The following essay was written by Meena Venkataramanan in May 2015 for her application for the Arizona Governor's Youth Commission.
A few weeks ago, a friend and I were walking home after school and casually chatting with each other. We had left the campus and were walking on a nearby street, when, suddenly, my friend pointed to another student from our school who was also walking home and said, “Look, he’s smoking.” Sure enough, the student in front of us was, at that moment, smoking a substance that appeared to be marijuana.
I, upon seeing this, was both shocked and frustrated. I was shocked that the student brought his paraphernalia on our drug-free campus, but more so, I was frustrated that he didn’t realize the gravity of what he was doing and the negative effects that it could have on him in the future. Honestly, I find that many teens in my community do not realize this. As a volunteer and teen attorney at Pima County Teen Court, I’ve noticed that the majority of teen defendants who come to Teen Court were arrested for possessing or using marijuana- more than those who were arrested for shoplifting or for assault.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse reveals that the brain development of teenagers who use marijuana is negatively affected, and that addiction to the substance is not uncommon for teenagers as well. But meanwhile, the same source discloses that the number of teens who find marijuana risky has decreased and continues to decrease, illustrating just one of the reasons why drug abuse is such a large issue.
Simultaneously, alcohol use and abuse is also prevalent among teens in Arizona. According to the Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center, in 2013, 63.0% of teenagers in Arizona have had at least one drink of alcohol. When I first came upon this statistic, I was skeptical. But I recently learned that even some of my closest, most scholarly friends have tried alcohol and even been intoxicated before. This made me realize that clearly, teenagers who have not tried alcohol are in the minority, which makes it evident why substance use and abuse is the most critical issue facing teenagers in Arizona.
From my experiences, both with friends and from volunteering at Teen Court, addressing this issue is not so simple. Many teens seem to be unaware of the dangers of substance abuse, and even find drinking and drug usage ennobling, or consider it a mark of adolescence. For example, when a friend of mine told me that she had tried alcohol, she said it while laughing, showing that to her, and many others, there is nothing serious about the use of drugs and alcohol. Thus, to address this issue, teens must be educated on the dangers of substance use and abuse frequently. This means that in addition to mandatory health classes and occasional reminders that drugs are dangerous, teens have to truly be shown the consequences of drug usage, and must be made aware that even occasional use can lead to abuse. This need could be fulfilled through regular seminars in schools that involve victims of substance abuse and others who can tell their stories. This would be more effective than simply lecturing teenagers about substance abuse, since real people would tell real stories and connect with teenagers on a more personal level.
Another way to address this issue would be through empowering teens to fight substance abuse. Since many teenagers are more likely to listen and learn from people their own age, empowering other teenagers to share their stories in some way- either as guest speakers in seminars or through social media- is more likely to catch the attention of their peers. For instance, teenagers could be provided with incentives to speak up and share their stories about times they have been exposed to drugs or alcohol, how they reacted, and how those substances have affected them. These stories can then be presented to other teenagers, either in person, or through a video or article. The more that these stories and experiences proliferate, the more they will create awareness among teenagers.
Finally, social media platforms can be utilized to counter the spread of substance abuse. Social media reaches not only teenagers, but also educators and parents, and information about the dangers of substance abuse could be spread through social media and picked up by these three groups. Furthermore, since social media has a viral effect, videos, “memes,” and other elements of popular culture can easily be created and spread through entire populations.
The aforementioned ways to address the issue of substance abuse are not exhaustive, but are veritable methods through which this grave problem that affects the majority of teenagers in Arizona, regardless of socioeconomic background, can be addressed in order to mitigate the harms of substance abuse and truly reach out to Arizona’s teenagers in the process.