On a recent evening, the Montclair High School's atrium was packed with about 200 parents. They were there to learn more about something their kids already know a lot about: teens and marijuana.
National statistics show that teen marijuana use is on the upswing, hitting a 30-year high last year while—at the same time—alcohol and other drug use is declining. In the last 15 years, marijuana’s potency has increased by 175%. Some 60 percent of teens in rehab are there for reasons related to marijuana. Data shows that one in 15 high school seniors get high every day. Of those frequent smokers, one quarter to one half will become addicted.
Montclair High School hosted this event against the backdrop of these alarming facts. The panel included Jasmin McCloud, Substance Abuse Counselor at COPE Counseling Center in Montclair, Andrew Evangelista, Student Assistance Counselor at MHS, Detective Sean DePoe of the Montclair Police Department, Officer Kim Nelson, police officer based at the MHS, the parents of a 2011 MHS graduate, and a 17-year-old former MHS student.
McCloud began the session by speaking about the dangers of the drug, the fact that it is addictive, and leads to depression and anxiety, and the loss of motivation and interest in school. She said that marijuana is by far the most common drug she treats: 80% of the teenagers she sees have an abuse problem with marijuana, well above alcohol, pills, or anything else.
She cautioned that marijuana use should not be taken lightly. The younger students start, the more likely they are to become addicted. Most users begin smoking between age 12 and 15, so parents need to be vigilant a lot earlier than many realize. By the time they get to the high school, they have almost certainly been exposed to the drug.
Evangelista spoke about how MHS responds when a teacher files a report when they believe a student is in class under the influence. It is considered a medical emergency, and the student is sent to the nurse, while an administrator calls the parents. The child is required to go be drug tested and if positive, receive out patient counseling and continue to be drug tested.
Nelson spoke about her role at MHS. She will not charge students who are under the influence, only if they are in possession of drugs. In that situation, she is required to arrest them, handcuff them, and take them to the police station in a police car. She said she makes about five arrests a year.
The most powerful speakers came last. The father of a young man who graduated from MHS last year spoke emotionally about how his son became enmeshed in marijuana and how his relationship with his family, and eventually his life, unraveled. Despite being an outstanding student and a varsity athlete, marijuana gradually overtook his life, and with much anguish the family took the step of having him leave home for rehab for four months.
Upon his return to Montclair, in April of his senior year, the lure of his friends were too much for him to resist, and he relapsed several times before having to get away again before leaving for college, where he is able to live in a drug-free environment. And, happily, he's doing well now.
This dad spoke of how confused and lost he felt when his concerns were minimized by the notion that “it’s just pot," and not a serious drug. They didn’t know for a long time that their son was addicted.
His mother also spoke and focused on how it took the family awhile to grasp the seriousness of their son’s addiction. One therapist even told them it was “normal” behavior. Their son was able to maintain decent grades and his sports participation, but his parents knew in their hearts, he was not okay. Looking back, they realize they were in denial, hoping that he was just being a teenager, that it was a phase, not realizing how addictive and destructive marijuana can be.
The final speaker was a 17-year-old former MHS student, who told his story. He experimented with marijuana with friends in 8th grade, gradually increasing his use through 9th grade, cutting classes, his grades falling, losing interest in everything else. Even though his family was aware of his use, they were unable to stop him. All his friends got high every day; it was what they did. He followed the addict’s path of stealing money from family, friends, tip jars. After lying, being depressed, and eventually dropping out of school in the winter of his sophomore year, he hit bottom. Finally, in June of that year, he entered in-patient rehab, stayed for a month, and was able to return home and start over. Now he is doing well in boarding school, but life back at MHS is not an option.
After the presentations, the panelists answered questions from the audience for a good 45 minutes. The evening had to end with many parents still holding their hands in the air. TV34 recorded the speakers and the event can be seen at http://cvp.telvue.com/player?id=T01411&video=54624.