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Talk 'Dirty' to Me: Meredith Maran discusses her book on America's teenage drug epidemic.

Truth or D.A.R.E.

Meredith Maran says America is long overdue for a rethinking of how it deals with teens who use drugs

By Jessica Neuman Beck

We all remember the old commercial: "This is your brain." Crack. Hiss. "This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?"

Trouble is, it's answers that are lacking, not questions. In fact, parents have plenty of questions when it comes to dealing with adolescent drug abuse. Questions like "How do I tell if my child is an addict?"--which, it turns out, may be entirely the wrong question.

"I don't use the term 'drug-addicted teens,'" says Meredith Maran, who'll discuss her book Dirty: A Search for Answers Inside America's Teenage Drug Epidemic Oct. 8 at Capitola Book Cafe. "Teenagers should never be labeled as addicts. We throw these terms around in conversation and it doesn't make that much difference, but in treatment it makes a huge difference. Addiction treatment involves believing that the person who's an addict can never again use any chemical substance without falling again into a pit of addiction. If a 40-year-old wants to say 'I'm an addict' and saying that is a big step toward their own peace of mind and their own ability to function, that's fine. But to call a teenager an addict is a pretty serious indictment."

Dirty follows three real-life teens, Mike, Tristan and Zalika (not their real names, naturally). They're drastically different kids from drastically different families, but with one thing in common: drugs. Mike has been busted for doing speed. Tristan's drug of choice is pot. Zalika, the youngest, has been a crack-dealing prostitute since the age of 12.

The three kids are in different treatment programs, each one designed to rehabilitate. The problem is, the kids aren't completely convinced that they need rehabilitation. And neither is Maran.

"I think kids should be judged by a different standard, and the research supports that. If you meet a 40-year-old who's smoking pot every day and having two drinks every night, the odds are when he's 50 he'll still be doing that. If you meet a teenager who's smoking pot every day, and drinking every weekend, the odds are when he's 30 he won't be doing it. People don't really factor that in."

That's not to say that the substance-abuse problems teenagers face aren't serious. One of the kids in the book, Mike, is physically addicted to methamphetamines.

"It's a very addictive chemical substance, and you can't pretend that it's not an issue," Maran says. "But at the same time, I could have a car accident and get addicted to Vicodin or codeine, and then get off it."

Dirty also chronicles Maran's struggles with her own son, Jesse, and his teenage drug problems. Jesse is now chemical-free and working as a minister and counselor to drug-abusing teens.

"He said he felt he had been through a long dark tunnel, and that when he got out the other side, his responsibility was to go back in to the tunnel and pull some more people out with him," Maran says. "He's really amazing."

Ideally, Maran would also like to see more programs that combine academics with counseling.

"Why should a kid have to get arrested and get in trouble with drugs and get kicked out of their parents' house before they get to be in a classroom with 10 kids instead of 40?" she says. "I've never met a kid who couldn't benefit from that."

The prevalence of drugs and the peer pressure to experiment with them is a very visible problem, but Maran says there's another side to it--one that can be just as harmful to adolescent development.

"One mother called me and said she was trying to put her kid into residential treatment because she found out that her daughter smoked pot once a month or so on weekends," Maran says. "Parents are freaking out because they find out their teenager is using drugs without understanding how that drug use fits into the teenager's life and whether it's having a negative effect on their kid or not."

In Maran's opinion, the best thing a parent can do is keep believing in their kid. "It's really hard to do. It was hard for me at times with Jesse. I think parents really need a lot of help, and in this society the way it's set up we don't have the whole village anymore," she says. "One of the main things I recommend is to have other adults in a kid's life that a teenager can talk to and trust."

For Mike, Tristan and Zalika, that adult has been Maran. She's still in contact with them. "Tristan is doing really well," she says, "and the other two are still pretty much doing what they were doing."

It's hard, she says, but at the same time good things have come out of the experience. "Mike's mom and I have become really close friends," Maran says. "She actually has become a big part of the whole book promotion. She came to the first reading, and she's going to come to all the readings. She said it's actually become her healing to talk about this, which is really brave of her. I couldn't have done it myself."

Meredith Maran will appear on Wednesday, Oct. 8, at 7:30pm at the Capitola Book Cafe, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola, to discuss 'Dirty: A Search for Answers Inside America's Teenage Drug Epidemic.' KUSP-FM (88.9) will air an interview with Maran at 10am on Oct. 16.

The Search for Answers In Santa Cruz

A brief guide to local drug-prevention resources for teens and parents

If you're looking for alternatives to the regular high school scene, Santa Cruz is the place to be. There are several academic programs targeted for teens who use drugs, as well as programs designed to provide an atmosphere in which teens don't need to turn to drugs or alcohol.

It's ambitious stuff, but Meredith Maran, author of Dirty: A Search for Answers Inside America's Teenage Drug Epidemic, says these kinds of programs are the ones that will bring about real change.

"I'm hopeful that there will be peer drug education programs like the peer sex education programs that they have in some high schools," Maran says. "The biggest thing I'd like to see change is prevention."

The Santa Cruz Office of Education has an Alternative Education Program, which has 16 countywide campuses to provide options for anyone dissatisfied with mainstream learning, but unable or unwilling to attend a private school. Some of the schools affiliated with the program are the Cesar E. Chavez School for Social Change, which is designed to develop youth leaders, and the Corralitos Oaks School for homeless and at-risk youth.

Two schools dedicated to sobriety and recovery are Escuela Quetzal, in Watsonville, and YES (Youth Experiencing Success), in Santa Cruz. Both of these operate in conjunction with Youth Services and both are public programs. Program director Michael Watkins says that in upward of 40 percent of students remain drug-free while they are at the schools.

There are also programs designed for teenagers in transition, who haven't fully committed to sobriety or are prone to relapse. Watkins encourages parents to contact the Santa Cruz Office of Education for more information.

The Teen Peer Court is another innovative program. High-school-age kids determine appropriate judgment for cases referred from Probation and School Resource Officers on the premise that youthful offenders will be more willing to take responsibility for their actions if judged and sentenced by their peers. Drug and alcohol counseling are also part of the program.

A recent study showed that teen drug use in Santa Cruz County is lower than it was in 1994, though still somewhat higher than the national average. With all the options available to youth in Santa Cruz, parents like Maran hope those numbers will continue to drop.

The Santa Cruz Office of Education Alternative Education Program can be contacted at 831.479.5330. The Teen Peer Court Coordinator can be contacted at 831.479.5325.

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From the October 8-15, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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