WILMINGTON — Local felony-level drug offenders began using substances earlier, even as young as 8 years old, according to recently released data that many officials say underscore the importance of early prevention.
Data collected from pre-sentence investigations of drug offenders conducted in 2015 and 2016 show that the average age of first use of drugs or alcohol for both genders is in adolescence.
On average, boys begin drinking or using drugs at 16 years of age, though they ranged from nine to 23 years old. Girls, meanwhile, began using drugs or drinking alcohol at 12 years old, on average, and ranged from eight to 25 years of age.
Both boys and girls most commonly reported that their first substance used was alcohol followed by marijuana, but juvenile law enforcement officials say they have seen an increase in juvenile heroin and meth use.
“It is absolutely unbelievable,” said Clinton County Court of Common Pleas Judge John W. “Tim” Rudduck. “Almost invariably, it starts in the early teenage years.”
The court data roughly line up with a PRIDE Student Drug Use Survey of more than 1,900 Clinton County children done in 2014, which showed that children were between 13 and 14 on average when they began experimenting with alcohol or marijuana.
That survey showed that 39.5 percent of students reported using alcohol and 22.6 percent used an illicit drug, predominantly marijuana but also pain medication, sedatives, heroin, meth, steroids and others.
Many choose to use them at home, a friend’s house, in a car or at a party, according to the PRIDE survey.
“The longer we can keep youth from starting to use drugs, the less likely they are to abuse multiple drugs and the less likely they are to become drug dependent in their lifetime,” said Tommy Koopman, the director of health and wellness programs at Mental Health Recovery Services of Warren and Clinton Counties.
Some child marijuana smokers, Koopman said, will never progress to other drugs, some will become lifelong marijuana users and others will begin to use “harder” drugs like meth and heroin.
“There isn’t really a standard path from marijuana to heroin,” Koopman said. “And there isn’t necessarily a straight line forward from marijuana to heroin. However, there is a somewhat clear line backwards from heroin that usually points to marijuana use at a young age.”
Aside from the possibility of other drug use down the line, Jeff Rhein, MHRS’ director of alchol and drug addiction services said any substance use of a young age impacts a child’s development.
“Anything you do on a growing brain … can in turn effectively alter that organ for the rest of their lives,” said Rhein. “If somebody starts to use drugs or alcohol, or if somebody has a high brain at a young age, that may be the end of brain growth and development as we know it and now they’re sort of limping along.”
The reasons why children use are many and varied, according to those interviewed.
Koopman said substance use “basically hijacks” the brain’s dopamine centers, creating pleasure. At the same time, an adolescent brain’s prefrontal cortex, which helps a person make sound decisions, isn’t fully developed.
“It has a fully functioning gas pedal, but it basically has a weak brake pedal,” Koopman explained.
Chief juvenile probation officer Deanne Whalen, juvenile prosecutor Danielle Sollars and Wilmington City Schools Superintendent Ron Sexton said drug use crosses socioeconomic lines.
Sexton said many families in Clinton County are raised by strong, structured families, and he said studies show a decrease in children using alcohol, drugs and tobacco. But, he said, there are children who live in at-risk families, which Sexton said face more pressures than before, and there are children who use drugs, alcohol or tobacco.
As a result, Sexton said, schools are being made to respond to those different pressures, feeding children on the weekends and over the summer, having dogs sniff for drugs from time to time and keeping a school resource officer.
Whalen, who estimates that 80 percent of her 80-100 probationers use a substance, believes children are using drugs to “escape” their problems.
“A lot of the kids we work with, that’s their escape,” Whalen said. “Reality is not appealing. Nothing’s going right in their perception. Home life is shaky at best. Maybe they struggle with school. … Maybe they have a scrape with the law.”
Whalen said adolescents in those positions will look to immediate gratification, which can lead to drugs and in turn to behavior problems, self-medication of mental health problems, dependency, addiction or the use of other substances, including heroin and meth.
Additionally, Sollars and Whalen said, it’s not just marijuana and alcohol kids are using but increasingly meth and heroin, which Sollars said “signals not just more kids using, but heavier use.”
Sollars said meth and heroin use are more common in children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds or from broken families, but said the desire to experiment and discover is why so many do just that with drugs of all kinds.
Sollars and Whalen said they have also found that children with behavior problems – truancy, fighting, not doing well in school – also have a drug problem, and the two may feed into each other.
As for solutions, those interviewed had different ideas from a need for stronger families and more involved parents to educational programming.
By the time someone leaves high school and is potentially arrested and brought before his court, they’re often already a chronic drug user, according to Rudduck.
“We can’t ignore the fact that these problems don’t start when they become adults,” Rudduck said. “It’s so frustrating from a judicial standpoint because of all the broken homes we see.
“I think for those that are involved in drugs at an early age, they need to get some early education,” Rudduck continued. “It seems to me we need to develop some sort of approach to deal with substance abuse issues.”
“The most important question that we face as a society is how do we improve the family structure?” Sexton said. “How do we bring back the self-discipline, the motivation, the independence that I’m going to count on myself, not on society?”
Locally, Sexton said drug education is woven into the everyday curriculum in elementary and secondary health classes, and the schools host assemblies to talk about alcohol and drug use.
“Whether it’s right or wrong, schools are being forced to take on more parenting expectations than ever before,” Sexton said. “I know some parents don’t like that. … I agree with you.
But when parents aren’t there or don’t meet those expectations, the children still have to learn about a host of subjects, including social media, bullying, harassment, morality, sexting and drugs, to name a few.
“For many parents, that becomes upsetting,” he continued, empathizing with those parents. “Because our society has changed, schools have to.”
Sollars and Whalen said it’s important for parents to already have good relationships with their children by the time they reach adolescence, and it’s important to continue to build on that.
“They need a solid foundation to start to build their life on before they start to fall through the cracks,” Sollars said. “A big part of that is communication and accountability.”
Sollars and Whalen also said society has to work together to hold its own members accountable.
“We need to become a more cohesive, accountable society,” Sollars said. “If someone notices something that’s off” they should bring it to another’s attention or ask what’s wrong.
“Know your kids – know their friends, know what they’re doing, know where they spend their time, know their friends’ parents,” Whalen said, adding that it’s important for parents to have good communication with their children and those in contact with their children.
“It’s a parent responsibility to ask questions and demand answers,” Whalen said. “The more oversight you have over your child, the less likely they are to use substances or the more likely you are to catch it early.”
Whalen said parents have to stand up for their children, even against other parents who might host parties where kids drink or use drugs.
“It’s about involvement and us being responsible for our fellow citizen,” Whalen said. “You need to hold each other accountable. … That’s probably the best shot we have.”
Koopman and Rhein echoed comments about society responding to the issue, but stressed that everyone has to play a part.
“It’s important that the community is involved,” said Rhein. “It’s not just the schools, it’s not just the parents, it’s not just the police, it’s everyone sort of working together saying we want to have healthy individuals that contribute back to the community.”
“It can no longer be individual agencies working in silence,” said Koopman. “It has to be everybody.”
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