Expert panel confronts adolescent drug, alcohol addictions during forum

Debbie Griffin
Isanti County News

Approximately 55 people gathered the evening of Nov. 18 at the Cambridge Medical Center to hear a panel of experts discuss substance abuse in young people.

Karla Patrick and Nicki Klanderud of Allina’s Community Engagement department, who organized the first-ever forum, said it responds to concerns heard during “dialogue sessions” the hospital conducted during its community health-needs assessment.

Patrick said drugs and alcohol topped the list. Each panel expert discussed a different aspect of the problem, but all agreed: “Drugs aren’t just somewhere else, they’re here.”

Law enforcement: Be nosy, involved

Isanti County Chief Sheriff Deputy Chris Caulk said acceptance within the family compounds the problem and that people will go to great lengths to conceal drug use.

He encouraged parents to be nosy and look in kids’ stuff, ask many questions and be involved with them. He said finding “the stuff” is up to parents and eventually, law enforcement.

Caulk said the Isanti County Sheriff’s Office offers in-home drug tests that require a urine sample. He said the tests can help parents get at the truth before it’s too late and serve as a backup when kids lie.

Cambridge-Isanti School District Liaison Officer Jesse Peck said the objective is to keep kids safe. He works in eight schools where he can search a student’s backpack, locker and person or bring in a K-9 officer.

Peck said plenty of parents enable their kids and make excuses for their behavior. Some are more concerned with being their child’s buddy than their guardian, he said.

He advised people to know their kids’ electronic-device passwords and monitor usage, especially of such social-media sites as Facebook, Snapchat, friendfeed, kik, and ask.FM.

“That stuff has to be checked,” he urged.

Peck subscribes to a $5-per-year service with, through which he can monitor his kids’ devices and get a monthly report on their activity.

He said parents pay the bill and have a right to know. He also encouraged searching kids’ rooms and said a lock on the door indicates a problem.

Many students tell Peck it’s a deterrent knowing he or others will be looking around at home, school and in cyberspace.

The school liaison officer said tobacco is the worst problem and acts as a gateway to other substances. Peck said he processed one heroin case at the school in the past year and handles two or three cases of misdemeanor-level marijuana per week.

He mentioned seeing a drop in methamphetamine use but a rise in abuse of bath salts, or a synthetic hallucinogen. There has not been “a ton of” alcohol abuse, synthetic marijuana, mollies or SSC.

The officer said, “I see a lot of prescription drug misuse.”

Peck said he and many others have been working with the city to open a teen center in Cambridge, since research shows that kids who pursue their interests in after-school activities are less likely to seek the acceptance found in using substances.

Doctors talk prevention, treatment

Dr. Dale Berry of the Cambridge Medical Center Behavioral Health Services has more than 35 years of experience treating addiction and calls it a multifaceted issue involving spiritual, physical, genetic, relational and psychological aspects.

Only about 4 million of the 20 million addicts nationwide get treatment, and some 30 percent of the population is genetically predisposed to addiction, said the doctor.

“The challenge for the community is prevention,” he said.

He explained how drugs stimulate the brain’s reward and pleasure center. He said in lab experiments, the rats will “push that lever until they die.”

Berry said it would reduce addiction rates to even delay an adolescent’s first use of substances including tobacco and alcohol by a year or two. That would give their frontal lobe a chance to develop properly and begin exercising good judgment.

He said heroin offers a cheap high in the beginning. The street drug’s strength and purity vary, leading to cases of accidental overdose and death.

He explained how kids do “pharming,” which is to steal prescription medication from friends, relatives or strangers. Some teens knock on doors and ask to use the bathroom.

“They feel safe doing it too,” Berry said, “because they think it’s hard to kill yourself with oral opiates.”

Paramedic John Zahn confirmed that he now carries the anti-overdose medication, Narcan, which reverses all opiate-based drugs. He agrees with the national trend to get Narcan into the hands of others first on the scene such as police and firefighters, because the sooner it is administered, the better.

Dr. Scott TenNapel, director of mental health and substance abuse at Cambridge Medical Center, said part of the solution lies in how treatment is packaged and integrated. It should be for the whole person, including substance abuse and mental health.

“We’re such a failure-oriented system,” TenNapel said.

He said no funding gets triggered until something bad has already happened. Another gap is when teens qualify for treatment but either can’t get it locally or don’t attend it. He said the system needs good ideas of how to help kids access needed services.

There is now a licensed site across from the Oak Land Area Learning Center. TenNapel said in a former job, clinicians set up a treatment and billing area in a school, which seemed to work well.

He agreed with the other speakers about being involved and said it may help to inquire frankly and specifically. TenNapel said kids basically crave honesty and may openly answer the direct questions.

Educator perspective

Rebecca Fuller, 23-year educator and principal and director of the Oak Land Area Learning Center, said substance abuse disrupts all students’ right to learn.

Kids who are using may be self serving, in denial or powerless. Addictive behavior may also lead kids to argue, steal, bully, fight, react irrationally and skip school.

Fuller said truancy is a huge red flag; if a child is skipping school, something is “up.”

She advised parents to work with the school when it calls and realize that everyone is trying to create a safe learning environment. Fuller warns that there is no acceptable mode of experimentation; a person either uses or they don’t.

She also said with confident certainty that if and when drugs are found on a child at school, regardless of what they say, “It’s not their first time.”

The educator also said it’s important for the community and society not to judge kids as they emerge from treatment and try to find a place in the community. Often the only place they can find acceptance is back among their using friends.

Audience asks questions

Q: Have schools considered posting someone in the bathroom, where kids say other kids often smoke pot?

A: Peck said the strategy is to keep kids guessing about where enforcement will be next – the bus, locker, bathroom, lunch. He and Fuller also encouraged people to report anything they know, which can be done anonymously.

Q: Should my middle school child report another child who uses tobacco away from the school?

A: Yes. Those same kids will probably carry it with them at high school.

Q: Are local schools worried about kids carrying water bottles to conceal alcohol?

A: No. Research shows that ample water is needed for good brain function; and, bottles can be checked.

Q: Where do alcohol parties happen and when?

A: “Field parties” happen in the country, most often in the summer or after big school events. Question where kids are and long lines of cars on a quiet road and know the social-host ordinance.

Q: Is there a prevention coalition?

A: No, at least not yet.

Q: How do we properly dispose of prescription medications?

A: Mix them with wet coffee grounds to start dissolving them and then throw them in the trash. There is not a local take-back program, through which unused pharmaceuticals are collected, transported and incinerated.

Q: What are “bath salts”?

A: They’re a synthetic form of stimulant hallucinogen, a designer drug.