Marin forum spotlights youth drug, alcohol problem

Thirty-three Marin teens intercepted on a party bus carrying drugs and alcohol in June. Recurring violations of Marin’s social host ordinance designed to crack down on teen drinking. Seventeen deaths from drug overdoses of all ages in 2014.

With these grim facts in mind, Marin educators, parents, students, elected officials and law enforcement met at the Marin County Office of Education’s San Rafael headquarters this week to brainstorm possible solutions — at least one of which is already in the works.

“Data collected over the years tells us our kids are using substances at a higher rate than elsewhere in the state,” Mary Jane Burke, Marin County superintendent of schools, told a crowd of about 300 people as she opened the event. “This is a public health issue.”

The schools superintendent praised the Marin Prevention Network and its partners “for the work they have done and the strong position they are taking to ensure that the entire community comes together on behalf of this issue.”

The network is made up of dozens of Marin coalitions that work to curb youth substance abuse. Members of the various coalitions were on hand at the event.

Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County’s public health officer, said, “Marin County is the healthiest county in California, at the top in all health categories but three: DUI, excessive drinking and the poison mortality rate.” There were 17 drug overdose deaths in Marin for all ages in 2014, according to the health department’s preliminary data.

Central Marin police Cpl. Jenna McVeigh, the officer who busted the party bus, and the department’s interim chief, Michael Norton, shared details of the June incident in Larkspur.

“A lot of people said, ‘Every one of those kids should have been cited for being in possession of alcohol. You were too lenient,’” Norton said. The interim chief explained that to be cited for possession, a suspect must be in possession — a substance in his or her backpack, for example.

Student roles
Along with law enforcement officers and health professionals, a majority of the county’s high school and middle school principals and school district superintendents showed up, as well as about 40 students.

“The students reminded us that if we want to solve this problem, we need to be sure they are included in the conversation,” Burke said after the meeting.

“Many of you know what it’s like to be a kid, but for some of you, it may be a distant memory,” Ruby Clarke, a student who won the Heart of Marin Youth Volunteer Award in January, told the group, getting a laugh.

“We know what is happening now, what is the reality for youth,” said Clarke, who lives in Point Reyes and is active with Communities Mobilizing for Change on Alcohol.

Clarke’s words were reinforced by other young people as the crowd split up into small groups at tables throughout the room sharing information and brainstorming solutions.

“It’s a norm — it’s considered OK to give being under pressure as an excuse (for substance abuse),” said Ryan Finnane, a Marin County high school senior. “Students will say, ‘I’m a senior, I have college applications going on, I’m so stressed.’ The pressure is one norm that goes all the way back to the school system.”

According to another student sitting at Ryan’s table, a common remark might be, “I need to get blacked after the SAT.” (“Blacked” is short for “black out.”)

Ryan said that the norm is, “It’s (drinking) not to sit back and be happy, but to be drunk.”
Heather Richardson, the facilitator of Ryan’s group, paraphrased Ryan’s comment, “The game plan is drinking to get drunk, it’s a social norm.” Richardson is active with the West Marin Coalition for Healthy Kids.

Seeking solutions
The small groups scattered around the room also brainstormed to come up with solutions to the problem that could be achieved in the next six months to a year.

One suggestion was a law banning people under 21 from renting a bus without adult supervision in Marin, said Kristen Law, prevention coordinator for the county Department of Health and Human Services. Law heads up the Marin Prevention Network.

Another idea would be putting up signs at school athletic fields with reminders that alcohol is not permitted on school grounds, even if it’s on the weekend at a sports activity of a local league. Outside sports leagues often use school fields.

Another approach: “We need to use events like this as a catalyst to bring youth and adults together to find solutions,” Law said.

“The Youth Leadership Institute, a statewide organization, does that. We need to expand the great work the Marin County Youth Commission is doing,” Law said.

“This is already starting. I had a meeting with the Youth Leadership Institute today on how we can bring the young people they work with together with the adults in the coalition,” Law said.
Organizers said attendance at the event surpassed their expectations.

“The positive outcome was the turnout at the event and finally the realization that our community has a youth and adult drug and alcohol problem. Admission of the problem is the first step toward solutions,” said Greg Knell, a Marin County commissioner for RxSafe Marin and co-chair of the Community Based Prevention Action Team.

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