By Devon Mann and Anneke Flemming

“Here is the line and we tell them not to cross it… but we know they do.”

On November 19th, the community members of Orcas Island gathered for an open and honest talk about teen drug use. “Let’s Talk 2: Reducing Teen Use on Orcas,” led by Beth Jenson, dealt with a number of subjects. The talk mainly focused on understanding drug use and what we as a community can do to reduce it. The people gathered (a group which included parents, teachers, police officers, Funhouse workers, and teens) and were encouraged to open up, and the atmosphere was centered on honesty. Discussions revolved around issues such as the cause of drug use, the general ignorance about its repercussions, and the public overlook of drug use on our island.  Most importantly, in this “Let’s Talk” gathering, the people of Orcas Island gathered together to take an in depth look at the cultural drug norms of our island, and the part we can play in both the solution and the problem.

Beth Jenson photograph: Devon Mann

Beth Jenson photograph: Devon Mann

Beth Jenson, the creator of the “Let’s Talk” series, directed this latest installment with one underlying theme: the talk must not be a lecture. The discussion was not about shaming drug users or calling for the absolute removal of drug culture. The US vs THEM mentality that is present in so many similar talks was fully absent from the room. Rather, it was designed to be a free and non-judgemental conversation open for everyone and anyone to share their thoughts on and experiences with drug use. While it did look for solutions for the rampant drug infestation on Orcas, it also conceded that the issue of drug use is not always black and white. We have to look for reasonable resolutions, even though they might not solve the whole problem. Jenson provided a guiding hand to the debate, bringing up new points of discussion and her own thoughts. The talk was designed to be about the community by the community, and it worked.

About the Discussion:

Beginning with a group brainstorm about drugs and drug use, the general consensus was that if the instigating factors of drug use were minimized, while positive reinforcement was maximized, we could greatly reduce the abuse of drugs in our community. “We need a plan for prevention as well as intervention,” says one of the discussion attendees. As found by the group, reasons to do drugs range from lacking a support system (of family and friends), peer pressure, and boredom. On the opposing side, a good support system, future goals, and lack of exposure are reasons that teens avoid participation in drug use.

Attendees also proposed making drugs less of a taboo subject between parents and their children. Currently, many parents are operating under the “not my child” mentality, which, while beautifully optimistic, is also probably false, considering recent surveys show that a not so shocking 90% of teenagers use drugs or alcohol recreationally in high school.

The idea proposed by the group was that parents should come to terms with the idea that their child might use some sort of recreational substance, and that that doesn’t make them a bad person. Instead of simply saying no to all drugs, parents must acknowledge the differences between different types of drug use, and have an honest and informed talk with their child about their views on drug use.

Orcas Island Drug and Party Culture:

Although a certain level of tolerance might be necessary, the talk also brought up a debate on the sometimes overly tolerant format of the island. The tendency to ignore drug use, the allowance of negative older influences (which normalize drug use), and the difficulties that play into enforcing drug laws were other main topics of discussion.

The difficult question here was “what do we tolerate?” and “how do we stand up and say no, this is not okay?” With a topic containing so many moral gray areas, it was agreed that each case is different and must be handled individually. The law enforcement also weighed in on their perspectives on how hard it is to fairly judge what to do in cases pertaining to this issue.

To a lot of kids living on Orcas, the message they receive is that drugs aren’t a big deal. They believe that doing certain drugs isn’t a major life decision, especially now that Marijuana is legal, and more importantly, that drug use is a significant part of high school culture on our island. Even if people are aware of the repercussions of drug use, it is much easier to ignore the consequences and tell yourself that “everybody is doing this,” or “that person is doing this,” or “my friend is doing this,” or “my parent/s are doing this,” and they appear to be fine. Before long, those kids will become the ones that their peers look to, to say “they’re doing this, so it must be fine.”

On the other hand, the groupd agreed that the vast majority of teens know really very little about the substances they are sure to confront in their lifetime, or are already using. It is a scary prospect that kids, teens, and people in general can access Marijuana and other drugs before they have a basic understanding of the risks related to it, or how it might affect them. Unfortunately, this occurs frequently.

Once people begin using drugs regularly, they typically don’t want to know about the risks of what they are doing. People defend their habits and their lifestyles above all else. This has created the mindset in our country’s youth that alcohol and drug use is cool, and a show of strength and tolerance. There is a major lack of candid conversation among peer groups about drug use. The perceived overall mindset is that drugs make you “chill,” “cool,” or desirable to hang out with, all qualities that most teens are pining after. However, at the individual level, this is rarely the honest opinion of a singled-out person — teens, and most others, do not want to put themselves in a vulnerable position that seems to go against the assumed group mindset. In this way, drug use is a self-reinforcing cycle.

