“I first started getting high when I was in the 8th and 9th grade. I didn’t quit until I was 50. It’s a good story, though.”
Garfield High School’s 9th graders are starting a new, six-week curriculum intended to educate and deter them from drug use. John Houston, who works for Puget Sound Educational Service Districts and is contracted by the Seattle School Distract, will instruct 400-600 students during their health period, teaching them from his first-hand account.
And it comes at the right time. In Seattle, there are more than 20 adolescent rehab centers. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that illegal drug use remains high among teenagers (ages 13-18), largely due to the increasing popularity of marijuana. While national statistics show that drugs like inhalants, hallucinogens, and cocaine are being used less by teens, marijuana and ecstasy are on the rise. A study by the University of Michigan found that 9.6 percent of teens were regular cigarette smokers, while 15.6 percent smoked marijuana regularly.
“My drug use was 36 years. As a kid, I started in middle school to have some fun. And I did have some fun, but then it turned into an addiction. That’s what we need to help these kids avoid,” Houston said. “The two teachers who I work with at Garfield are very open and welcoming because they see that 9th graders coming need a reality check. In this neighborhood there are people who use and sell heroin. You could probably walk to the park next to Garfield right now and buy used needles. I was just down at AM/PM at 23rd and Cherry and I was offered a “fun time” for some money. We know that it’s the kids out there who will buy the $200 tennis shoes, the phone, the name-brand cloths; they have money and that’s who the drug dealers target.”
Houston’s six-week program rolls out like this: Students are reminded that they’re in high school now and that it’s serious; grades count. He talks about what can detract from their academic and future success, like choosing healthy friend groups and people to surround themselves with. He tells them about drugs and addiction, about the temptation to give into peer pressure. Then he teaches them techniques to refuse advances when they’re offered, since it’s only a matter of time.
But peer pressure or being offered drugs isn’t the only reason that a teen might take up a habit. Teens might start using drugs to self-medicate.
“Adults have happy hour. We can stop on the way after work and have a drink to decompress, so what do the kids do when they’re stressed out about school?” Houston said. “We have some ideas that work; there are ways to de-stress yourself without ingesting chemicals.”
Sports, for example. Getting engaged in local community centers where mentoring and tutoring is offered. Learning how to use the Link light rail and going on walks.
“There are lots of things to do, so I try to make them aware of those, and the dangers of drugs,” Houston said.” I show them some pretty vivid outcomes of drug use. I’m legally blind, and have 36 screws and two plates in my arm, which can be attributed to drug use.”
Houston was also living on the streets for a time.
If teens start thinking about and using drugs around the 9th grade, I asked Houston why the program wasn’t instead offered during the middle school years as a preemptive measure. He assured me that other people from his program were working with Garfield’s feeder schools, like Madrona and Washington Middle School.
Because of budget and manpower, Houston said, “We’re not going to help everybody, but we can help some.”
Its up to parents to make up for whatever is lacking.