Watch out for addiction, teens say

Got to talk to a great bunch of kids at Daybreak Youth Services drug and alcohol treatment program last week.

They make an interesting point – that if you have an addictive personality, it’s probably good to avoid all drugs, whether you’re a kid or an adult.

But if you’re an adult and can use marijuana responsibly, much like responsibly having a beer or two on the weekends, they don’t see a problem. And that’s despite their own experiences with addiction.

For kids, especially during the teen years when impulse control is so difficult, staying strong and staying away from pot, alcohol and other drugs can make a lifetime of difference. And these kids are quick to warn their peers of the dangers.

They also realize that after starting young and getting addicted, they can never use these substances again without substantial consequences.

But for those age 21 or older (actually they say 25 and older if you want to be sure your brain’s done developing), and you want to use legal marijuana here in Washington or Colorado, it’s not much different from having a beer.

Like anything, the answer to whether to use marijuana or not is subjective. It’s a question only you can answer for yourself.

What do you all think? Let me know in the comments section!

SueVo (sue.vorenberg@columbian.com)

(J.J. Macaraeg, 17, from Seattle, right, and Luis Herrera, 17, from Vancouver, tend to horses at Daybreak Youth Services Horse Ranch in Battle Ground, Friday, September 5, 2014. -Steven Lane/The Columbian)
(J.J. Macaraeg, 17, from Seattle, right, and Luis Herrera, 17, from Vancouver, tend to horses at Daybreak Youth Services Horse Ranch in Battle Ground, Friday, September 5, 2014. -Steven Lane/The Columbian)

Teens work to turn their lives around through substance abuse treatment program

By Sue Vorenberg
Columbian features reporter

About a dozen teen boys smiled and talked amid the calm breeze, tall trees and barnyard animals at the Grace Therapeutic Horse Program in Battle Ground.

While you couldn’t readily see it through the calm, each of the boys, part of the Daybreak Youth Services drug and alcohol treatment program, has been through more than his share of hell and pain.

Most of those in the program end up there because of marijuana use, although methamphetamine is also a player, said Annette Klinefelter, Daybreak’s director.

When it comes to helping the boys, it’s not necessarily about the specific substance they used so much as it is about teaching them to make more positive decisions about their lives, she said.

“Our big strategy is about teaching what the implications are (of substance abuse), what it does to your brain, how addiction works,” said Klinefelter, sitting with a small group next to a pit fire on the ranch. “Marijuana, it’s a drug, like alcohol or cigarettes, that can affect your life and your health.”

Sitting next to her, Luis Herrera, 17, said for him the scientific understanding of drugs and how they affect the brain wasn’t nearly as life-changing as realizing how the drug was cutting short his potential.

“I’ve learned to grow up … like, live my life on its own terms,” Herrera said. “Science, I don’t think that’s going to stop kids from making decisions. More important is knowing what it’s going to do to your life. I lost my job. I had problems in school. I feel confident now, though, that when I get out, I’m not going to use.”

And even with the problems the boys face, and the knowledge that they can no longer use marijuana, most still stopped short of condemning the legal state recreational system for adults.

For many, feelings about adult use of the drug are muddled. They know some can use it without problems, and they also know that for others like them, it can be a disaster.

“It depends on the person,” Herrera said. “Some people can pull it off. Some people can use it without a problem. I’m not one of those people, though; it just makes me not care about things.”

With help, the boys said, they’re learning how to replace all the negativity and emotional distance they got from the drugs with a far more positive enjoyment of life and family.

John Johnson

("I love coming up to the ranch. ... It's healing. It teaches you that there are other things to do besides smoking weed." John Johnson of Oak Harbor -Steven Lane/The Columbian)
(“I love coming up to the ranch. … It’s healing. It teaches you that there are other things to do besides smoking weed.” John Johnson of Oak Harbor -Steven Lane/The Columbian)

Sixteen-year-old John Johnson, who said he was born opiate dependent, said he finally decided to stop abusing drugs after he stayed awake for 21 days in a row while on methamphetamine.

“That was my rock-bottom,” Johnson said. “On the 21st day, I walked into a parking lot. I walked up to a car and put my head in and said, ‘Save my life.’ ”

Perhaps it was divine intervention, he added, because the owner of the car turned out to be the pastor of his girlfriend’s church.

And he told Johnson he would help.

Not long after, Johnson’s girlfriend told him she was pregnant. Her family, the church and his grandmother said they’d support him in getting clean. He was also facing five years in jail for crimes associated with his substance abuse, and the judge let him enter the treatment program full time rather than going back to jail, he said.

“I wish people could see it from our side, from the kids going through this,” Johnson said. “If I knew I would be here today, in here, when I was taking that first hit, I would never have done that.”

When Johnson found marijuana, and later moved on to meth, it quickly took hold of him, he said.

“This is my third treatment facility,” Johnson said. “The first was for weed, the second was for weed, the third was methamphetamine.”

And this time, with seven months of sobriety, he said he’s ready to be a better person, a much happier young man and, hopefully, a good father.

“I love coming up to the ranch,” he said, patting a friendly horse that approached him. “It really helps so much with recovery. Me, I did a lot of stupid things, but I really care about these animals. These are happy times. It’s healing. It teaches you that there are other things to do besides smoking weed.”

As for adult marijuana use? He’s not so sure about that.

“The people that use it for medical (reasons), some really need that, and it helps, but a lot of people want to just get high and they say, ‘Oh, it’s just weed, it’s just alcohol, it’s just meth,’ ” Johnson said. “A drug is a drug is a drug.”

Still, he does know some adults who seem to responsibly use marijuana. But for those with addictive personalities, his advice — especially to young people — is to stay far, far away.

