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Meth use still growing locally

| May 28, 2004 12:00 AM

The following is the first article in a three-part series discussing drug and alcohol abuse in Lincoln County and the ongoing effort to combat the crisis.

By Paul Boring, Western News Reporter

Methamphetamines have ushered in a new and dangerous phase of drug abuse for youth in the county, said Lincoln County prevention specialist Ralph Stever.

³We haven¹t even peaked with methamphetamines yet,² he said. ³We¹re three to five years away from that.²

Since Stever began the daunting job in February, he has been actively scouring the county, speaking with a cross-section of community members about the perceived drug problem.

³When I began, the general strategy was to do an environmental assessment,² he said. ³I¹ve been talking to any organizations dealing with families and youth in particular, and have been trying to get their perception of where we are today in Lincoln County.²

Witnessing the changing face of drug use in the county initially compelled the Troy resident to accept the job. Stever was under no pretenses that the position would be simple and straightforward.

³One of the main reasons I took on the position was frustration,² he said. ³The frustration came from witnessing how in the last two years, and last year in particular, the use of methamphetamines and pharmaceuticals has increased and seeing how many young kids we¹ve had to send to inpatient treatment because of overdoses.²

Although meth and pharmaceuticals are still trailing alcohol and marijuana in terms of use by Lincoln County youth, the narcotics have burst onto the drug scene and taken hold with startling voracity.

³Human service agencies are overwhelmed,² Stever said. ³Eighty percent of their caseload now is amphetamines. This is a whole other dynamic in family interaction. We already know what alcohol can do. We¹re moving into another dimension.²

When dealing with meth, one must consider the lifetime effect of the drug once the user becomes heavily addicted, Stever said. A meth addict who has moved into the ³chronic² phase of use has a less than 20 percent chance of recovery.

³Many of our youth in Lincoln County as a result of alcohol and substance abuse will have issues for the rest of their lives,² he said.

Surveys given to students in the county have revealed that 60 to 80 percent of the youth are abusing alcohol and roughly 60 percent are using marijuana.

Given the numbers, which Stever said could actually be considerably higher, he emphasized the need for the community to pull together in brainstorming ideas and possible solutions.

³The key is to look at the assets we have in the community and then the protective and risk factors,² he said. ³We all need to be on the same page and speaking a common language. We¹ve tried to lower drug use, but in reality it¹s rising at an alarming rate.²

The process of prevention or recovery can be looked at as a wheel, Stever said, with each spoke representing a different group affected by alcohol and drugs.

³Every spoke on the wheel basically is part of the solution,² Stever said. ³You have the schools, human service agencies, law enforcement and courts, and the medical and business communities. Then you have the parents and community members, really the key ingredient. Churches and spirituality are also key ingredients. And then you have the media.²

To successfully reduce drug and alcohol use and abuse, a proactive approach is imperative, Stever said. Although facets of drug and alcohol prevention can appear systematic, flexibility and a willingness to adapt to a changing environment are crucial in heading off problems.

³We need earlier intervention,² he said. ³If you look at other communities that have engaged in the prevention processes, it has always been trauma that has engaged them.

³The consensus with the agencies seems to be that they are always putting out fires and have no time to put into thinning the forest. That¹s about the best analogy I can use. Prevention would be engaging in the thinning process.²

Stever stressed the inevitability of a meth lab blowing up in Lincoln County. Nationally, 20 percent of active meth labs have children in the home.

³Meth labs are active in all of our neighborhoods in Lincoln County,² he said. ³It¹s also only a matter of time before a child or adult that¹s been up for five days without sleep hurts themselves or someone else who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Examples of this have already happened in Lincoln County.²

The schools are at the front lines of the war on drugs and alcohol, Stever said. With the implementation of the stringent federally mandated No Child Left Behind legislation, more pressure is placed on the students to perform on standardized tests and on the school district to prepare the students.

In the face of increased pressure, some students will naturally gravitate towards escapism in the form of alcohol or drugs, specifically marijuana. Prolonged marijuana use has been shown to decrease motivation, irreparably damage the ability to apply simple logic, and greatly effect short-term memory. Stever said the cycle is self-perpetuating, ultimately hurting the student and the school district when test scores are substandard.

³That¹s going to be a big challenge for the schools, but with almost everyone I¹ve talked to, there¹s been a wonderful sense of, ŒWe can do this.¹²

Stever applauded the county schools for their implementation of programs that help educate students at a young age about the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol, while addressing other problems such as bullying and aggressive behavior.

³They¹re definitely moving in the right direction,² he said. ³We have wonderful personnel in our school system that are quite active in assisting our children in acquiring protective assets that will help them make healthy choices.²

The presence of the Flathead Valley Chemical Dependency Clinic in the community over the last year has been a valuable resource, Stever said.

³They¹ve engaged more youth groups and implemented minor in possession programs and intensive outpatient programs,² he said. ³They¹ve really brought some wonderful resources into our community. And their sliding fee scale opens the door for more youth to take advantage of the services.²

Given the types of drugs available to youth, Stever underscored the importance of parents also being proactive.

³We can no longer assume Œit¹s just a phase my child is going through,¹ or Œit¹s just pot,¹² he said. ³Within one week of meth or certain pharmaceutical use, the situation becomes out of their control. Marijuana is now three to five times more potent than it was in the 60s. Physiological changes take place very fast. We must begin to develop a dialogue with our kids and take action.²

Retirees in Lincoln County are also assets in prevention. The group provides different perspectives gleaned from their respective experiences in other cities and in different parts of the country.

³I think they¹re a big piece of the puzzle,² Stever said. ³We as elders in the community must assume more responsibility for creating options and opportunity for our youth. We all have assets and ideas that collectively we as a community can implement. This is our community and the youth are our future. We need our elders to return to our towns and help us remember who we are.²

Law enforcement deals directly with substance abuse. Stever said that officers he has spoken to have related the staggering number of people arrested because of meth use or overdoses. Once a person overdoses, the medical community is brought into the picture and burdened both economically and resource-wise.

³I spoke to an officer in the area that said if he had the financial resources, he could probably find a meth lab a week in Lincoln County,² Stever said. ³The cleanup is too expensive and the resources are too limited.²

Now that the county prevention specialist has performed an extensive amount of research into the drug situation in the area, theory will turn into application. A community meeting will be held in mid-June to brainstorm solutions and formulate a plan for combating drug and alcohol abuse.

³Abuse of substances is really tied into every aspect of our community,² he said. ³Everybody is affected and everyone is a part of the solution.²

Stever is actively soliciting input from community members regarding alternatives for helping educate youth on drugs as well as seeking ideas for programs or activities that will help children make responsible choices. He may be reached at Flathead Valley Chemical Dependency Clinic at 293-7731.

³Lincoln County has always had a Œcan do¹ attitude and there is no better time for us to come together, surrender our differences, and help create a today that has meaning and a tomorrow that has hope and opportunity.²