Don’t Lost Hope! Solutions:

This modge-podge community group came to the consensus that although our community needs more honest messages and information about drugs, as opposed to strict expectations that put people in dangerous situations, we also need to address the dangers that may not be so evident to teens. Drug use is more likely to turn into addiction when people begin using at a young age. As defined by Cathy Taughinbaugh, the four stages of drug abuse are experimentation, regular use, substance abuse/risky behavior, and finally, addiction or chemical dependency. In addition, mixing drugs and alcohol, taking unpredictable prescription drugs, or mixing all three has extremely high fatality rates that teens must be made aware of. We do not need to scare people, but it is of the utmost importance that our youth are made aware of issues that could be the difference between life and death. Mixing substances and other possibly fatal behavior is not only a threat to the person who is using, but to all those around them who could be injured or held responsible for any injuries sustained.

Drug use is a daunting issue to tackle, and our community has a lot of practices that exacerbate our drug culture. But we also have a lot of people — teens and adults — who are committed to bettering our community.

During the discussion at Jenson’s talk, there were a lot of recurring ideas as to how to begin to confront Orcas Island’s drug culture, coexisting with a good deal of innovative suggestions. It was unanimously agreed upon that we need to address Orcas Island’s lack of drug education. Think of sexual education, but the kind that exists in Finland — honest, realistic, accurate, progressive, early, continuing, and comprehensive. As one attendant pointed out, “We need a plan for prevention as well as intervention.”

It was agreed upon by most at the talk that it was not the intention to create an offensive or one-sided mentality between the community and teens using drugs. Instead, the group wanted to push for drug education, so that teens would have the information that could enable them to make safer and more informed choices if or when they experiment with drugs.

Of course, the idea of having a center for teens was brought up. On multiple occasions, the Funhouse and groups of well-meaning parents have tried to launch teen nights; however, these great ideas have never been truly effective. The common assumption is that teens don’t want a hangout place. This is simply not true. When Orcas High School students were asked what they wanted to see in their community, the number one response was a place to hang out, socialize, or just to go.

However, the group acknowledged that the reality is that most teenagers won’t be particularly attracted to spending time at an event or institution created and instigated by well-meaning adults. If a teen center, shuttle, etc. is going to be successful, it would definitively have to be run by and for high school students, like a Co-Op. There is a demand for such a place, but those demanding it are going to have to step up to make it happen.

Obstacle to Confronting Drug Use on Our Island:

The biggest obstacle of addressing teen drug use, however, lies within ourselves. As Jenson pointed out, many parents would like to help the kids they see struggling with drug problems, however, their concern about that child’s affect on their own children eclipses the sympathy they may feel for other kids. Parents and community members are not necessarily judgmental about drug use, but they do worry about the effect it could have on their children and in their community. Regardless of where this worry stems from, it creates an environment in which kids and teens susceptible to, or struggling with, drug use are not encouraged to participate in the sports, clubs, classes, or activities that could make an impact on their lives, something attested to by many of those at the event.

It was also recognized that this issue is not necessarily one of motivation, but of another form of negative peer pressure. Why would a high schooler contribute a lot of effort participating in an activity where they might be made to feel unwanted, even if this occurs through generally accepted measures such as drug contracts? The process of discouraging “troubled” or “rebellious” kids from partaking in our community is viewed by some as essentially a form of shaming, which might actually result in increased drug use. Instead, the group accepted that overrall we need to convert our community mindset, so that we accept and support the people who use drugs, but not the drug use itself. This would be a vital step in reforming our drug culture, as shaming doesn’t address the entire picture or every case of drug use. Most drug use is resultant of a lack of a support system, as established in the talk. To really reduce teen drug use, our community should be this support system.

Lucky for you, “Let’s Talk” is a series of comprehensive discussions about teen drug use. It is open to everyone in the community and is both incredibly relevant and important. An open and honest discussion held for our community is a rarity that we are privileged to be able to participate in. If you want to join the discussion and community-wide effort, or simply share your experience with and opinions about drug use, please join us at Beth Jenson’s next talk, which will be held in January. At the upcoming meeting, the Orcas High School Point Blank Club will help present the topic and lead a discussion. The talk is open to teens, parents, and all community members. Its time to gather the community together and say “Let’s Talk.”