Pubdate: Sat, 03 Jun 2017
Source: Hamilton Spectator (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 The Hamilton Spectator
Authors: Ryan Thorpe and Alex Yorke
Page: A1


Drug use among teens is nothing new. But street drugs are a bigger
threat than ever, because they can be laced with deadly substances.
The Spectator investigates what youth are using, and how to identify
the dangers

A GIRL is hanging out with friends after school. One of them has
stolen a gram of marijuana from an older brother. They pass around a
pipe. It is her first time getting high. She is 14.

A 15- YEAR-OLD walks through the hall at school. He sees a classmate
selling cannabis-edibles out of a backpack and a friend making a
purchase. A GIRL is invited to meet up with friends behind her school.
Someone lights a joint and passes it to her. She is in Grade 7.

A 17- YEAR-OLD buys Xanax from a dealer and slips it into her pocket.
On the weekend she will take it with a friend at a party. Music and
the sound of clinking beer bottles fill the room. Later that night she
will overdose. THESE ARE JUST SOME of the stories told to The Hamilton
Spectator during a month-long investigation into youth drug use.

More than 25 interviews were conducted with young people, drug users,
dealers, counsellors, medical professionals and law

The findings show that while youth are using fewer drugs, the drugs on
the market are becoming increasingly dangerous. Unsuspecting students
can end up with street drugs laced with potentially deadly substances,
such as fentanyl - salt-sized grains can be enough to kill.

When asked how easy it is to buy drugs on a high school campus,
18-year-old student Sam smiles.

"It's as easy as this," he says, snapping his fingers. "It would take
five minutes."

It's a statement echoed by many students.

"It's really easy (to buy drugs at school)," said a 17-year-old
female, sitting with a group of friends outside Jackson Square. "Even
if you don't know anyone, all you have to do is ask. You ask one or
two people and they'll point you in the right direction."

The Hamilton Spectator has agreed to conceal the identity of certain
individuals interviewed for this story, including youth drug users and
a 20-year-old drug dealer.


"IT'S A LOT OF POT," said Kristen, a Grade 10 student. "Occasionally
you'll see pills and stuff. With pills, it's mostly Xanax and other
prescriptions. A lot of kids are into stuff like that. Sometimes
you'll see cocaine, but not that often."

Kristen's account is backed up by the 2015 Centre for Addiction and
Mental Health (CAMH) drug use survey of Ontario students in grades 7
to 12, which offers the most recent data on the topic.

The most popular substances among youth are tobacco, alcohol and

The consumption of MDMA - a psychoactive drug - and the non-medical
use of prescription pills, while less common, are statistically

Among Grade 12 students, 37 per cent report using pot in the past

Across all grades surveyed, that number is 21 per cent. More than
20,000 students report daily marijuana use.

The non-medical use of prescription pills is also prominent, with 12
per cent of students reporting use.

MDMA consumption is on the rise, with roughly five per cent of
students in grades 9 to 12 reporting past year use. The study notes:
"The perceived availability of ecstasy also increased between 2013 and
2015, thus suggesting it has become easier to obtain."

MDMA, also known as ecstasy, is a psychoactive drug that is chemically
similar to both stimulants and hallucinogens and is commonly used as a
party drug.

More than 12 per cent of students report having been intoxicated at
school and 17 per cent say they've been offered, sold or given drugs
on school grounds. Those figures represent one-in-eight and
one-in-six, respectively.

More than one-third (36.9 per cent) of secondary students admit to
using drugs - excluding alcohol, tobacco and caffeine - in the past 12

According to CAMH, 16.1 per cent of secondary students meet the
criteria of having a drug use problem. That's one-in-seven, or
114,600, students.

The market

OVER THE PAST DECADE there's been an increase in new psychoactive
substances infiltrating the illicit drug market. They are generally
sold combined with, or masquerading as, drugs known as "pills and powders."

These substances are known as cathinones and are commonly referred to
as "bath salts."

While youth drug use has decreased slightly, the drug market has
consistently become more dangerous. This is not only due to the rise
in "bath salts," but also the increased prevalence of drugs such as
fentanyl. Many users, including youth, may believe they are taking
drugs such as MDMA, when in reality they've been sold bath salts, as
it is a cheaper, more potent alternative for drug dealers.

There have also been reports detailing the increasing rise of
fentanyl-laced recreational drugs. What this means is youth buying
substances like cocaine and MDMA are at increased risks of unknowingly
consuming fentanyl in potentially deadly doses.

"Even if the number of people trying these substances is decreasing,
it is still increasing the risk for the people who are trying these
substances," said Dr. Matthew Young, a representative of the Canadian
Centre on Substance Abuse.

"I can objectively show data that there is an increase in risk now.
It's not just old man Matthew Young saying 'Oh, back in my day.' There
are more substances out there on the market and you don't necessarily
know what you're getting."

The danger lies in the fact it can be difficult for users to know what
they're consuming and in what quantity. As such, it's nearly
impossible to predict the effect it will have on an individuals' body.

