When I need an honest answer about why kids use drugs and how drugs impact their lives, I go straight to the experts — the kids themselves.
Not so very long ago at the Juvenile Justice Detention Center I sat in a circle with three girls and two boys, ages 14-17. I’ve been sitting in circles with kids in detention for 12 years now, and every week they teach me something new.
“We sit in a circle because we’re all teachers,” I always tell them. “I learn more from you than you could ever learn from me.”
That is the simple truth. These kids are wise beyond their years. They know, all too well, what alcohol and other drugs do to their bodies, minds, hearts, and souls. They know where drugs can take them and how hard it is to climb out of that dark hole and start over again.
We go around the circle, as we always do, and they tell me their name, age, drug of choice, and the age when they started using. In this group, the average age of first use is 10.
Three kids started using alcohol or marijuana at age 9, one at 11 and one at 13. I’ve changed names, ages and identifying details to protect confidentiality.
The drug of choice for four of five kids is marijuana. And the fifth? “Weed used to be my drug of choice,” Nick, 15, says. “But then it didn’t get me high anymore, it just got boring. So I started using pills and coke. And then I got hooked on meth.”
“Do you think weed is a gateway drug?” I ask. They all nod their heads. This always surprises me. I expected most kids to deny that marijuana leads to other drug use. But this group is typical of most — nine out of 10 kids in detention agree that marijuana is a gateway drug.
“I started using weed and alcohol when I was 9,” says Jade, 16. When she was 12, she started using prescription pills and two years later she moved on to cocaine and meth.
“My dad and I researched marijuana’s effect on the body,” Jade continues. “It stops brain growth. It also affects the memory part of the brain and motor skills. And it changes your personality.”
“Marijuana is a bad drug,” Ken, 17, says, leaning forward in his chair. “When you get high, you’re just not the same person. Your mind is altered. It affects your growth. I wish I’d known that when I first tried it.”
“You build up a tolerance to it,” Nick says, “and then you get curious about other drugs so you think, OK, let’s try something else.”
Carrie, 15, started with marijuana and alcohol when she was 9. Two years later she was addicted to meth. “Weed gives you short-term memory loss,” she says. “It makes you fat. And, yeah, it’s a gateway drug.”
“It’s not that bad,” says Alison, 14. She started using at 13, and the only drugs she uses so far are marijuana and prescription pills.
“You’re in denial,” Ken says.
“Yeah,” Alison laughs, “I probably am.”
I’m always struck by the ambivalence kids express about their “favorite” drug. It’s not so bad, they say. It’s “natural.” “Why would God put it on this earth if he didn’t want us to use it?” Then, in the next breath, they talk about tolerance, craving, brain damage and altered personalities.
“So, what will happen if we legalize marijuana?” I ask, because the question is on my mind these days. “Do you think more kids and younger kids will have greater access to it?”
Once again, in unison, they all nod their heads. “Suppose somebody in their 20s is walking down the street with a legal bag of weed,” Ken says.
“Some high school kid comes up to him and asks if he can buy some. So this guy thinks, Hey, I can make 20 bucks just by giving this kid a little bit of my weed. Don’t you think that’s going to be tempting to a lot of people?”
These kids always give me something to think about.
Kathy Ketcham is the co-author of 14 books and executive director of Trilogy Recovery Community. For more information, go to www.trilogyrecovery.org.