2017-03-30 / Front Page

Drugs in Newport: New Data From Youth Surveyed

By Olga Enger

A troublesome number of Newport students use recreational drugs, according to preliminary data from the 2016-17 school year. The number of students who reported drug use was minimal in middle school, but usage increased rapidly as they got older. By 12th grade, over half of students claimed they took drugs within the past month. Fifty percent used marijuana, 34 percent drank alcohol, 20 percent used prescription pills to get high and 23 percent used synthetic marijuana.

Cigarette use was relatively low, spiking in ninth grade, with 8.5 percent of boys reporting they had recently smoked.

Despite the name, synthetic marijuana, known by students as monkey weed, does not contain marijuana. Instead, it contains a variety of plants sprayed with laboratory-produced chemicals designed to produce hallucinogenic effects. Although laws prohibit the sale of synthetic marijuana, it is widely available, and often marketed to children, using colorful packaging and fun names.

In 2016, Newport police arrested four juveniles for drugs, all for marijuana and one for marijuana and prescription pills.

“Marijuana is definitely a gateway drug,” said Newport Police Lt. Michael Naylor of the Vice/Narcotics Division. “It is much easier to say no to cocaine when you are an adult if you say no to marijuana as a teenager.”

In grades 9-12, marijuana use was nine percent higher than alcohol use, which was the second most used substance. However, of the students who reported that they drank alcohol within the past month, 43 percent said a parent knowingly provided the drink.

The report, which is still in a draft version, was commissioned by the Newport Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition (NSAPC) and was conducted by the Providencebased company John Mattson Consulting. The last report conducted in 2013 demonstrated 46 percent of high school students used marijuana, which was the highest rate in the state at the time.

“Once finalized, the Newport Prevention Coalition will present the findings to the School Committee and City Council,” said NSAPC Chair Marco Camacho.

Lt. Naylor added that marijuana on the streets today is much stronger and more dangerous than in the previous generations. Despite those realities, the perceived risk of weekly marijuana declined sharply as children grew older. Seventy-four percent of students in seventh grade believed weekly marijuana use is dangerous, but the perceived risk dropped to 31 percent in grades 9-12.

The perception of parental disapproval also declined as students got older. Although 94 percent of seventh grade students reported their parents would disapprove of marijuana use, the number dropped to 62 percent by 12th grade.

"Parent involvement is huge," said Newport Sgt. Jason Kleinknecht, head of the department's community policing unit. Since the early 1990s, the department has conducted the drug prevention DARE program for fifth grade students. “We only have them for an hour per week. Parents are the biggest influencers. It’s important parents stay actively involved, and serve as a positive role model. Make sure you know what your child is doing and know who they are hanging out with.”

The Rhode Island Department of Health reports drug overdoses are a “public health crisis” and are increasing every year. Fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid that is often mixed with heroin, contributed to a 15-fold increase in overdose deaths since 2009. A significant number of the 2016 overdose deaths involved fentanyl, according to the department.

“Almost all heroin users started on prescription pills,” said Naylor. “They move to heroin because it is cheaper.” The majority of students in grades 9-12, or 78 percent, believed pills were dangerous.

No local children have died by drug overdose, according to data reported to the Newport Police Department.

Police urge parents to keep all pills, including over-the-counter drugs, locked in a cabinet.

“The latest trend with youth drugs is Robotripping,” said Naylor. “Kids mix a bottle of Robitussin with soda and hope to hallucinate. We have seen this with local children as young as 10.”

Of the 720 students surveyed, 97 percent indicated they answered the questions honestly. However, only 41 percent believed their peers were truthful in their responses.

The perceived risk from cigarette smoking is high across all grades. Drinking alcohol daily or weekly was perceived as slightly less problematic, but still more than 70 percent of the students reported great or moderate risk for regular drinking.

With all substances studied, there was a wide gap between perceived use among peers and actual use including: 84 percent for cigarettes; 73 percent for non-prescribed drugs; 70 percent for marijuana; and 71 percent for alcohol.

“This strongly suggests that a social norms campaign that stresses the point that the large majority of students are not using substances might be a useful strategy to employ,” reads the report.

The next Prescription Drug Take Back event will be held Saturday, April 29 from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at the Newport Police Department. The service is free and anonymous.

(Editor’s note: This is the second story of a “Drugs in Newport” series. The first story “Drugs in Newport: Defining the Battles” appeared in the March 16 edition of NTW)

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