READI reports heroin use is up
Drug program finds students are less afraid of hard drugs
The end of the school year brings to a close another year of the READI program, San Dieguito Union High School District’s unique Recovery Education and Alcohol/Drug Instruction program.
Joe Olesky, SDUHSD substance abuse counselor who runs READI with partner Tiffany Findell, had another busy year working with students who were found abusing illegal substances. He said about 150 to 180 students this year were referred to the READI program, a number that has held steady for years.
“We saw more kids in the north end this year,” Olesky said, referring to the high schools in the northern part of the district, La Costa Canyon in Carlsbad and San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas. “It’s not that the south end doesn’t have the same problems. It’s just that these are the kids we catch.” The high schools in the southern portion of the district are Torrey Pines and Canyon Crest Academy.
What schools the kids come from matters less to Olesky than the trends in drug use, which he said this year include a rise in heroin use and continued interest in prescription drugs.
“A lot of the kids are getting into prescription pills, especially the painkillers, the narcotics,” he said. “Kids unfortunately hear the word prescription, so they register it as safe, legal, you can control it, you’re not going to overdose on something like this. The problem is most of the narcotics out there are heroin- and morphine-based.”
Favorites include some medicine cabinet standards like Vicodin and Percocet. Heavier narcotics like Demerol and OxyContin are also being used in record numbers, particularly OxyContin.
“OxyContin is probably the biggest worry that we have out there, because it’s oxycodone. It’s synthesized morphine,” Olesky said.
He said each pill is about $40, and it’s being smoked. “It’s very expensive so it’s become somewhat of a social status [to] afford this,” he said. “They’re getting addicted, and they don’t see that. We do have kids who are using this once or twice a day, but not to get high. It’s to get rid of the withdrawal symptoms so they can function in school.”
Making matters worse, heroin is losing its negative stigma and becoming more popular. Olesky said kids first try smoking it and then switch to injecting it because that’s more economical. “It’s still relatively cheap,” he said. “It’s going for about $15 to $30 for about half a gram. That is enough to shoot up twice a day.”
Olesky said this is the first year kids in the READI program are saying they aren’t afraid of heroin. “Every single year before this year, they said, ‘I’m definitely afraid of heroin. I would never do that,’” he said. “This is probably the first year where the kids say, ‘No, not really.’ They’re really not afraid of it. They’ll say, ‘I know some kids who are shooting heroin or smoking heroin, and they seem to be OK.’”
Olesky makes it his job to keep up with the latest trends in adolescent drug use not just locally but throughout the region and the country.
The new heroin on the streets is about 80 percent pure, as opposed to about 25 percent pure in previous years, Olesky said. “The sad thing is that kids are overdosing on this,” he said, quickly adding that there have luckily been no deaths of San Dieguito students. “The problem is that the new heroin is very potent. So we have kids who are … dying with the needle in their arm because it’s so powerful.”
A second chance
Entry into the READI program, where the motto is “Education is the foundation of prevention,” begins when students are found in possession of alcohol, drugs or drug paraphernalia, or are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Students, and parents on their children’s behalf, can also request voluntary participation.
Olesky said students high or intoxicated on campus or at school-sponsored events are referred to the READI program but not arrested. Kids caught in possession of controlled substances, though, will be arrested and may be expelled. Kids selling drugs are automatically expelled.
First offenders may face suspension, which means a forced absence from school with no chance to make up the work. A referral to the READI program gives kids a second chance, Olesky said.
READI requires three full days in Olesky’s classroom at San Dieguito Academy where offenders learn about the dangers of alcohol use, particularly binge drinking, and drug use. In addition, READI students are required to perform community service and attend either Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. It is an excused absence, so students are able to make up the work and avoid receiving a zero for missed assignments or tests.
Prior to the READI program, violators were expelled or suspended, a common consequence at most school districts. But SDUHSD school board members felt this approach was not adequately addressing the problem and supported the creation of a school-administered program aimed at helping local youth avoid the pitfalls of drug and alcohol abuse.
The READI program provides a way to intervene in a student’s potential downfall and turn around kids who can be changed through education.
The majority of the READI kids are caught either high or drunk at school or school events, but parents can voluntarily enroll their children in READI at any time.
“This year we had a lot of kids who were caught off campus by their parents … who put their kids into the READI program,” Olesky said. These are parents who came home one day to find their son or daughter getting high, found drug paraphernalia in the house, or came upon other irrefutable evidence of substance abuse, he said.
