Palm Beach County teens are putting down the bottle and picking up a new bad habit, according to a recent state survey.
The Florida Department of Children and Families releases a survey every other year of teen substance abuse in each county. This year, the survey found that more teens are sober, with more than 75 percent claiming they had not consumed alcohol in the past 30 days — a 3 percent jump from 2012.
Palm Beach County teens drinking less, finding another way to get high
But that decline in teen drinking also comes with some sobering news: an increase in the number of teens using marijuana, from 13.4 percent in 2012 to 14.8 percent in 2014.
That statistic comes much to the dismay of the Palm Beach Substance Awareness Coalition, whose goal is to decrease teen substance abuse in the county.
Coalition Director Jeff Kadel credits the decrease in teen drinking to efforts of the organization, including the creation of an anonymous tip line (1-877-MEANS-21) to report underage drinking and businesses selling alcohol to underage patrons.
“By working with law enforcement and creating community events, we’ve been able to highlight the dangers and harms of alcohol for teens,” Kadel said.
Karen Corcoran-Walsh, founder of two substance abuse facilities in South Florida, sees teens go in and out of her rehab programs all the time. Corcoran-Walsh opened Inspirations for Youth and Families, an adolescent rehab program, in 2007 in Fort Lauderdale after her adult rehab facility in Boca Raton saw an increase in teen substance abuse cases.
“The survey is definitely accurate,” Corcoran-Walsh said. “We’ve seen a consistent decline in teens in need of alcohol treatment and more teens with marijuana problems.”
Corcoran-Walsh stresses the importance of prevention when teens develop these problems young.
The Substance Awareness Coalition educated teens on the harms of drug and alcohol abuse, even going into Palm Beach County schools for education sessions. During the past decade, they’ve seen results; teen drinking has been steadily declining — a 10 percent decrease since 2004, according to the survey.
Still, Palm Beach County is ranked eighth statewide in percentage of underage drinking, according to the survey.
With a new program called “80 by 18,” the coalition aims to increase the number of teens avoiding alcohol to 80 percent by 2018. The campaign will inform teens about the 75 percent who don’t drink in hopes of increasing sobriety, Kadel said.
“Teens are often thinking, ‘If everyone’s doing it, why shouldn’t I?’” Kadel said.
Palm Beach County is the fifth in Florida in the percentage of teen marijuana users.
“It’s a very serious issue right now,” Corcoran-Walsh said. “Parents wouldn’t be sending their kids to rehab for marijuana use if it wasn’t.”
Kadel blames the recent spike in marijuana use on the discussion surrounding the ill-fated Amendment 2 proposal to legalize medicinal marijuana in Florida. Amendment 2 was on the ballot in November and would have allowed distribution of medicinal marijuana upon doctor referral.
The constitutional amendment fell short just 2 percent of the 60 percent needed to pass. The amendment was proposed by United for Care, a nonprofit advocating for legalization of medicinal marijuana.
“All of a sudden, the legalization issue came about, giving teens the idea that marijuana has medicinal value,” Kadel said. “It reduced that perception of harm.”
Corcoran-Walsh agrees with that sentiment. “States are desensitizing the fact that marijuana is still a drug,” she said. “We’re not given enough information about the long-term effects it has on these kids.”
United for Care threw more than $2 million at advertising in the months before the 2014 election, said Campaign Manager Ben Pollera. Pollera disagrees that advertising for a medicinal marijuana campaign can have an adverse effect on teen marijuana use.
“There is no evidence to back that,” Pollera said. “Most of the ads were addressing those attacking our campaign.”
Palm Beach County goes against the national trend. The National Institute on Drug Abuse released a survey of more than 40,000 teens finding that the use of marijuana among teens has gone down slightly since 2012, despite states such as Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska legalizing recreational use of the drug. The survey also found that, in the past five years, almost 20 percent more teens do not perceive marijuana to be harmful.
The Substance Awareness Coalition started a campaign about two years ago in cooperation with Crime Stoppers of Palm Beach County called “Operation Grow House” to decrease availability of marijuana to the public. People can anonymously report illegal marijuana grow houses by calling Crime Stoppers at 1-800-458-8477.
The coalition doesn’t have any new plans to fight marijuana use in the county.
“That 14 percent is still fairly low,” Kadel said. “Good news is marijuana is still illegal, so people still see that harm.”
United for Care push for new legislation to change medicinal marijuana laws in Florida. If a bill does not pass the Florida legislature in the spring, they plan to petition to have a new amendment placed on the ballot in 2016, with hopes of a brighter outcome.
“It’s very clear that Florida voters support this,” Pollera said. “With the higher voter turnout during the presidential election in 2016, we’re anticipating increased support.”
Legalizing medicinal marijuana is a cause for concern for Kadel.
“You’re talking about a recipe for disaster,” Kadel said.
“It’s one of those situations that I’m glad we were smart enough not to pass the amendment in the first place.”
The Florida Department of Children and Families releases a survey every other year showing percentage of Palm Beach County teens using drugs and alcohol. Palm Beach County has eighth highest percentage of underage drinking and fifth highest percentage of marijuana use as of 2014.