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Youth drug abuse topic of town hall meeting

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Youth drug abuse topic of town hall meeting
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

A common misperception suggests people who live on farms are naïve about some issues. When it comes to youths abusing drugs, the Nov. 10 "Down on the Pharm" town hall meeting in Ellsworth aimed to make that not be the case for farmers or anyone else.


The Pierce County Partnership for Youth event drew on the experiences of knowledgeable individuals to educate the community.

The "Pharm" in the meeting's title refers to pharmaceutical drugs, the abuse by youth of which has raised increasing concern in this vicinity lately, as has a rise in the abuse of synthetic drugs.

Steve Albarado, Pierce County Sheriff's deputy and Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) officer, addressed the former.

The DARE program teaches kindergarten-through-5th grade students about the harmful effects of drugs and, when Albarado began as its local officer, he noticed their focus was mainly on tobacco and alcohol.

"There was no discussion about over-the-counter drugs," he said.

That situation's changed, as evidenced by the occurrence of "pharm parties" (also called "skittling") in this area, Albarado said.

At these gatherings, participants put a bunch of pills in a container and randomly take them during the party without knowing what they are.

"They can end up in the hospital," he said.

The nature of this abuse poses a dilemma for authorities because there's no odor, like with alcohol, and the evidence can be disposed of quickly, so detection is difficult, he said.

Fortunately, law enforcement is learning more about the usage, leading to some success in stopping it.

The audience of about 50 people watched a DARE video about youth's abuse of prescription over-the-counter drugs.

The presentation discussed some key reasons for their gaining popularity. There's easy access, for example, not requiring interaction with drug dealers, but near-universal availability at grocery stores and convenience outlets. The price is also cheaper than harder illegal drugs.

But dependence on prescription drugs happens fast, the video told. The consequences can range from a terrible hangover to even death.

Sharing of medications has become more common and can result in tragedy, Albarado said, illustrating with the account of an area youth found dead after using a drug patch he'd been given by another.

When he started as an officer, the typical question from police to homeowners in home invasions was, "Where do you keep your guns and money?" Now, it's, "Where do you keep your medicines?"

If a babysitter comes over, pills can create a temptation, he said. Likewise, if a youth has a friend stay overnight, pills can go missing.

Homeowners are advised to take a count and keep their use of medications quiet.

Spike in synthetics

Synthetic drugs in area communities have been "spiking up," said Chris Gottfredsen, police/school liaison officer for the River Falls Police Department.

Synthetic marijuana (also called "K2," "spice" or "déjà vu") is sold as incense and can be smoked. "Bath salts" are snorted or injected.

These "designer drugs" aren't overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, according to Gottfredsen.

They're easily available at smoke shops, "head shops" or on the Internet. They contain a variety of intoxicating chemicals which can produce euphoria, but also generate high anxiety, hallucinations and other effects.

"We want to tackle this problem from many angles," Gottfredsen said, indicating an educated public can help. If something appearing to be incense comes into the house, for instance, look into it, he advised.

A personal story

A young lady, identified as Mikayla, shared her personal story.

When she was 7 years old her father died, leaving her with a single mother and two older brothers, she said.

She eventually moved from Prescott to her grandmother's home in Hastings, Minn., where she started using drugs. She was able to find Oxycodone, overdosed and was sick for a while.

She then moved in with a friend in the Twin Cities, she said.

She'd sobered up for a time, until meeting drug addicts there. Kicked out of her friend's place, she moved back in with her mom.

This time, they were in Plum City, where she engaged in drinking and partying, she said.

Her mom relocated again, to Ellsworth, and was surprised if she came home. She'd been taking 4-5 ecstasies every month.

"An AODA (Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse) counselor told me I looked about 25 years older than I actually was," she said.

Michelle Meinen, social worker with the Pierce County Human Services Department, got her into treatment, she said.

Now marking six months of being sober, Mikayla described it as preferable to being "cooped up in a room for 48 hours straight, trying to get high." She's learned friends she had before aren't since she's no longer high.

