Tough lessons from a tragedy
Published: Monday, February 25, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 2:36 p.m.
This week's news regarding the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Petaluma teenager Alyssa Byrne last month serves as a grim warning to young people here that the recreational use of psychoactive drugs can have the most devastating consequences. Whether very many of them will heed that warning is unknown.
Illicit drug use is embedded in our culture, with the entertainment industry glorifying it in music and film. Illegal drug manufacturers and distributors ensure that the supply is abundant and many young people in Petaluma and elsewhere in the region seem willing to assume the risks of using such drugs to achieve an artificially-induced feeling of euphoria which, for many users, appears to have very little downside.
That was certainly the case during the waning days of 2012 in South Lake Tahoe where the SnowGlobe Music festival attracted an estimated 40,000 young people from throughout Northern California who came to party and enjoy the latest brand of electronic techno music known as “dubstep.”
Such events, like rave parties, feature the widespread use of so-called “club” drugs like MDMA (also known as “ecstasy” or “molly”) which combines a hallucinogenic chemical with methamphetamine, a powerful stimulant that can keep users dancing for many hours. Other drugs commonly consumed at such events include ketamine, an animal tranquilizer, flunitrazepam (also known as Rohypnol or “roofie”), methamphetamine and LSD.
Among the partygoers at SnowGlobe was 19-year-old Casa Grande High School graduate Alyssa Byrne, a gifted athlete and lacrosse player who excelled playing Little League baseball on boys teams until she was 14. Described as “happy and full of life,” Alyssa worked as a hostess at Cattlemens Restaurant and was studying at Petaluma's SRJC campus to become a paramedic/firefighter. She lived with her parents, who remain heartbroken over losing their daughter and continue to wonder, as do many other Petaluma parents, how such a tragedy could have happened and whether it could have been prevented.
Alyssa was last seen on New Year's Eve, in sub-zero temperatures. Friends recall she was not acting quite herself when she unexpectedly left the concert grounds shortly before midnight. Her body was found a few days later behind a snow bank.
Authorities said this week that toxicology tests determined she died from hypothermia after ingesting a large quantity of methamphetamine as well as multiple other psychoactive drugs.
It's unknown how Alyssa came to have a toxic level of methamphetamine in her system. Maybe she'd intentionally taken the drug. Or maybe she'd ingested pills advertised as ecstasy that were instead methamphetamine. There are, after all, no guarantees on the quality or quantity of a drug when buying it on the street.
Some of Alyssa's friends now acknowledge that they too were using psychoactive drugs during the festival, though it's unclear exactly what substances they'd consumed. Could Alyssa's life have been saved had one of her friends kept better track of her that night?
Alyssa's father certainly believes so. He and his wife have begun an “Always Buddy” public service campaign to help keep teens out of danger. It targets middle and high school students, encouraging them to seek safety with a friend, and advising they call an adult if a drug problem is detected.
The Byrnes are hoping that if someone knows their buddy is using drugs, they would contact a friend or parent to intercede. This practice could very well work in situations where a friend has taken a drug and subsequently become ill, especially if emergency medical care is required.
But what about young friends who are using drugs together? Would either contact a friend or parent to intercede? Probably not.
Despite the enjoyment that illegally manufactured psychoactive drugs provide to users, there are no totally safe ways to ingest them, and there are always risks involved. Ecstasy tablets are notoriously adulterated, and often contain chemicals other than MDMA. In addition to giving users a variety of highs ranging from increased energy to euphoria, such drugs can produce a range of unwanted effects, including hallucinations, paranoia, delirium, amnesia, low blood pressure, high blood pressure, dizziness, confusion, stomach upset, depression, breathing problems and, in some cases, death. Methamphetamine use can cause serious health concerns, including memory loss, aggression, psychotic behavior and heart problems. Also, there are differences among individuals in how they react to specific drugs, and no one can predict whether a drug will trigger or exacerbate a psychological disorder.
Beyond the Always Buddy program, Petaluma parents can use the recent tragedy as an opportunity to frankly and openly discuss with their children the potential consequences of using such drugs, and whether the risks involved are worth whatever perceived benefits are derived.
Hopefully, Alyssa Byrne's death will cause some young people to think more carefully about what substances they put in their bodies, and consider making wiser decisions than using street drugs when getting together for some fun with their friends.
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