Sharply dressed and evoking a maturity and composure that belied his 16 years, Casa Grande High School junior Jesse Pleinnikul took to the podium Monday to discuss an evening he didn’t quite remember.
The first part was there — a heady mix of alcohol, marijuana and the prescription anxiety medication Xanax, all said to be up for grabs at a weekend party in late February. Yet how he ended up home in his bed that night, awoken by parents alerted from the unusual debris covering his parked car, was a mystery.
Speaking to a gathering of parents, students, law enforcement, school officials and others at Casa Grande High School, Pleinnikul acknowledged that the outcome of his experience could have been much worse.
“I put myself at risk of not waking up,” he said.
Framing his remorse in a teachable context, Pleinnikul’s anecdote launched the inaugural meeting of Petaluma Parents Against Drugs on Monday, a new group that organizers described as a grassroots effort to raise awareness — and perhaps prompt new initiatives — around the reported abuse of prescription medicine, drugs and alcohol by the city’s youth.
Spurred by her son’s experience, Kathleen Rose Stafford said she joined with fellow Petaluma parent Heather Elliott-Hudson to launch the effort out of concern that prescription drug abuse in particular was quietly growing in the city.
“We just decided, ‘You know what? We’re not going to wait until something happens. We’re going to take this on,’” said Rose Stafford.
The co-founders of the group noted that their effort was in the very early stages, and cited a positive early response as a sign that others shared their concerns.
“That’s our whole path right now, to start talking,” said Elliott-Hudson.
Abuse of prescription drugs, particularly high-potency opioid-type painkillers like oxycodone, has been a matter of growing concern across the entire country in recent years, according to information from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Such drugs are now attributable for more deaths nationally than heroin and cocaine combined, according to the Administration’s most recent National Drug Threat Assessment Summary.
Meanwhile, data from Petaluma schools and law enforcement indicate that cases involving drugs other than marijuana are still responsible for a relatively small percentage of documented cases of drug activity involving minors locally.
Of the 38 expulsions in the school year that ended in 2015, three were related to drugs other than marijuana, according to information from Petaluma City Schools, the city’s largest district. It was a similar story from law enforcement — non-marijuana drug cases constituted five of the city’s 35 drug-and-alcohol-related cases involving minors in 2015, according to data from the Petaluma Police Department.
Despite those relatively low numbers, young drug users in the city are still showing up in at least one reliable place on many weekends — the emergency room at Petaluma Valley Hospital. While the facility treats drug and alcohol incidents off all kinds, the stakes have gotten higher as users are mixing various drugs and alcohol with potentially deadly side effects, said Wendi Thomas, nursing director of critical care and emergency services at the hospital.
“Yes, it’s happening in Petaluma,” Thomas said. “Nobody is immune.”
As another testament to rising concern, the office of North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman on Wednesday announced that Petaluma Health Center would receive $325,000 to help support substance abuse services, part of a $1.3 million award of federal funding to health centers in his district. A full $94 million awarded nationally is aimed to combat opioid abuse in particular, according to the announcement.