Responders' findings

Holly Mitchell, assistant director of the River Falls Ambulance Service and an EMT-paramedic, confirmed the hike in youth drug abuse, reporting the service has recorded handling 14 such emergent cases since March of this year.

Mitchell, aided by a slide presentation, told of side effects including irritability, bouts with heat, uncontrolled movements and vomiting.

Abuse can impact the heart, increasing its rate and blood pressure, causing cardiac irritability and potentially leading to cardiac arrest.

After a couple of usages, there can be whole body pain, toxins released into the blood and more, she said.

Psychological outcomes include becoming irrational, turning to self-mutilation or even suicide.

Responding to the question, "What can we do?" Mitchell recommended peer pressure, positive role modeling and coping methods such as delayed gratification.

Panel questioned

A panel consisting of Albarado, Gottfredsen, Meinen, Mikayla and Mitchell, plus Chloe (with the state DARE program), answered audience questions presented by Lori Zierl, Pierce County Family Living educator.

Mikayla was asked what might have prevented her from experimenting with drugs, saying the issue is "always going to pop up" and relying on will power as well as the need for support, believing the schools should do more.

Chloe spoke to what keeps her from using, contending the way she was brought up helps people to know she doesn't do drugs, along with other positive influences.

Meinen offered suggestions on what the community should be doing about the issue, asserting parents must directly influence choices while not necessarily trusting what their youths are telling them.

Beware if they're acting differently than they had been and get professionals involved right away, she said.

Albarado felt it's more important for parents to talk with their children at the dinner table than leaving it to the schools and Gottfredsen touted going to those who are knowledgeable, or educating oneself via information on the Internet, most of which is accurate, he's found.

On barriers for law enforcement related to synthetic drugs, Gottfredsen said the overall system doesn't work as well as people may be led to believe by TV shows like "CSI." Here, samples are sent to the state crime lab in Wausau and the turnaround time can be 6-8 months. Moreover, with synthetics, a youth might be under the influence of a drug that's not against the law. Meantime, testing procedures for some of these don't exist yet, though new ones are being developed, he understood.

He said authorities are trying to be proactive rather than reactive, yet "tracking those selling synthetic drugs on the Internet is nearly impossible."

As for barriers encountered with the use of prescription drugs, Albarado said they're lesser because related laws have been around longer.

Chloe confirmed she could get either prescription or synthetic drugs if she wanted to. Meinen listed the area police agencies where the public can drop off these drugs in secured containers. Some pharmacies will take these back if asked, she said, later clarified by an audience member to not apply to controlled substances.

"If you have medications you're not using, get rid of them," Meinen said.

She admitted resources for those suspecting youths are using drugs are limited in this region. The county employs a couple of AODA counselors; the closest juvenile rehabilitation center is in Green Bay.

Albarado acknowledged it's not only youths doing the abusing, it's parents, too, but said the recent increase has been more toward teens and young adults.

Area schools have drug and alcohol programs, Gottfredsen said, indicating he goes into all of the health classes in the River Falls district, making around 20 presentations a year at the middle school alone.

"Red Ribbon Week" is another drug abuse education effort at that school, Gary Campbell, school counselor, said.

Albarado added, despite DARE being geared to kindergarteners through fifth graders, he gives presentations at middle and high schools, as does the area's juvenile justice advisory committee.

An audience member advocated contacting Teen Care, based in Menomonie, with its 24-hour confidential crisis line and free service to this vicinity.

Meinen concluded with an explanation of the acronym "SAFE" in handling pharmaceutical and synthetic drugs: Store, Awareness, Follow directions, Educate.

Bill Kirk
Bill Kirk was editor of the Pierce County Herald in Ellsworth, from 1988 to February, 2015 and is now on staff as a reporter. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He previously worked in the media distribution department at the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus and is past editor of The Tri-County News in Osseo, Wisconsin.
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