The craving begins as soon as they wake up from a fitful night's sleep. They need something just to get out of bed. The desire shoots through their bodies. All they want is to take another hit, to get their first fix of the morning.
Again and again, the teens swear off the speed, the heroin, the coke, the acid. But the day after being released from Juvenile Hall, they call a dealer. The night after leaving a rehab hospital, they reach for the needle. On their way home from a support group meeting, they pull out the pipe.
The debate is an old one: Do they relapse because they aren't ready to abandon their addiction? Or is it because the help isn't intensive enough for them to escape the lure of drugs?
The high estimate from teens and parents is that half of Ventura County's youths use illegal drugs. The low estimate from the county's top drug official is 10%.
But even that conservative estimate means nearly 10,000 Ventura County teens are drug users. And many of those--1,000 or so--require serious treatment for full-blown addictions to drugs and alcohol.
If they don't receive that help, counselors say, it can lead to jail or death.
Just last week the county recorded a particularly tragic and dramatic example of that, when a high school student was killed by a freight train in Moorpark.
Friends said 16-year-old Drew Diederich was apparently high on LSD when he ran from police onto the railroad tracks, where he stood until the train came. Earlier that night Drew had attended a drug rehab meeting, counselors say.
"With tragedy after tragedy, we just sort of shrug our shoulders and wish it could be different," said Ginny Connell, executive director of the Palmer Drug Abuse Program, which is contracted by the county to treat teen drug users.
"The reality is . . . there aren't enough of us out there and we aren't able to get to these kids soon enough."
Connell said she doesn't know what it's going to take to get county leaders to address this treatment gap for teen addicts and increase funding for rehab programs.
Parents and counselors say the lack of services to treat adolescents with substance abuse problems in Ventura County is appalling.
The county last year served 311 youths in drug and alcohol programs. Officials say three times that number needed help.
Most shocking is that the county only provides six beds for drug-addicted teens in the entire county--all of them in one small Santa Paula program for girls.
Other resources are equally scarce throughout the community, parents say. There are few 12-step meetings geared toward teens. And there aren't enough drug counselors at schools.
The county spends about $185,000 a year on drug programs for youths, while the county's top drug official says he needs $1 million. And while adolescents make up 10% of the clientele for drug and alcohol programs, they receive only 2% of the money.
Luis Tovar, who oversees all the county alcohol and drug programs in Ventura County, recently applied for a $500,000 federal grant to expand drug and alcohol services for local teens. He expects to hear next month whether the county will receive the money.
"We are so woefully underfunded," Tovar said. "And because of funding, we're handicapped. It's extremely difficult to be able to provide for adolescents."
Teens, Poll Cite Higher Drug Use by Youths
Ventura County teens say the number of drug users is much higher than county officials estimate.
In a 1995 Los Angeles Times Poll of 460 Ventura County teenagers, 36% said at least half of their classmates regularly used illegal drugs.
Last fall the Simi Valley Youth Council, a student group that advises the City Council on youth issues, conducted a survey of 377 high school students. Of those, 46% said they had used illegal drugs.
And statewide, 53% of high school juniors said they had used drugs at least once, according to a 1997-98 study by the California Department of Justice. Nearly 49% said they had used drugs in the past six months, up from 38% earlier in the decade.
Although the use of marijuana and alcohol has leveled off around California, methamphetamine and inhalants are becoming more popular among teenagers, the study showed. And the drugs are pervasive. Name the drug, teens say, and you can find it just about anywhere in the county.
"It's everywhere," said Tracy, 16, who began smoking pot as a Simi Valley middle school student before graduating to acid and ecstasy. "Every kid probably knows someone or that person knows someone who can get it for them. It's easy."
No area of Ventura County is immune. Students of every race, ethnicity and socioeconomic level struggle with substance abuse issues. In the more affluent cities of Moorpark and Thousand Oaks, just as in south Oxnard or along Ventura Avenue, teens are stealing from their parents and spending their weekly allowances on drugs. Drug dealing is a fact of life on middle school and high school campuses. Sixteen-year-old Parker Mitchell's story is disturbingly common.