“If you’re addicted, everything accelerates,” he said. “You can destroy so many things. For kids, especially, if you start smoking at 11 like I did, then you find yourself at age 16, but inside, you’re really still 11. It’s horrible.”

Johnson said he wants to go to a literary college. He also wants to be a rap star focused on spreading positive messages. And when he gets out of the program, he said he’s looking forward to hugging his girlfriend, enjoying his family and starting a better life.

“I have so much hope for everyone here; I believe in this program,” Johnson said. “If you want help, you’ll get help. It’s all about what you want.”

Luis Herrera

(Luis Herrera, 17, of Vancouver tends to horses at Daybreak Youth Services Horse Ranch in Battle Ground. He's in the program for marijuana use. -Steven Lane/The Columbian)
(Luis Herrera, 17, of Vancouver tends to horses at Daybreak Youth Services Horse Ranch in Battle Ground. He’s in the program for marijuana use. -Steven Lane/The Columbian)

Luis Herrera ended up in the program after he was arrested for possession and ended up in drug court.

For him, the problem isn’t drug addiction as much as it is bad decision-making, he said.

“I’m addicted to the lifestyle but not the substance,” he said. “And I do believe in responsible adult use.”

He said he smoked pot for three years, and that he saw many other drugs that were readily available, but for him, marijuana wasn’t a gateway drug. He never tried anything else and he never wanted to.

“It depends on the person,” Herrera said. “I realized I have to replace the lifestyle I was living. I’m going to put my head in the books, get new friends. That’s a hard thing, but I’m ready to stay clean and live a clean, honest life.”

After several weeks of sobriety, he said he really sees the difference, and is ready to take ownership of his life and his decisions.

“I feel a lot better,” he said, smiling at Klinefelter. “(At) Daybreak, you get to go to NA (Narcotics Anonymous) and AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), you get to go to the horse ranch. It gives you so much. I’m ready to stay sober. I’m ready to tackle my problems.”

Smiling back, Klinefelter told him he can always come back to the program if he needs help.

“You can talk to us on Facebook. You can call us any time,” she said. “That’s why we’re here.”

With drugs, “your focus is just on drugs and how you’re going to sneak around doing them,” Herrera said.

Now, he said, he’s ready to focus on more important things, such as college, where he’d like to major in business.

“What makes me sad about all this is the wasted potential,” Klinefelter said of youth drug abuse. “It breaks my heart to see people with so much promise get derailed.”

J.J. Macaraeg

(J.J. Macaraeg, 17, from Seattle, tends to horses at Daybreak Youth Services Horse Ranch in Battle Ground, Friday, September 5, 2014. -Steven Lane/The Columbian)
(J.J. Macaraeg, 17, from Seattle, tends to horses at Daybreak Youth Services Horse Ranch in Battle Ground, Friday, September 5, 2014. -Steven Lane/The Columbian)

J.J. Macaraeg, 16, started with pot and ended up on methamphetamine.

He hit his lowest point on his most recent birthday, after what was pretty much a yearlong bender, he said.

“I went cold turkey,” Macaraeg said. “And I’m done doing drugs. I had to experience all the hardships just from doing them for myself. I don’t think marijuana is always a gateway drug, but for me it was, and it can be.”

That said, he said he supports the legal market set up by Initiative 502 in Washington.

“I believe it’s not as bad as alcohol, and I think it’s OK in moderation if you don’t have problems with addiction,” Macaraeg said. “But I don’t believe in letting young people use it.”

He has family members who were greatly helped by using marijuana as part of their cancer treatment, he said. He also said he has another family member who works long hours and will smoke every now and then.

“And that’s fine,” he said. “But I’ve also had family that smoke every day, and some of them have problems. It really depends on how you consume it.”

For him, I-502 isn’t nearly as big a problem as the unregulated spread of medical marijuana dispensaries in Seattle, where he’s from.

“You see more of them than McDonald’s in Seattle,” Macaraeg said. “They’re on every corner. And it’s pretty easy to get stuff from them if you want it. With recreational, it’s regulated. You can’t get in there if you’re under 21.”

Going through treatment, spending time with animals at the ranch, he said he’s finally come to the conclusion that he can’t do any drugs, he said. But he also said for others, for adults, anyway, he’s not against it.

“I’d rather have a world full of potheads than a world full of drunks,” Macaraeg said.

When he completes the program, he wants to work with animals, mainly because of the experiences he’s had at the ranch, he added.

“I want to be a dog rehabilitator like Cesar Milan,” Macaraeg said. “He’s my idol.”

At that, Robin Nelson, who owns the ranch and runs the Grace Therapeutic Horse Program, smiled approvingly.

“He’s a natural,” Nelson said. “He’s going to be great at that.”

There’s something about working with animals that can change brain chemistry and build positive personality characteristics, and that’s what she’s seen in many kids in the program, she added.

“I was a little afraid when we first brought the kids from Daybreak in that they’d be aggressive with the animals, but it’s been totally the opposite,” Nelson said. “We work with a lot of kids, but Daybreak may be our favorite group. The kids come out fearful and very subdued around the animals, and the animals do amazing things with them.”

More questions
The ultimate question of legalization and whether adult use encourages underage use will take time and a host of statewide surveys to understand. And those surveys are already underway at several agencies as part of I-502.

But for now, it’s important to explain to young people why some responsible adult use is considered OK, while underage use and substance abuse’s effects on a growing brain are not OK.

“The kids obviously have not been buying marijuana legally,” said Ken Davis, a milieu supervisor who coaches the boys on life skills. “The big worry now is that it’s legal, so the kids ask ‘if it’s legal, what’s the big deal?’ ”

And perhaps the most important question is one that only you can answer for yourself, Davis said.

“Ask yourself: Is this causing bigger problems in your life?” Davis said. “If you got kicked out of school, if you avoid your family, it probably is.”