Concern about their kids being labeled by school administrators as drug users is an unnecessary worry, Olesky said. “We have a relationship with the parent and the kid,” he said. “The administration doesn’t need to know your business. We’re not getting the counselors involved; we’re not getting the administrators involved.”
Parents can also notify the READI counselors anonymously of substance abuse by their own kids or other kids, Olesky said.
Students too can alert SDUHSD adults of substance abuse by other students, when they become concerned for the health and safety of friends. All students are guaranteed anonymity and can report dangerous activity directly to Olesky or Findell by phone, e-mail or in person.
A recent rumor about SDUHSD students selling heroin at one of the high schools is not true, said both Olesky and SDUHSD superintendent Ken Noah. If that had happened, both said the students would definitely have been expelled, regardless of how close they might have been to graduating.
“We’re not going to be playing games with that here in the San Dieguito Union High School District,” Olesky said.
Olesky distinguished between being caught high on drugs and selling drugs. Selling heroin on campus is a felony and means, “That’s it, you’re expelled,” he said.
If students are caught with a controlled substance at school, they can be arrested, even if they opt for the READI program. “The READI program isn’t going to be in lieu of legal problems,” he said.
Olesky cited Adderall, a common drug taken by students suffering from diagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder.
“Adderall is a controlled substance,” he said. “We have a lot of kids using it for ADD and ADHD. But if you’re giving it to other students … then you will go before the board and have an expulsion hearing.”
New and more dangerous drugs
The perception that high schools with football teams have higher incidents of alcohol abuse seems to hold true. “That’s always been that way,” Olesky said. “The jocks tend to be more the alcohol drinkers.”
Those high schools are La Costa Canyon and Torrey Pines. San Dieguito Academy and Canyon Crest Academy do not have football teams, but that doesn’t mean they are drug- and alcohol-free, he said.
“One school might be more into alcohol, another might be into Ecstasy, another might be into marijuana,” he said. “It all depends upon the cliques that are at the school.”
Olesky reported a rise in interest for hallucinogens, including LSD and mushrooms. Another popular drug is salvia divinorum, a psychoactive plant. Although legal, Olesky said it is far from harmless.
Other new drugs on the market include pep spice, jimson weed, morning glory seeds, ivory wave and vanilla sky. Olesky said pep spice is sold in smoke shops as an incense, but kids are smoking it for its synthetic THC content — and also because it won’t show up on drug tests. But Olesky called it “a nasty high.”
Jimson weed, or datura stramonium, is a hallucinogenic plant that contains dangerous levels of poison, as do morning glory seeds which when consumed can be fatal.
“They’re eating Mother Nature’s poison, and they’re hallucinating really, really bad,” Olesky said.
Ivory wave and vanilla sky are sold as bath salts and mimic the effects of cocaine when snorted, Olesky said. “It has somewhat of an anesthetic property to it, so it’s numbing the nose and getting them high for about thirty minutes, just like real cocaine,” he said. “This is creeping up on us.”
Olesky said this year he and Findell have seen more kids into heavier drugs than in years prior when the majority of kids were caught abusing alcohol or marijuana. “Now we’re starting to see the increase in Ecstasy, the increase in heroin, the increase in the prescription pills,” he said. “Even though we’re seeing the same number of kids – about 150 a year which is a lot – they’re all really high-end kids this year.”
Students referred to the READI program are not always caught abusing their main choice of drugs. “They might have gotten caught on campus with marijuana, but truly their primary drug was either prescription drugs or heroin,” he said, explaining how he is able to keep up on trends.
Olesky advised parents to keep a watchful eye on their kids and not be afraid to invade their privacy. “You’ve got to go through your kid’s room,” he said. “It isn’t about breaking their privacy. This is for their own safety. Look for the paraphernalia — look for straws, mirrors, razor blades, any pills, anything taped underneath the bed or underneath drawers.”
Despite the evidence that substance abuse by youth has continued unabated over the years, Olesky said he is not discouraged by the numbers.
“That’s the nature of drug and alcohol use across the country,” he said. “Tiffany and I, we get excited to come to work because there’s always new challenges and different scenarios. We always know we are making a difference in our school district and with our kids and our families and in the community.”
Marsha Sutton can be reached at SuttComm@san.rr.com.
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