YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

COUNTY REPORT: Old Drugs, Young Users, New Crisis

Teenage Addiction Escalates, Worries Experts

Abuse: A generation that doesn't remember the ravages of cocaine and heroin in years past is taking to them in shocking numbers, authorities say.


When teen drug use suddenly popped up as a hot issue of the 1996 presidential campaign, it only confirmed what many in Ventura County already knew:

Drugs--marijuana, LSD, methamphetamine, cocaine and even heroin--are swiftly growing more popular to a new generation of kids too young to have witnessed the devastation of decades past.

Talk to one of the victims, Anthony, 16, who speaks of smuggling speed into his high school computer class.

"We used to get down behind our textbook when the teacher wasn't looking, I'd be chopping up a line of crank," said the Oxnard teen, now serving time at Colston Youth Center for drug violations and truancy.

"You'd tell your friend, 'Hey, come here, I need help with this question,' " he recalled. "And you'd pass him the straw and do the line right there in the classroom."

Or speak to Judi Balcerzak-Dyer, a drug rehabilitation counselor struggling to treat swelling numbers of teenage addicts often entangled with several drugs at once.

"We're always at capacity, and we always have a waiting list," said Balcerzak-Dyer, who oversees the mix of county-run inpatient, outpatient and residential alcohol and drug programs for teens.

"Our referrals for adolescents in outpatient care used to total fewer than 60 a year, five years ago. We served over 200 last year, and our projections say we'll see 250 this year."

Sheriff's Capt. Craig Husband is another who has seen the rise in teen drug use as he has worked case after case, trying to stem the flood of drugs through the schools and playgrounds. "The most significant demographic trend is that no community's immune," he said. "It doesn't matter whether it's an affluent community or a poor community, the drugs are pervasive."

And then there are the prosecutors, men like Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Redmond, who has a growing pile of reports of crimes committed by teenage drug users.

"It's been an incredible rise," said Redmond, who estimates that 90% of juvenile crimes now involve drugs. "Seeing the ease with which they're able to obtain methamphetamine now is scary.

"And to see LSD and heroin coming back after two, three generations ago when you had all the rock stars like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix dying from it, that's really scary."

Superior Court Judge Steven Z. Perren is one of the final links in the long chain that increasingly leads more teen drug users to Juvenile Court.

"There were four cases in my court that went unfinished because the defendants died of overdoses," Perren told community leaders, police and worried parents Saturday at a Community Crime Symposium at Cal Lutheran University.

"The problems we have are awful."

The same national polls that show an increase in teen drug use still indicate that most teens do not use drugs.

And that is as true for the 197,000 children in Ventura County as anywhere else.

While drug use nationwide has risen among 12- to 17-year-olds since 1990, the current level of use for teenagers and adults is far lower than the peak in 1979, according to the same Nationwide Household Survey done for the U.S. Health Department that has helped make teen drug use a major political issue this year.

"What's getting lost in that story is the Household Survey shows we're really making a lot of progress in this country," said Charlie Parsons, newly named executive director of DARE America.

"There's this feeling that, 'Oh my God, it's hopeless and we're losing the war,' and so forth," said Parsons, former director of the FBI's Los Angeles office. "And nobody's paying any attention to the numbers. The peak was in 1979: We had 25 million people in this country using narcotics. Last year, it was 12 million."


Yet, society has let its guard down in the years that have passed. The most dramatic reductions in drug use began with heightened concern and tough law enforcement in the late 1970s, Parsons said.

Baby boomers tell their kids about their pot-smoking college days and may even condone casual use--unaware that today's marijuana is six to seven times as powerful as it was back then, he said.

And Ventura County's kids are picking up on it the same way that their counterparts do all over the country, say police, teachers, drug counselors and the kids themselves.

Kids tell of starting out with a beer or a hit of pot offered by a friend, and falling easily from there into harder drugs--methamphetamine handed off at cafeteria lunch tables, or a crack pipe passed in someone's car in a school parking lot.

"It's that invincible attitude, that 'It's not going to happen to me,' " said Stanton, 16, of Ojai, who admits he is addicted to pot. "But it's putting my life off. I'm 16, I should be driving a car, having a job, having money." Instead, he also is serving time in Colston Youth Center for possession of stolen property.

Teenagers are also indulging in more than one drug at once.

Los Angeles Times Articles