By Ed Runyan
It’s hard for parents today to know the best way to guide their children through the years of teen and young-adult alcohol and drug experimentation because so much has changed since today’s parents were teens.
Thirty years ago, a policy change mandated by Congress approving the National Minimum Legal Drinking Act forced the states to change their legal drinking age to 21.
Ohio raised the drinking age from 18 to 19 in 1984 and to 21 in 1987, which is similar to what happened across the country.
That changed the venue for drinking and reduced the number of alcohol-related crashes and deaths, experts say, but it didn’t stop drinking. It moved it to other locations, such as homes, cars and outdoors, according to young adults interviewed for this story.
Michael Albanese, who retired two years ago from the Warren Police Department after 40 years as a patrolman and sergeant, said not only did the drinking law shut down numerous bars, but the movement led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving also changed the way people viewed drunken driving.
He spent much of his time in the 1970s working midnight turn, answering one call after another about intoxication-related problems. The calls would come at midnight, at 2:30 a.m. when bars were closing, at 4 a.m. when people were eating at an all-night restaurant and at 5 a.m. when they got home to a disapproving spouse.
Today’s drunken-driving law makes it illegal to drive with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08. It used to be 0.19, and the tools for detecting drunkenness were less scientific in the 1970s — no “horizontal gaze” field test, for example — so fewer drunken-driving citations were written, Albanese said.
But in more recent years, Albanese said he began to notice that alcohol use among young people had dropped in favor of drugs.
“There’s a lot of people — including adults — riding around in cars or over at friends houses” doing drugs, he said.
According to a 2009 study led by Dr. Karen Norberg, Department of Psychiatry, Washington University School of Medicine, the higher drinking age dramatically reduced the amount of alcohol abuse in American life. It also, in fact, reduced the number of people reporting drug addictions, it said.
The results of the study were presented with a focus on adults now 44 years of age and older, the ones who were exposed to legal alcohol at a younger age.
More likely to abuse
The Norberg study found that those people were 33 percent more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs — even into midlife — than the young adults who grew up with the drinking age 21.
Most studies have indicated that a higher drinking age caused more young adults to delay their exposure to alcohol and reduced the number who became heavy drinkers, the study said.
The Norberg study suggested that the reason the drinking age mattered is that human brains don’t fully develop the capacity for judgment and self-control until the early 20s, so their judgment may have been compromised permanently.
As for the people who grew up after the drinking age rose to 21, they still drink, as officials at many colleges have noted in recent years.
But a question some are asking is whether young people are being exposed to deadly drugs such as heroin through the more “covert” way they “party” today.
Ed Dyer, program manager at the counseling agency Community Solutions, said he doesn’t have an opinion on whether covert partying increases the likelihood that a young person will be exposed to hard drugs, but he thinks it’s possible.
“We didn’t have people bringing bottles of pills to the party,” said Dyer, who grew up in Austintown in the 1960s. “The availability of mood-altering substances is greater.” Cheap heroin and other drugs have caused spikes in overdose deaths in recent years.
State, federal and local law enforcement officials worked together on a yearlong investigation in 2012 and 2013 called “Little D-Town” after it became apparent that there was a drug pipeline from Detroit to Warren.
In early 2013, nearly 100 people were indicted on drugs and weapons charges for their part in the sometimes deadly activities resulting from the drug dealing.
The November 2012 murder of 32-year-old Warren resident Marco Dukes by two Detroit men near the downtown area on a Sunday morning sent shock waves through the community, which at that point was not aware of the Little D-Town investigation.
Dyer said the higher drinking age has reduced the number of car accidents involving young adults, but it has placed additional burdens on adults “to monitor kids’ activities.”
One constant over the past 50 years that Dyer and other drug counselors point out is the presence of common characteristics that point to individuals most likely to abuse alcohol or drugs — a personality trait that makes them prone to taking risks.
“Those who are going to have significant problems are going to have significant problems. That course is pretty well set by 21 years of age,” Dyer said.
Michael Flatley, addictions services coordinator for Valley Counseling, said genetics and environmental factors such as home life can affect the likelihood for addiction.
He said most young people see a difference between “partying” and the choices some people make to use opiate pain pills, tranquilizers and heroin.
Still, Dyer acknowledges confusion among teens about the consequences of certain drugs offered to them.
“Many of the kids are naive,” he said because they don’t understand the danger of mixing a tranquilizer such as Zanax or Valium with an opiate such as Oxycontin or Percocet.
That combination could lower a person’s respiration enough to stop breathing, he said.
Another concern is that the age of addicts treated for addictions through drug courts in Trumbull and Mahoning counties is dropping, counselors say.
“Twenty years ago, the average age of an addict was higher, maybe in their 30s. Now we see them younger — 19, 20, 21,” said Darryl Rodgers, drug court administrator for Trumbull County.
He attributes the change to the change in our culture toward the use of addictive drugs, such as pain pills, fueled in part by greater availability and use by their parents. He said he also doesn’t know why there is such an increase in female addicts.
Interviews with two of the addicts in the Trumbull County drug court offer some clues.
One of them, a 33-year-old man, said he experimented with alcohol and drugs as a teen without graduating to harder drugs until he was 22.
“I drank a little, but my thing was pot,” he said. “There were two or three guys we hung out with. When we could, we smoked in [one guy’s] house but not in front of his parents,” he said.
He didn’t try pain pills — a type of opiate — until about age 22, when a co-worker at a factory suggested it. “I liked how it made me feel,” he said. Eventually, his use of illegal drugs led to his arrest.
His drug use also nearly cost him his life because he overdosed several times from mixing Xanax with opiates. One time he stopped breathing, which put him into a coma and onto a respirator.
Drug court allows a person to attempt to get off of drugs over the course of about 18 months and report to a common pleas court judge and counselors every week, with the promise of having his or her drug charge dismissed if the program is completed.
The man had a minor amount of pain, so he thought he had an excuse for taking the pain pills. But he also “self-medicated” with the tranquilizer Xanax because he had a “restless, uncomfortable feeling” that he attributes to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder.
A 25-year-old woman in drug court said she started drinking at 14 but didn’t try heroin until age 20.
“I’ve been to parties before and they would bring it out,” she said of pills such as OxyContin. “I never tried it because I was scared.”
That changed, however, when she was 20 and started living with a 22-year-old man who offered her the drug. He was the father of her child. “I thought it was safe. I trusted him,” she said. “It wasn’t safe, and it wasn’t a good idea,” she says now.
April Caraway, executive director of the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board, says she believes parents should not dismiss drinking and marijuana use by saying, “At least it’s not heroin.”
Marijuana use may be viewed as acceptable because it has been legalized in two states, but police officers who raid homes where illegal drugs are being sold “always” find marijuana in that same home, said Caraway.