Marijuana smoking by the country’s teenage male population has reached a dangerous stage, according to Chief Counsellor at the Salvation Army, Steve Sookraj who says that many are being introduced to this gateway drug by friends or in school.
Sookraj noted that from the start of 2012 to the end of October this year, more than a dozen teens, the youngest being 15 have been enrolled in the six-month rehabilitation programme.
Sookraj himself has managed to rebound from over two decades of drug addiction and is now on the path to success.
In the years that he has been chief counsellor, over two dozen youths were taken to be rehabilitated. The numbers are increasing and for him this is a cause for concern.
During a recent interview with Stabroek News, he said that at the moment two teens are enrolled in the programme.
He said marijuana is the main drug teens are addicted to. According to Sookraj, before ending up at the Salvation Army many of the teenage drug addicts were ill-advised to seek psychiatric treatment and this actually made matters worse. He explained that drug addicts don’t have a psychiatric problem, but rather a marijuana use problem. They often become addicted to the medication they are given for the so-called psychiatric problem. By the time they reach the drug rehab programme which is where they should have been in the first place, they are suffering from cross addiction.
Because of the signs that are displayed – such as abnormal behaviour – people automatically assume that the teens have a psychiatric problem but this is far from the truth, he said.
Asked what he felt was the underlying cause of the drug use problem in teens, he said that “it is more easily available”. Noting too that many teen fall victim to the drug problem because they are at that vulnerable age, he said all they have to do is smoke it once and they get hooked.
“It is getting worse and worse every day,” he said adding that it is all about the choices that are being made. He stressed that in his opinion it had nothing to do with difficulties begin faced in life or the pressures they might be enduring. “It is all about the choices. Everyone has choices in life. It [marijuana use] is just a bad choice,” he said while noting that everyone just wants to put the blame on something.
He noted too that the marijuana available now is riddled with dangerous chemicals that lead to the damaging side effects and abnormal behaviour the teens exhibit.
Sookraj said the possibility exists that there are children younger than 15 years who are smoking marijuana. He noted that many adult drug addicts introduce their children to drugs from an early age. He said that sometimes, some of the smoke is blown into the mouths of the children making them “high”.
Sookraj told this newspaper that he has taken note of the many groups of teenagers he sees smoking openly during daytime hours.
Last week this newspaper noticed a group of youths smoking around 11 am. When asked about this, Sookraj explained that they would be on a “high for about two hours straight” adding that they then go into a slumber. He said that they would become lazy, sleep late and would hardly want to help with household chores.
“It is getting worse… so those who come here gotta say thank God. For those who never come they are at risk. A high risk,” he stressed.
He noted that everyone plays a part in the fight against drug use. “We can’t stop it but at least we can help prevent it from spreading too rapidly,” he said. When people see youths engaging in drug use they just can’t say “that’s not my business,” he added.
Among the signs of drug use, he said are dropping out of school, becoming parents at a young age and involvement in crime. He said if one looks at the background of people involved in criminal activities they would hear that they were drug users during their teenage years. He said it starts with stealing and over time it progresses into hard core criminal activity.
“Take early steps. Seek early help,” Sookraj urged parents and guardians who might be seeing signs or have suspicions that their teen is using marijuana. He said the first thing they should do is make urgent contact with the Salvation Army for information on all of the options available. He said sometimes relatives are aware of the drug use but for one reason or the other would delay seeking help, resulting in the situation getting out of hand.
Speaking about the six months rehabilitation programme, he said that at present the teens and adults are dealt with together but arrangements are being made to have the two groups separated, though he feels that in some instances it helps when the adults and the teens are together.
He told this newspaper that they keep track of the youths who have successfully completed the programme and many have been able to make a successful return to society including going back to school and completing their studies.
He appealed to the public to assist the Salvation Army to help teens who have a drug problem. He noted that while persons who utilise its services have to pay a monthly fee, sometimes relatives do not have all the money required. Additional funding will be able to assist more in this regard. He urged parents not to let their inability to pay the fee delay them from approaching the Salvation Army. He said that whatever the shortcomings are, they would try to find the best solution as the longer the teen stays away from treatment, the worse it is.
In addition to the programme, he said, because of their age, the Salvation Army tries to get them involved in meaningful activities once they have completed the six months. He pointed out that while adults can go out and get a job on completion of the programme, most youths go back into an environment where they are once again exposed to drugs. Because of this, the Salvation Army pays even more attention to the youth who have completed the programme. “What we need is a programme that is open to them, so that when they leave the Salvation Army we can enrol them…,” he said noting that again this will require money, a sum that often is borne by the Salvation Army.
He said that seeing teens in a situation where they can be classified as drug addicts is hard for most parents. As a result, when they teens start making progress, many parents want to take them away. This, he said, can be detrimental since it is essential that the teens complete the 12-step programme. He said parents and relatives would sometimes visit the teens too often and this could slow their progress, as they could begin to lose focus on their goal which is to recovery.
A distraught Jane (not her real name) told Stabroek News that she started seeing “strange changes” in her 15-year-old son, the third of her six children and she was advised to take him to the Salvation Army for professional treatment.
The visibly distraught woman said the teen was at one time attending a private school and she took a decision to take him out because he hardly went to school. She said she had found out that when she sent him to school he would end up walking the streets in the company of friends. After getting those complaints she said, she decided to take him out of school since her money was being wasted and she felt it could be used for something else.
According to Jane, he would threaten family members and he became very argumentative. She said she took the teen to the Georgetown Public Hospital and he was given prescribed drugs. However, even though he was using them, she saw no change in his behaviour, instead to her was getting worse.
She said his behaviour reached a point where “we had to tie him up” and the day after this was done, she took him to the Salvation Army.
She said she had confronted the teen with her suspicions that he was smoking marijuana but he denied that it was a regular occurrence. He admitted that he used it one time. “But I start going around and finding out from friends and somebody told me that yes they saw them the night,” she said adding that this was the one time the teen admitted to using the drug.
The distraught woman said that subsequently she found out that the teen was drinking alcohol. She said what captured her attention was how “he looked different”. Jane said she told her son that he looked different and asked whether he was drunk and he admitted that he had consumed “some Cherry Brandy”.
She said it was painful to watch her son going through drug treatment at such a young age and she would cry. The woman said she tried repeatedly find out from him why he was smoking and consuming alcohol and who introduced him to the marijuana, but “he keep saying that he don’t smoke and how it is one time and I stop questioning me because I find that when I ask him he getting aggressive so I din want to like put pressure on him”.
Sookraj interjected that the aggressive behaviour is normal in drug users but doesn’t develop overnight. He said it was impossible for the teen to be that state constantly after only using marijuana once. He said that from all indications the teen was continuously smoking when he was sent to school and no one picked up anything until he started showing signs of drug use such as aggressive behaviour.
His mother says she takes some of the blame for the situation her son is now in.
Asked if there is any advice she may wish to give to parents who are in a similar situation, Jane said they ought to pay more attention to their children and have frequent discussions with them on topics such as drug use and its implications. She said what is also key is ensuring that they regularly attend school.