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Neighbors Battling Drugs

Community coalitions take up the fight where schools leave off. The approach allows people to tackle issues specific to where they live.

October 16, 2000|JUDY SILBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Until recently, most communities combated drug use with a two-pronged attack: Schools educated young people about the dangers, and police arrested violators.

But across Orange County, residents are finding a third way. By joining together in small groups and coalitions, parents, educators and others are finding success in spreading the anti-drug message around their neighborhoods.

"Research over the last 20 years has shown that the most successful prevention efforts are those that are community-based," said Robin Knox, project director for Community Service Programs Project PATH. A nonprofit organization, CSP Project PATH has helped put together several neighborhood coalitions.

Education was once deemed the primary means for prevention, Knox said. But researchers have found that education only goes so far. Community organizations can personalize issues and address problems specific to their neighborhoods, he said.

For instance, after a 12-year-old Huntington Beach boy died while trying to get high by inhaling air freshener fumes in March, a coalition of residents and professionals called HB CASA--the Huntington Beach Coalition Against Substance Abuse--held a town meeting on inhalants. About 75 concerned parents, teachers, administrators and students showed up.

On St. Patrick's Day, the same group left business cards with local cab company phone numbers at area bars. And CASA members have another scheme in the works: a campaign to teach local businesses about responsible alcohol sales.

Police, teachers, health care professionals and CSP staff all show up at HB CASA's meetings, but the majority who come can't legally drink.

"One of the strengths of HB CASA is we have a group of very verbal and straightforward youth," Knox said.

The chairman of HB CASA, 20-year-old Jeremiah Snyder, saw drugs harm too many friends. "People have been killed," Snyder said. "I've always been one to stay away, but I wanted to help as many kids as I can."

Members of groups elsewhere in the county have similar reasons for getting involved. Leslie Whitlinger found herself drawn to the San Clemente Alcohol, Tobacco and Drug Coalition in 1996, after her brother and sister-in-law died in a car accident caused by a drunk driver.

"That was pretty startling," Whitlinger said. "It got me thinking this could happen anywhere."

The San Clemente coalition proved the power of community coalitions. Concerned about drunk driving and underage drinking, the coalition approached the City Council. It told the council it wanted to prevent alcohol problems from growing as they had in other coastal cities. Eventually, the council agreed, and in December 1999 passed a law that new businesses must formally train employees in responsible beverage service training.

Professionals guide the coalitions' activities.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Cher DeCant has talked to the various groups about her work cracking down on methamphetamine labs, bringing along pictures as well as stories.

Tanya Martino, a special agent of the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, is one who regularly shows up. Drawing on her expertise and contacts, she helped organize methamphetamine town hall meetings in Laguna Hills, Santa Ana and Anaheim and the inhalant town hall meeting in Huntington Beach.

In addition to her involvement with the coalitions, Martino has spearheaded a countywide methamphetamine task force. The task force--also a coalition made up of specialists from various organizations--expects to present recommendations on how to promote awareness among youth and the communities about methamphetamines, Martino said. And she said she fully expects that coalitions such as the ones in Huntington Beach and San Clemente will play a key role in fulfilling the task force's goals.

Knox said the success of implementing the new guidelines will depend on continued and expanded collaborations between the community groups, law enforcement, prevention programs, treatment facilities and others.

"If you get everyone involved in a coordinated effort, that has the potential for having the greatest impact," Knox said. "Once that kind of momentum is going in a community, it usually carries over to everything else. It changes the norm where people say, 'We're not going to tolerate this here.' "

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Teen Drug Arrests

Arrests in Orange County of youths on drug charges for 1998.

FELONY

*--*

Age: 10 or Under 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Arrests: 1 0 3 15 24 60 116 173

*--*

MISDEMEANOR

*--*

Age: 10 or Under 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Arrests: 0 1 14 82 144 305 433 535

*--*

Source: State Dept. of Justice

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