This is why the market is getting more dangerous.

"The individual consuming the pill or powder A. doesn't know what
they're consuming and B. doesn't know how much of it they're taking,"
said Young. "Some of these substances have never been tested on human
subjects before."

Dr. Robert Mann, a senior scientist with CAMH and one of the leading
figures behind the Ontario student drug use survey, echoes Young's

"Another challenge when talking about drugs on the street is you don't
know what's in them," said Mann. "We know there are new drugs which
appear, new drugs which maybe catch the imagination of young people."

The students

KRISTEN SAYS the CAMH study accurately identifies the substances most
popular among youth, but says she thinks far more kids are using drugs.

It's not uncommon for students to slip away at lunch to get high and
most substances are readily available at school, she says.

Kristen has attended three high schools in the Hamilton area and has
witnessed student drug use on many occasions. Many of them, she says,
are frequent users.

One such high school student is Spencer. While Spencer, 18, says her
drug use is now under control, she admits to being a heavy drug user
when she was younger.

"I've smoked weed," said Spencer. "I've tried things like melters
(depressants) and tried OxyContin, but not a lot, probably about six
times. I've done 'shrooms (mushrooms) a couple times and acid (LSD)
twice. I tried Xanax one time. Eventually I started doing blow
(cocaine) and MDMA."

Spencer describes her childhood as "happy and normal," and is about to

Prior to Grade 11, she was smoking marijuana daily, saying she got
high "before school, after school, during school." It affected both
her personal life and academic performance. If she didn't consume
cannabis, it would put her in a bad mood and she found herself bored
and falling asleep in class.

In Grade 11, her drug use escalated, switching from marijuana to
cocaine and MDMA. She used the substances daily and was drinking a

She says her parents were aware of her drinking but didn't know about
her drug use.

"It's tough to remember specific stories from that time," said
Spencer. "There were a lot of parties I'd go to where people would be
passing around blow (cocaine) in the bedrooms and bathrooms."

Eventually, Spencer overdosed on Xanax and was hospitalized for two
weeks. She had just turned 17.

A 20-year-old drug dealer who spoke to The Spectator on the condition
of anonymity says he suspects the Xanax Spencer overdosed on was

Counterfeit pills are more dangerous for drug users, as it's difficult
to know the quantity and quality of what they're consuming.

"I imagine everyone taking Xanax is taking pressed (counterfeit)
pills," he said. "It's all pressed. You can get them in the thousands
and that doesn't make sense because no one gets prescribed that
amount. You can almost tell they're pressed just by looking at them
because they're dusty."

He says he's been selling drugs since he was in Grade 7 and throughout
his time as a high school dealer, it wasn't just any one "sort" of
student who came to him looking to buy drugs.

"It's not just the stoner crowd," he said. "It's everyone. Especially
when it comes to molly (MDMA), there are so many young girls - girls
you'd never expect - who pop molly on the weekends. It's everybody,
not just one specific type of person. Even the students who are really
focused on school, when they go to a party, they let loose."

When asked what he sells, he responded: "I sell coke, crack, pills,
weed, Xanax."

He buys the drugs from other dealers, as well as people who have legal


ONE OF THE MAIN risks associated with youth drug use is the effect it
has on brain development. Research shows involvement with psychoactive
substances during key stages of development can have a number of
negative effects.

It's a point Penny Burley, executive director of Alternatives for
Youth, stresses. Alternatives for Youth is a community-based
organization that offers counselling and substance use treatment for
young people.

"There is tons of research that speaks to the fact the brain develops
from the back to the front," said Burley. "The last part that develops
is the executive function; judgment, reasoning, problem solving,
decision making. So those areas of the brain are highly affected in
adolescence and young adults."

Youth with mental health concerns, or those beginning substance use at
a younger age, are at increased risk for their use to turn
problematic. There is no definitive line where use turns into misuse.

Studies have also shown that people with predispositions to certain
forms of mental illness can have psychotic episodes and symptoms
triggered by marijuana use.

"There are a lot of factors that contribute to at what point use
becomes misuse, abuse and dependence," said Burley. "It's really about
looking at the impact substance use is having on someone's life.

"When someone's substance use is reaching a point where it's
interfering with school attendance and performance, their social life
and relationships, conflict with the law, physical and mental health -
one or many of those may be taking place and that tends to be
indicative that substance use has gone beyond curiosity or

The motivation for youth substance use ranges from experimentation and
curiosity, to coping and dependence.

While Alternatives for Youth treats more than 900 people a year, it is
clear that is a fraction of the amount of youth engaging in
problematic substance use in the city.

The students interviewed for this story say that youth who do drugs
will not have difficulty finding their drug of choice. At school,
through friends and in their neighbourhoods, it is easily available
for those who seek it out.

"Look, almost everyone is going to try drugs at least once," said
Spencer. "I think like 90 per cent of students in high school have at
least smoked pot. I get that it's fun. It's just that it can also 
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