Fighting drugs: Beyond 'just say no'

By Abrad · Jul 23, 2006 ·
  1. Abrad
    HUNTINGTON -- Joseph Bailey grew up in some of Huntington's tough neighborhoods, but he managed to steer clear of drugs.

    He spent part of his childhood living at Marcum Terrace, a public housing complex, with his mother and brother. His mother never used drugs or alcohol and did everything she could to shelter her boys from the problems around them.

    When he reached middle school, his family moved to Guyandotte. He spent most of his summers at the neighborhood pool with his brother.

    "I was 12 or 13 then, and that's when a lot of older people started asking me to buy drugs," he said. "There were also a lot of kids my age trying to get me to do drugs. When we would hang out at the pool, there was always a group that would leave to go get high."

    Concerned about the choices her son might make, Bailey's mother enrolled him in Operation Right Choice, a program sponsored by the Huntington Housing Authority for kids ages 11 to 17.

    It was in Operation Right Choice that Bailey learned not only about the negative consequences of tobacco, alcohol and drugs, but also the life skills that empowered him to make positive decisions and become a valuable servant to his community.

    He learned how to manage finances and speak in public. By the end of his eighth-grade year at Enslow Middle School, he had visited schools across Cabell County to talk to his peers about tobacco and drugs.

    "I didn't have time to think about getting mixed up in drugs or alcohol, because I was too busy trying to fix the problem," he said.

    At Huntington High School, Bailey became passionate about spreading the positive lessons he had learned in Operation Right Choice. During his senior year, he applied for and received a $2,500 grant to have a Teen Issues Day this spring at Ritter Park.

    Now 18, Bailey is a staff member at the Guyandotte Boys and Girls Club and will attend Marshall University this fall to study culinary arts.

    Even if he hadn't gone through Operation Right Choice, Bailey said he still probably would have avoided drugs and alcohol. But too many other kids and young adults in the Tri-State are making the wrong decisions, he said.

    "There are so many kids today who live in homes where drugs are a major part of their lives," Bailey said. "But when they hear in school that drugs are bad, it goes against everything they know. What they need to be taught is that there are alternatives to selling or using drugs."

    Local school officials and those in the prevention field agree. Given the scope of the Tri-State's drug problem, the lone message to youths that substance abuse is bad and that there are negative consequences to it is no longer effective, they say.

    Instead, a strong anti-drug campaign should be coupled with positive messages, programs and activities that help young people build resiliency to the temptation of substance abuse and show them that they don't have to sell drugs to make a living.

    "Substance abuse is like a dog with fleas," said Bill O'Dell, a community development specialist with the West Virginia Prevention Resource Center. "To get rid of the fleas, you can't just treat the dog and expect them to go away. You have to treat the dog's whole environment as well."

    According to a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 3 percent, or 7.3 million people age 12 and older, were abusing drugs nationwide in 2004. Abused drugs included marijuana, cocaine, prescription drugs and heroin.

    The percentage of people with a drug dependency in West Virginia and Kentucky is slightly lower -- about 2.5 percent -- and in Ohio about 2.3 percent, according to the survey. But based on 2005 Census numbers, that would still translate into more than 7,400 people for the Huntington-Ashland metropolitan area.

    Getting the thousands of substance abusers in the Tri-State to stop and prevent more from taking their place in the cycle requires a holistic approach, O'Dell says. After all, people turn to substance abuse for different reasons just like the people who choose not to do it at all, he said.

    "We learn through different methods not to do drugs," O'Dell said. "Some people have to collect data and statistics. Others simply don't do it because it's illegal. And some have to experiment with it before choosing not to do it.

    "The fact is, there's not one stand-alone method through law enforcement, families or schools that works. It's a multifaceted approach."

    That's why United Way of the River Cities is bringing together a coalition of stakeholders in the community to develop a comprehensive plan for dealing with substance abuse, said Anne McGee, who was hired by the agency to oversee the project.

    In 2003, a United Way survey of 356 households across the Tri-State showed that 62.3 percent of the respondents labeled alcohol and/or drug abuse as a major or moderate issue. Jobs, unemployment, poverty and lack of affordable health care were the only other issues deemed more important in the survey.

    As a result, the United Way and other community partners applied for and received in February a $35,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to design the comprehensive plan. The plan must be put together by October. The United Way will learn early next year whether it will receive another grant to implement the program.

    The coalition, dubbed the Cabell County Substance Abuse Prevention Partnership, wants to create a clearinghouse where people can go to learn about substance abuse treatment and prevention services that are offered in the area, McGee said. It also hopes to build upon programs that promote "protective factors," a buzz term in the field of prevention that refers to attitudes or behaviors that strengthen resilience to substance abuse or other social ills.

    Tim White, coordinator of the Cabell County Youth Empowerment Program and Operation Right Choice, said prevention efforts that stress on positives and allow young adults to talk to their peers about substance abuse have been effective.

    He points to Raze, a statewide prevention program run by teens that discourages smoking among their peers. State health officials have associated the program with the 32 percent decrease in youth smoking in West Virginia since it started in 1999.

    White said he knows drug abuse prevention may not have the millions of tobacco settlement dollars that have flowed into West Virginia, but Raze is a model program that could be used to fight the underlying problems associated with teen substance abuse.

    "Part of our problem in this area is we only look at fighting substance abuse, which is merely a symptom of a greater problem," White said. "We have all of these programs ready to treat people once they get involved with drugs, but we don't have enough to get to the root of the problem before they make that jump.

    "We've seen this pattern all the way back to the 1980s. Bless her heart, but the only message Nancy Reagan gave kids was to just say no to drugs. The problem with her message is she never gave them anything to say yes to."

    David Tackett, director of attendance for Cabell County Schools and coordinator of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, said the school system is looking at refreshing its curriculum on substance abuse prevention this year.

    He wants to use part of the $85,000 in federal funds that the school system receives annually for substance abuse prevention and start a Students Against Destructive Decisions, or SADD, chapter in every school in the county.

    "The curriculum now is pretty much universal to where everyone is exposed to the same message," Tackett said. "We reinforce the negative social, physical and economic effects of substance abuse.

    "We believe the curriculum that the state adopted for drug and alcohol education sets a foundation for good outcomes, but it's important to supplement it with extracurricular activities and programs that go more in depth."

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