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West Sonoma County leaders target higher rates of teen pot use

Published: Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 2:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 2:32 p.m.

An effort is underway in Sebastopol to target an unusually high rate of marijuana use by west Sonoma County teenagers, particularly in high school, where more than half of the 11th-graders admit to having smoked pot.

“It is a severe cultural problem. One of the counselors calls it epidemic proportions,” said Diane Davis, coordinator of the West County Coalition for Alcohol and Drug-Free Youth, a county health department program.

Sonoma County teens use marijuana at a higher rate than the state average, and the west county has the highest rates within Sonoma County, according to the California Healthy Kids Survey, taken every two years.

Keller McDonald, superintendent of the West County High School District, said incidents of students caught possessing, using or being under the influence of marijuana on campus is minor, but he believes the survey is accurate and raises concerns.

“We see it as a health concern and a cultural trend,” McDonald said. “The use and the cultural trend does have an effect on student achievement. It is connected with overall student health.”

The effort to combat marijuana use by teens involves schools, police, alcohol and drug counselors and members of the community, according to Police Chief Jeff Weaver.

The efforts include providing a resource guide for parents, implementing anti-drug and alcohol use programs in the middle schools, and bringing in a speaker next week to address middle school and high school students and parents.

According to the latest California Healthy Kids Survey, taken in 2011, 55 percent of west county 11th graders and 29 percent of west county 9th graders said they have smoked marijuana.

In comparison, 51 percent of Sonoma County 11th graders and 29 percent of 9th graders said they have smoked marijuana. The statewide figures are 42 percent for 11th graders and 25 percent for 9th graders.

Davis said teenagers tell her that marijuana is very easy to get and they consider smoking it a normal thing to do. In large part, she blames that viewpoint on the permissive attitude held by their parents.

“There is an attitude around marijuana use that it is not that harmful, it is not a big deal,” Davis said. “Parents play a role. Parents have similar beliefs, they say 'We did it as kids and look, I have a full-time job.'”

The problem, however, is the marijuana available now is five to seven times more potent than pot used in the 1970s and much more likely to affect the adolescent brain, Davis said.

Research shows that in 13, 14 and 15 year olds, it hinders brain and IQ development, causes a lack of motivation and drive, and impacts short- and long-term memory, Davis said.

Michael McCracken, coordinator of Project Success Plus, an anti-drug and alcohol use program at Analy High School, said the addiction cycle for young adults is five to eight months, a very short period of time when compared to adults.

Marijuana use among teens often results in absenteeism, lower grades, problems at home and administrative sanctions, McCracken said.

Weaver said he became aware of the extent of the problem last year, when he was helping a local family who had three of their four teenaged children run away.

“It was a picture-perfect family otherwise,” Weaver said. “We found they had easily gotten into drug use and alcohol use. When I looked into it, I found there was a bigger underbelly than I knew.”

Weaver met with school administrators, counselors and community members last August to discuss the problem. Out of that came the outline of a program that will attempt to stem marijuana use by Sebastopol students.

A resource guide for Sebastopol parents is being prepared with information on counseling for both academics and drug and alcohol use, and sports and recreation.

McDonald said the district is looking for an alcohol and drug abuse program for middle schools, along with how that message will be delivered.

And $6,000 was raised to bring Calvin Terrell, the founder of Social Centric and a former Upward Bound teacher, to speak Wednesday and Thursday to middle schools, Analy High School students and Sebastopol parents.

The public session is from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday in the Analy High School auditorium. It will be followed by a $5 pasta dinner.

Terrell has been the keynote speaker at the National Teen Leadership Program in Sacramento for the past four years and his message of personal responsibility, social justice and health and wellness resonates with teens.

“He lets you know there are other things in the world besides smoking with your friends. He is very blunt and harsh, but you need to hear it,” said Amanda Broffman, 18, an Analy senior who is a member of 1-4-1, short for One For One, a program of Analy students who talk to middle-school classes about drugs and alcohol and also work as mentors.

“I think people don't realize the negative effects (of drugs) because they see their friends do it so they think it is cool and see their parents do it and think it is cool,” she said.

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