Youth Substance Abuse: A Hidden Issue

I live in a community where crime lies under a perpetual shadow. In the foothills of Southern Arizona, affluence masks illicit activity, especially among youth.

My peers are smart, talented, and kind, but many of them use substances including (but not limited to) alcohol and marijuana outside of school. These peers do not fit the stereotype of typical youth substance users- it is hard to tell that they engage in these activities by looking at their high test grades in AP courses, their stellar extracurricular activities, and their innate intellectual keenness. But past these attractive academic qualities lie teenagers who frequently smoke and drink on weekends and after school, without regarding the consequences that come with these activities. Take one of my friends on my speech and debate team, for example. This friend is currently enrolled in four AP courses, has won many local debate competitions, and enjoys reading and discussing current events. An outsider would never guess that in this person's free time, this person chooses to excessively smoke marijuana and consume alcohol both inside and outside the home. As a result, this person has influenced many of my other friends to take part in these activities, creating a chain reaction of use.

At my school, we speak of alcohol and drugs in the third person, vehemently refusing to acknowledge its prevalence among our own students. Education about substance abuse is limited to mandatory health courses, which have little impact on the activities of students. When I took my school's mandatory health course during the summer before my freshman year, the teacher frequently directed us to websites where we could "learn about the drugs." I spent more time learning about the history and components of cocaine than I did learning about its negative effects on the body. In this class, there were never interpersonal discussions or stories- discourse which proves key in mitigating youth substance abuse. By branding drugs and alcohol a "them" problem and ruthlessly pointing fingers at kids in inner-city, low-income neighborhoods when we hear the words "substance abuse," we become blind to the fact that this hidden issue is prevalent among our own.

At Teen Court, I have noticed that a majority of teen defendants who visit are low-income, inner-city, South Tucson, or minority teenagers. Seldom do I see someone from my school (located in the affluent Northwest) visit. I can count on one hand the number of instances that I have.

The blatant racial and economic inequality I see in the pursuit and prosecution of teenagers who use substances in Tucson has led me to ask myself two important questions: How can I galvanize youth in my city to educate themselves about the dangers of substance abuse and stop using substances? And, in doing so, how can I unmask youth substance abuse in my community and aid in its prevention?

I seek to answer these questions through Project Clean, in which I hope to inspire my peers to look past the temporary fun and enjoyment gleaned from substance abuse and see the real, long-term cost. I wish to educate my peers beyond the mandatory health classes and third-person frames of reference. I desire to open up productive discourse on this subject and eliminate the blind pointing of fingers at less-privileged locations when the words "substance abuse" come to mind. I wish to promote prevention. Because after all, the key to a brighter future begins with prevention.