Up in Smoke: Substance use and abuse at Topeka High School
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One in 16 students wake up each morning and reach for a bottle — and it’s not full of water. Some reach for a bottle of alcohol, a bottle of pills, or even a mason jar full of marijuana. That’s approximately 100+ Trojans.
Studies by both the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan have shown teenage drug use may be on a decline, however, it’s no surprise students use. With stigmas changing around marijuana use and an incline in synthetic drug use nationwide, the topic of teenage substance use more is prevalent now than ever.
Over the past few weeks — after putting together a drug use survey which garnered 500+ responses, talking to healthcare professionals and students — The World has been able to take an in-depth look at drug use at Topeka High School.
For the purposes of this story, anonymity was granted to student sources in the form of pseudonym for their safety. In no way does The World Newspaper condone the use of illegal substances including but not limited to alcohol, marijuana, or prescription medication.
A junior in the gifted program who works 35 hours a week and pays her own bills, Natalie has been smoking marijuana since she was 12 years old.
“I’ve been going to school stoned since I was in seventh grade.” Natalie said. “If I open a text book, it’s so much more interesting because I’m thinking about it in a different way. If I read the words on a page, they really come alive in my mind.”
Natalie may be an avid smoker, but she’s not the only Trojan who uses. Approximately one quarter (24.4%) of the Topeka High student body say they have smoked marijuana at least once in their lifetime and 84% of students believe marijuana is the most used illegal substance at Topeka High.
“It’s used a lot among the student body, but I think a lot of people have this understanding that it shouldn’t be used too much,” Allison, sophomore, said.
Allison is another Topeka High student who smokes. Her use is “not very often and with a small amount of people,” but marijuana is a frequently used commodity in her household.
“It doesn’t really affect the household in any sense,” Allison said. “He [my dad] was okay with it [smoking], as long as I wasn’t like the potheads. A friend usually gets my parents edibles and stuff. That’s just casual stuff that’s around the house, more casual than beer is.”
Smoking an illegal substance like marijuana, especially as a teenager, is a concern to those in the medical field, but students who use also see the risks of smoking.
“I think what’s wrong is when people only want to smoke pot, they don’t want to do anything else,” Natalie said. “I will only smoke pot if my homework is all done or — I don’t go to work high because I feel like that’s unprofessional.”
“Once you start using one of those illegal substances, a lot of times you see kids just going further, and further, and further,” Sara Nelson, MD at Pediatric Associates of Topeka, said. “Plus, being under the influence, using those drugs will lead to other risk-taking behaviors which could put you in harm’s way.”
Eleni Gammatikopoulou, MD at Pediatric Associates of Topeka, agrees that while pot is not seen as an acute health issue, pot mixed with other risk-taking behaviors can lead to collateral damage for student’s health, social lives, and academics.
Despite these risks, it’s apparent that the stigma around marijuana is changing, both nationwide and at Topeka High School.
As of 2017, 26 states, over half of the country, have broad laws legalizing marijuana. Eight of those states legalized for both recreational and medical use.
Cannabis is one of the fastest growing industries in America.
Forbes wrote, “The legal cannabis market was worth an estimated $7.2 billion in 2016 and is projected to grow at a compound annual rate of 17%. Medical marijuana sales are projected to grow from $4.7 billion in 2016 to $13.3 billion in 2020. Adult recreational sales are estimated to jump from $2.6 billion in 2016 to $11.2 billion by 2020.”
According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 60% of Americans support legal marijuana, as do most Trojans. 86% of students said they support the legalization of marijuana in some form.
“I think it should be legalized because everyone does it anyways. We have people who are getting years and years in prison just for selling pot and it’s not that big of a deal,” Natalie said. “If I was smoking a joint, I would hate for a cop to come along and arrest me. Why am I going to jail? I smoked a joint, I didn’t hurt anybody, I go to school, I work, I volunteer, but you’re going to have me go to jail for a plant? I think it’s ridiculous.”
Vanessa, a senior, never thought a New Year’s Eve party could turn into a serious addiction.
“I started and I was just having fun, then it came to the point where every weekend I would go get drunk with my friends,” Vanessa said. “There came a point where I would buy the bottle [for me and my friends] and then I would just like keep it in my closet and I would start drinking like every single night. My parents would go to bed at like 10 and I’d go to my room and start drinking. I would sit on the floor and just get drunk. I’d be throwing up every single night until I fell asleep.”
According to a survey run by The World, approximately 35% of the student body has tried alcohol at least once in their life and 1 in 16 students believe their substance use is an addiction.
“There’s a lot of time to do all that stuff when I think your [adolescent’s] judgement calls are a little bit firmer,” Eleni Gammatikopoulou, MD at Pediatric Associates of Topeka, said. “You have a whole lifetime ahead to do those things when you actually are mature enough to know how much to use and when to stop. At this age, with peer pressure and wanting to outdo everyone, you can get out of control pretty fast. There’s a time to do those things, just leave them until you can actually make decisions a little better.”
While students certainly have time to try alcohol later in life, the reality is that trying it now can lead to problems down the road. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, students who drink are more susceptible to problems on physically, socially, and at school. The CDC also states that, ‘Youth who start drinking before age 15 years are six times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after age 21 years.”
For some students, getting high doesn’t involve a bottle or alcohol or rolling paper. Instead, all it takes is a short walk to the family medicine cabinet.
Less than 1 in 5 students (14%) say they have used prescription medication illegally, but the problem is significant and growing nationwide. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “prescription and over-the-counter medications account for most of the commonly abused drugs among high school seniors.”
“It definitely has been on the rise,” Sara Nelson, MD at Pediatric Associates of Topeka, said. “Either ADHD med abuse or Oxycodone, those things. I don’t know if I’ve had any [patients] that I’ve known have been using it, but I know as an area that it’s been on the rise.”
According to the Center for Lawful Access and Abuse Deterrence about 26% of teenagers believe prescription drug use can be used as a study aid. In The World student survey, only 5% of students reported using prescription medication to better their academics.
Richard, a senior who’s had an Adderall prescription since he was in middle school, finds that Adderall benefits him in the classroom.
“It helps a lot,” Richard said. “It gives you the confidence to do things, a lot of confidence. I don’t remember the last time I ever slept in class. It always keeps you awake.”
While students who are prescribed it may find great benefits, it’s still a great risk to use these prescription drugs illegally. Sara Nelson says one of the biggest dangers of using illegally is not knowing dosages.
“You don’t know how a person’s going to react to a certain strength of say, for instance, an [illegally used] ADHD med,” Nelson said. “It could affect heart rate, blood pressure, any of that stuff.”