died from drug use.

Alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases that usually start in the teen years. They are life-sabotaging and potentially fatal brain diseases. Scientists have known this for many years. Addiction to pot, Cannabis Dependence, is real.

Pot is the gateway to illegal drugs. It is readily available, grown locally and celebrated on 420. It is often quickly followed by equally available ecstasy, cocaine, and parents' drug-cabinet opiates (Vicodin, Codeine, OxyContin), Valium, and ADD medicines (speed).

Yes, Marin, some of your children are experimenting with the actual equivalents of heroin and meth and you may be the dealer.

An 18-year-old addicted to OxyContin ("heroin in pill form") told me "All the rich kids in Marin are addicted to this drug." A college student told me, "All the students take Adderall (an ADD medicine - speed in pill form) to do homework, lose weight and party."

Of course, not all students use these drugs or are in serious trouble. In fact, most students aren't, but it is a tragedy if any students are. We know that 10 percent to 15 percent of Marin teens already have begun the certain slow spiral that will lead to alcoholism or drug addiction at some point in their life.

Ten to fifteen percent. That's three to five kids in a class of 30.

Many parents are fed up and are saying drug and alcohol use is no longer an option. (One parent's response: "You can smoke pot, never more than once a month, but you have to agree to regular drug testing and to never use any other drugs - or else we see a drug counselor!")

Teen drug and alcohol treatment is very effective but it is not about talking to a teen. Teen drug treatment, as opposed to counseling, is about parents getting guidance on how to change their behaviors and how to set and maintain healthy limits and consequences for their teen. The teen is lovingly and respectfully given a choice: stop using drugs and have abstinence verified by a professional or we move you to a higher level of treatment. Try local treatment first; sending the problem away may be too simplistic.

Teens initially will resist but ultimately come to respect a parent who keeps them safe.

At 18, your child has become an adult and "parenting an adult" often leads to power struggles that preclude being effective about your teen's drug use.

Parenting after this point can be seen as emotional enabling.

It is best to get professional help before it becomes a downward spiral for both of you. To quote one interventionist, "When working with adults, you have to first totally collapse the codependent, enabling system before the addict will choose to change."

Addiction is easily treated. The problem is usually that the adult enablers are unaware of treatment resources or are in denial.

If you have teens, you might pay attention to where they are on April 20. You might be surprised.

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