A small group of Soldotna High School students said they believe more teens drink alcohol than smoke marijuana.
“More kids drink on a regular basis than smoke pot on a regular basis,” said David Burger, senior.
There was a brief moment of disagreement among the students, then senior Jared Lingafelt reiterated the group’s statement.
“A lot of students drink on the weekends at parties, and some people smoke during weekdays,” he said. “What I mean is more people will go drink at those parties than choose to smoke (regularly).”
Incidents involving marijuana are a constant concern for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Pot is readily available in the Central Peninsula, officials and high school students said.
Former Nikiski Middle-High School principal of six years John O’Brien said marijuana was the most prevalent issue.
“Definitely over the past several years there was more with marijuana than there were with alcohol,” he said.
More teens around the nation are turning to pot while alcohol use among the same age group has dipped to historic lows, according to an annual national survey of drug use released December 2011.
According to the Alaska Youth Risk Behavior Survey for 2011, 21.2 percent of high school students used marijuana one or more times during the past 30 days. And 16.7 percent had five or more drinks of alcohol in a row within a couple hours on one or more of the past 30 days. The survey is conducted by the state’s Department of Health and Social Services.
Kristie Sellers, director of behavioral health at Central Peninsula Hospital, works with the community’s high-risk teens. About 75 percent of the adolescents in the hospital’s Diamond Willow Program have experimented with marijuana, she said.
The percentage of teens reporting they see “great risk” in using marijuana generally has dropped in recent years. One of every 15 high school seniors reported smoking pot on a daily or near daily basis, the highest rate since 1981, according to the national survey.
Sellers said teens’ beliefs about the risks of pot are linked to its “legal” options, medical marijuana and spice or K2, synthetic marijuana. The accessibility of pot also adds to the presumption.
Alcohol has a protected quality because of its legal status, but the Peninsula has focused on its education in recent years, she said.
“There’s been some education aimed at alcohol and trying to limit alcohol use among teens, but marijuana is very easy to get your hands on in our community,” Sellers said. “I guess the drawback of doing good in one area is that problems pop up elsewhere.”
Marijuana isn’t less harmful than alcohol, and vice versa. Both have varying negative effects on users, Sellers said.
Alcohol is linked to crime more often than illegal drugs, according to researchers at the University of California. Its consumption promotes aggressiveness, and victimization may lead to excessive alcohol use, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The effects of pot are different. Marijuana use comes with a very specific Amotivational Syndrome, a condition associated with diminished energy to participate in social activities.
“It causes people not to do the things they dream of accomplishing in their lives,” Sellers said. “It’s not just a safe recreational activity, because it damages people’s relationships and career tracks. It may also cause legal problems.”
Senior Abby Hanna shared a similar outlook.
“If students choose to use marijuana they’re already deciding they don’t want to do much with their lives,” she said.
Hanna and her peers admitted that drug use during school hours at Soldotna High School is apparent to the students as well as the administrators.
“There’s definitely people who are high, especially after lunch, or they smoke in the morning before they come to school,” Lingafelt said. “It’s easy to notice. You can smell it, or you can just tell they’re stoned.”
O’Brien said administrators investigate every reasonable suspicion, but the students aren’t aware.
“A lot of that is obviously behind the scenes,” he said. “So, the students perspectives might be that administrators aren’t doing much, but certainly when there’s reasonable suspicion an investigation does occur.”
The KPBSD policy on drugs and alcohol says it intends to maintain a drug-free school environment; to educated students about the issues related to drugs, alcohol and controlled substances; and to identify students who have chemical abuse problems.
Students under the influence or in possession of drugs at school are reported to law enforcement and their parents, and are subject to suspension for up to 45 days.
In 2011, a total of nine students were caught under the influence of drugs. The same number of students were caught with drugs, according to KPBSD stats.
The recent numbers are on the low end. A total of 21 students were caught with drugs in 2006, and 18 were caught under the influence of drugs in 2008.
Alcohol offenses are lower than drug offenses over the past six years. In 2011, three students were caught under the influence of alcohol and six students were caught in possession of alcohol.
There are alternatives to prolonged suspension for students who are caught with drugs or alcohol. The Alternative to Out-of-School Suspension (ATOSS) program gives students the chance to return to school faster.
Students complete a number of criteria, such as participating in academic tutoring, undergoing drug and alcohol screening and taking online courses among other requirements.
“Obviously, if a student is out for 30 days that’s going to have an impact on grades and his or her ability to earn credit,” O’Brien said. “This gives the student a chance to get back into class sooner.”
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.