Insight Alliance, a coalition of individuals and community health and public safety groups working to prevent drug abuse in Washington County, gathered Friday to begin formulating a plan of action on the increasing impacts of synthetic drug use.
IA Director Jennifer Berven said the alliance called Friday’s meeting on short notice Thursday following an incident this week in which the suspected use of bath salts, a synthetic drug that mimics the effect of cocaine or methamphetamine, reportedly resulted in the hospitalization of a student at county high school.
Despite the one-day notice, the meeting drew more than a half dozen alliance members, including supporters from Frontier Health and from the East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Heath.
“The fact that it’s happening to young people, moves people.” Berven said.
Topics at Friday’s meeting included difficulties faced in ongoing attempts to regulate the drugs, efforts to the educate the community and students and parents in particular, and the success of a Daniel Boone High School student protest staged Thursday at a synthetic drug shop about mile from the school.
Virginia Farr, a Frontier Health counselor who works at Daniel Boone, told the group students’ reaction to a Tuesday incident in which a boy was restrained, removed from the school and taken to a hospital after exhibiting violent and uncontrollable behavior has included outrage, fear and indignation.
“They’re outraged that he had it and he did it at school. A lot of students are fearful of which of their friends will be the next to have this kind of reaction. There are a lot who are really indignant,” she said.
With that response among the students, Farr said she believes there may be “potential for a culture shift” in attitudes toward drug use.
“I think we may have a small window here for that culture shift,” she said.
The cause of the student’s violent behavior has not been confirmed and is still under investigation. Berven said Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes has invited the alliance to take part in assemblies on synthetic drugs planned next week at both Daniel Boone and David Crockett high schools.
Twanda Wadlington, with ETSU’s College of Public Health, said the college is working on several projects to address the issue, including a forum planned for April to build conversation on campus about drug use and synthetic drugs in particular, a PowerPoint presentation being prepared in partnership with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, and attempts to determine the scope of the problem at the university.
“We have a number of students coming into the counseling center to talk about synthetic drug issues. We know the number of students who are coming into the counseling center and we know there are more who are not coming in. We are trying to determine how much larger the problem is on the campus” she said.
Berven emphasized parental influence continues to be a leading indicator of whether a young person will experiment with or become a regular user of alcohol or recreational drugs later in life and cited an AI survey of Washington County and Johnson City students that showed less than 50 percent have talked about drug use with their parents in the past year. “That number should be much higher,” she said.
While Berven suggested every school notify parents of the need to discuss drug use with their children, Wadlington said for many parents, drug use is difficult topic to talk about with their children because they do not know much about the issue or how to begin the conversation.
“They need that script,” Wadlington said.
Berven said while there are many things that can be done to address the problems of synthetic drugs, “The first question is, do we have the facts?”
In attempts to regulate synthetic drugs, she said, “The biggest clarification that I have seen is the distinction between bath salts and synthetic marijuana. A lot of ordinances speak just to marijuana and may not apply to bath salts. The chemicals are distinct. They have different reactions.”
Compounding the difficulty, Berven said manufacturers are changing their formulas without notification, making it more difficult to test for their presence and to minimize their potential for harm. At the state and federal level, she said, legislative focus is shifting to the drugs’ effect, similar to laws against public intoxication that criminalize intoxication regardless of the chemical causation.
“It’s the ‘if it walks like a duck and it talks like duck,’ theory,” she said.
Because of the short notice of Friday’s meeting, Berven said many of the alliance’s members and supporters were unable to attend but indicated a desire meet on the issue at next available opportunity. AI’s next strategic planning session on synthetic drugs is tentatively planned for early March.