October 16, 2021

The kids are all right, mostly

Drug use among county teens hits record lows

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

A student gets off a bus Friday at Homer Central High School. Data from Cortland Area Communities that Care shows that drug use by adolescents in Cortland County is down to its lowest level since at least 2002.

The days of teens being drug-crazed party animals may be over, or at least diminished. Alcohol, marijuana and tobacco usage for students in grades seven to 12 is down to record lows, show statistics compiled by Cortland Area Communities That Care from a survey of 2,000 Cortland County students.

Use of alcohol, marijuana and nicotine — the most common drugs teens use — is down between 17% and 67% since 2002, said Matt Whitman, director of Cortland Area Communities that Care.

Vaping is up 1,680% between 2010 and 2018, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — the technology wasn’t widely available 18 years ago — and only 49.4% of students see weekly marijuana use as a risk, but the use itself is down.

That’s in line with a national trend, he said, but nobody really knows why. Not that Whitman is complaining.

“It’s hard to pinpoint one thing or a series of things,” he said. “It’s a lot of contributing factors that play into it.” Matthew Barber, a ninth-grader at Cortland High School, is avoiding drugs.

“I think they’re bad,” he said. “I think they can really damage someone’s life and overall, you should avoid doing them.”

Still, he knows people who do drugs. “I try to avoid people who do drugs because it can lead you to trouble,” he said.

‘We can never say our job is finished’

Jill Pace, the health and wellness coordinator for Cortland Enlarged City School District, said education may contribute to the decline.

The school district uses a curriculum that promotes pro-social attitudes and behavior to resist peer pressure to use drugs. It includes goal-setting, communications and decision-making skills.

“Students can draw upon these skills in any position where there is risky behavior,” she said.

Students also get hard data on the effect of drugs, but Pace said students will need constant new education what drugs can do to them.

“We can never say our job is finished,” she said. “We have to keep working with our children so they grow up safely.”

Alexis Blavos, an associate professor in the health department at SUNY Cortland, said education is a contributing factor, but she focuses more on teaching the educators than the children.

“The better trained the instructors, the better the outcomes are going to be for the kids,” she said.

The information the students get while they’re young may be helpful for when they reach college, she said.

However, access has changed. While police tactics have remained constant, said Cortland police Lt. Michael Strangeway, Cortland County banned the sale of tobacco products to people under 21 in 2016 — years ahead of New York and the rest of the nation.

Statistically, county health officials have said, the longer young people go before they try a drug, the less likely they are to ever use it.

The use of drugs at an early age can be detrimental to the the students brain development, she said.

That’s why it’s important to target younger students.

“If there are fewer higher schoolers using drugs, the less likely there will be college students using drugs,” Blavos said.

Social norms

The use of drugs at events like high school parties is not as big an issue as it was when Strangeway was younger, both as a teen and a cop, he said.

“We just don’t have that, anymore,” he said. “The trend seems to be shifting away from any social acceptance of that sort of behavior anymore.”

Strangeway, a 25-year police veteran, said the department used to have to crack down more on parties where teens and pre-teens were drinking than before from the 1990s to the early 2000s.

Source: Cortland Area Communities that Care. Graphics by Emily Au/digital content associate

It’s not just kids’ education, he said; it’s their attitude toward drugs.

“I think more people are more comfortable to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do that and that I’m not going to be bullied into doing that,’” he said.

Strangeway, though, said he some concerns of middle school students vaping and his concerns aren’t unwarranted. Use of electronic cigarettes in the past 30 days has doubled among eighth-graders to 10%, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Source: Cortland Area Communities that Care. Graphics by Emily Au/digital content associate

“I just hope that kids — young adults — continue to make good decisions for themselves and for their own health and safety,” he said.

Where next? Wait and see

Whitman is pleased with the trend, but he’s looking for gaps in the data.

Should his organization survey younger kids? Is there a difference between usage between rural and urban communities? Vaping is still new; what are its long-term effects on the development of teens’ brains?

“The biggest concern with vaping is we don’t know the long-term consequences,” even though the long-term effects of nicotine have long been studied, Whitman said.

This includes what effects they have on developing brains of middle and high schoolers, he said.

Policies on banning flavored liquids for electronic cigarettes and raising the age of purchasing tobacco have been enacted, but data on their effectiveness will take time.

“We really won’t know what’s happening for a few years,” he said.

Additionally, more research will need to be done on how mental health, specifically anxiety and depression, affects how students use drugs.

An April 2019 report published by the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found a 52% increase in the number of people 12 to 17 with depression between 2005 and 2017.

Likewise, there was a 20% increase in children ages 13 to 18 who experienced an anxiety disorder between 2007 and 2012, according to the National Institutes of Health. Nearly one in three teens in that age group experienced an anxiety disorder.

These factors may play into whether or not a teen uses drugs. And so might other factors, said teen Barber, like how drugs affect those around them, not just the user.

“I think it (using electronic cigarettes) could pollute the environment and the air and affect our wildlife,” Barber said.

He said not everyone would pay attention to the health effects, but he still believes people who use drugs can change.

“Try to quit,” he said. “I know it’s hard, but try.”