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A clear and present danger
Workshop addresses drug use in Jefferson County
By Janet Huck
Leader Staff Writer
The three top drugs of Jefferson County are alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamine, but the No. 1 drug problem is alcohol.
"If you look at the number of people affected negatively by alcohol, the impact is greater than all the other drugs put together," said Jerry Schnell, the former director of Seattle University Addictions Studies and now a Port Townsend resident. "Alcohol is a more dangerous drug than marijuana or methamphetamine."
The retired professor was speaking at the Jefferson County Substance Abuse Advisory Board conference on the three most prevalent drugs in Jefferson County. Titled "A Clear and Present Danger: Our Community Responds," the Tuesday, April 29 conference brought together experts including Schnell, treatment specialists Steven Freng and Ford Kessler, and Katherine Carlson, an anthropology expert who analyzes substance abuse statistics for Washington state.
"Drugs are making war on us and society," said Mark Huth, District Court judge. "They are a growing problem, and they continue to grow unless the community begins to address it now."
Drug addiction can be a long, slow slide. If people start using drugs such as alcohol, they can, over time, start abusing that drug, developing psychological and physiological addictions, explained Schnell. For those who develop a physiological addiction, they acquire a tolerance and then a dependence. If they stop using, they can enter into withdrawal that can be frightening and sometimes life-threatening.
"Although most alcoholics never get to the stage of delirium tremors, withdrawal is very painful and uncomfortable," Schnell said.
Schnell, a retired chemical dependence professor who has worked in the field since 1977, said that when people are faced with the choice of maintaining their addiction or going into withdrawal, they are left with two bad choices.
"For them, there is no choice at all, so they keep on using. It takes intervention from the outside - a boss who says, 'You will stop or I will fire you,' a police officer who says 'Stop or you'll go to jail,' or a spouse who says, 'Stop or I'll leave you.' The user will need some kind of help. The purpose of treatment is to stop and stay stopped."
Yet it is the psychological addiction that might be harder to handle. Said Schnell: "Their own brains will tell them it [the addiction] is nifty, but what they are really saying is the body is disposable. It's a process of education so they can discover they don't have to drink and have a good time."
"Your brain is telling you that you are doing great, when in reality you are living in hell," said Huth, who said he was a high school dropout who drank and used drugs. "It's not something I'm proud of, so I don't broadcast it."
According to the local Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey completed in 2001, although there are less heavy drinkers in Jefferson County than in the state as a whole, local residents drink on more days in a 30-day period than the state average.
About 24 percent of the county respondents who drank did so for 20 or more days, compared with 8 percent statewide. More county residents, about 68 percent, consumed at least one drink of alcohol in the 30 days prior to the survey than did other state residents, about 61 percent.
Despite the misuse and abuse of alcohol, American society still considers alcohol legal. "Every society decides some drugs are not real drugs," explained Schnell. "We have decided that alcohol, tobacco and maybe marijuana are non-drugs. We classify alcohol as a beverage or a recreation, but not as a drug. In other societies, alcohol is bad but betel nut is OK."
However, the costs to society range from decreased academic performance among students and worker productivity to increased child abuse and neglect and additional law and justice cases, said Carlson.
There are also alcohol overdose deaths. A Chimacum High School student died a few months ago from apparent alcohol overdose. Schnell said the toxicology report said there was nothing in his body but alcohol. "Most people fall asleep before they drink a lethal dose, but adolescents are at the most risk when they get into drinking competitions. The guy who wins the bet to drink the most ends up dying."
Residents who drink also drive. The number of arrests for driving under the influence has been greater in Jefferson than Clallam County, whereas the drug arrests in Clallam have been greater than in Jefferson County.
Schnell said marijuana isn't a harmless drug. "There is a lot of misinformation promulgated about marijuana," he said. Many people believe marijuana isn't addictive because there isn't a powerful withdrawal from the drug. "It ignores that psychological addiction is just as powerful as physiological addiction," said Schnell. "If they can't quit, it's an addiction."
Chronic marijuana addiction affects the user's motivation. "They lose ambitions and become spectators in their own life," noted Schnell. "They say to themselves, 'I'm going down the sewers but it isn't that bad.' They just don't care."
Marijuana use also affects the user's ability to complete tasks that require several steps. "Under the influence," said Schnell, "they will start on step one, maybe complete step two but never get around to steps three or four. Soon it becomes a lifestyle. They start projects but they don't follow through. It doesn't happen to everyone who uses, but if they use regularly, they can slide into that way of living."
Methamphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant similar to cocaine. The main difference, said Schnell, is that the meth high lasts longer even though the initial stimulation isn't as great as with cocaine.
Users become hyperactive but often do the same thing repeatedly. One former user said she cut the lawn with nail scissors. It can make users physically strong, but at the same time, it reduces coordination and dexterity, said Schnell.
Often people who become regular users develop psychoses. They become easily agitated, often on the edge of aggression. "They can become violent when threatened," said Schnell.
Huth said people come to his court who look as if they have leprosy because they have picked at their faces and arms so much there are holes in their skin.
"Meth is a scourge," the judge said.