Sorting through the dangers and stigmas surrounding teen drug use

Medical marijuana use in Santa Fe last year. New Mexican file photo

A 17-year-old dove into a line of Molly sprinkled across a cold table.

Weeks later, a group of teenage boys sunk into a couch playing Call of Duty, as three joints burned in an ashtray.

Not long after, other youth took shrooms in a parking lot of a Christian community center.

Today, tens of thousands of teens across the United States are being impacted by such drugs — not only the ever-changing substances themselves, but the sociopolitical pyramid of policies toward and against drug use, stemming from national legislation to New Mexico’s black market and trickling down to high school dealers, users and bystanders in and around Santa Fe.

Among those affected is a former dealer and user of illicit substances, John, 18, a student at Early College Opportunities who asked that his identity be withheld.

John understands and has experienced the duality of drugs. While he uses marijuana as a “social lubricant,” as well as a treatment to aid a digestive disorder he developed three years ago, he also fully recognizes drugs’ ability to damage an individual’s life.

“Every single drug is a tool, whether you like it or not. Every single drug has its purpose,” John said.

He points to fentanyl, a pharmaceutical opioid that is used to treat severe pain but has high risk for addiction and can cause death with high doses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 28,400 deaths in America resulting from synthetic opioid usage in 2017.

But John said fentanyl does not define every drug on the market.

“We’re so scared of drugs that kill you that we’re just bunching every single drug into the group of ‘Drugs that Kill You’ without proper research,” he said, adding marijuana is one such drug.

John said further research on marijuana is being prevented because of its classification by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has no medicinal purposes, alongside heroin.

Marijuana’s current scheduling can be traced to the early 20th century, when the government utilized anti-drug sentiments to attack ethnic minorities and immigrants, notably the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 which aimed to protect isolationist America and deter Mexican immigration.

Decades later, in 1972, Raymond Shafer, the chairman of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, sent his commissioned report to President Richard Nixon, finding no logical or empirical evidence to support the nation’s hostility toward drugs.

But the hopes of decriminalizing “marihuana” were promptly rejected despite Shafer’s research disproving myths surrounding the drug.

In a 1994 issue of Harper’s Magazine, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s former aide, revealed the true reason behind the so-called war on drugs.

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The racially fueled criminalization of marijuana is still being felt today, with African Americans being four times more likely to get arrested for possession than a white person, according to a study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union.

This criminalization also breeds ignorance and can lead to potentially lethal choices, John said.

“[T]here’s so much misinformation around drugs that there’s no one teaching kids how to do drugs safely,” John said. “They’re just saying ‘Don’t do drugs, they’re bad, don’t touch these,’ and when you tell a kid not to do something, they’re gonna do it.”

A 17-year-old in Santa Fe named Jean, who asked that her full name and other identifying qualities be withheld, said she uses marijuana to treat anxiety but does worry about ignorance revolving harder drugs, especially if handled without proper knowledge and care.

“I don’t think many teens are aware of the big risks of taking drugs. I’ve known teens whose addiction took control of their lives, which has caused them problems with their families, their friends and even their own identity,” Jean said. “Drugs can destroy lives.”

John agreed, noting other dangers that come with a lack of education.

Rebecca Hulick, the guidance counselor for St. Michael’s High School, said she believes every school should implement some sort of drug education, “rather than just giving a textbook and saying, ‘OK, these are the drugs that are bad for you, here are the side effects.’ ”

Hulick suggested utilizing medical professionals and documentaries to help teenagers better understand the detrimental effects of illicit drugs.

“The misinformation and keeping [marijuana] illegal is where the counterfeits come in,” he said.

Counterfeit THC cartridges are catching national attention, with concern that they could be responsible for over 2,000 lung-related injuries and 47 deaths as of November, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with deceased patients ranging from 17 to 75.

The other extreme of legalization of marijuana and the prospects of other drugs, such as the decriminalization of magic mushrooms (psilocybin) in California, raises other issues.

As of 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1.7 million teenagers have vaped marijuana. With this high demand, black market dealers have turned to selling counterfeit products to teens in hopes of competing with the legal market.

The Institute of Behavior and Health, a nonprofit organization that aims to reduce illegal drug use, sees a large and destructive illegal market for drugs in response to legalization.

John, who stopped selling marijuana this year because of hostile complications, had sold marijuana to be a safe and convenient provider of drugs, as an alternative to the increasingly risky black market.

“I wanted to be a person who would source actual drugs to my friends because I have friends who buy from sketchy people,” he said.

Jean said she has witnessed the growing popularity of drugs among her peers, as well as how these drugs influence their lives. “Drugs are actually very common with teens nowadays. From what I know, the majority of teens are probably doing it,” Jean said.

In its 2017 substance use profile, the New Mexico Department of Health found that 27.3 percent of high schoolers had smoked marijuana, 5.1 percent had used cocaine, 6.9 percent had used painkillers to get high, 2.8 percent had used heroin, and 3.2 percent had used methamphetamine.

Capital High School sophomore Ivan Macias said he believes the pursuit of pleasure is what causes teens to turn to drugs, sometimes oblivious to long-term effects.

“I personally have only ever tried marijuana with my friends, and the sensation it gives is sort of what keeps us doing it,” he said, adding that while teens are typically aware addiction is possible, “They probably get complacent and don’t even realize they’re addicted, much like I was.”

John also said he was a victim of addiction.

“I didn’t have control over myself. I was just doing [expletive]. I could’ve died,” he said, noting he has a history of smoking marijuana, taking psychedelic mushrooms, a multitude of pills and cocaine.

Gabriel Biadora is a senior at St. Michael’s High School, you can contact him at Lincoln Byrd is a junior at Santa Fe High School, contact him at

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