Teen substance use still above average on Vashon

Vashon youth continue to smoke marijuana and drink alcohol at higher rates than their peers in the rest of the state, but in some grades, the level of use is declining, according to the results of an extensive survey.

The 2010 Healthy Youth Survey, administered to sixth-, eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders last fall and released last week, shows a mixed picture, according to those involved in a far-reaching effort to get Vashon youth to abstain from drugs and alcohol. 

On the one hand, 10th-graders at Vashon High School, when asked if they’d used either alcohol or marijuana in the last 30 days, reported a lower level of use than 10th graders did two years ago and are nearly level with state numbers: 27 percent, for instance, said they’d consumed alcohol in the last 30 days, which is the same as the statewide number and a 14 percent drop over the number of Vashon 10th-graders who reported such use two years ago. 

On the other hand, eighth-graders at McMurray Middle School reported slightly higher use rates than those two years earlier. And 12th-graders at VHS are still far above state averages: 58 percent reported consuming alcohol in the last 30 days, compared to 40 percent statewide; and 39.5 percent said they’d used marijuana, compared to 27 percent statewide.

“I see some good trends, and I see some trends that concern me,” said Luke McQuillin, project coordinator for the Healthy Community Network’s Drug Free Communities Coalition. “We were really surprised. Some of it’s good. Some bad. Why is that?”

Particularly puzzling, McQuillin said, is that Vashon youth score high on what’s called pro-social activities — meaning they’re engaged in sports and other after-school activities and are graduating at high rates. Usually, he said, communities see a correlation between high substance-use and low pro-social activities; in other words, teens who use substances drop out from high school at higher rates and are disengaged and on the margins of a community.The Healthy Community Network is holding its semi-annual dinner on Wednesday, June 8. McQuillin said he plans to explore this issue with those who attend.

“We’re going to ask the question: Does this make any sense to you? We can sit here in our own bubble and come up with our own ideas, but the community may think differently and have some other ideas,” he said.

The statistics come at a time of heightened focus on Vashon’s youth and the degree to which they use alcohol, marijuana or other drugs. The Island has long had a reputation as a place where teen use was considered high and where community mores seemed to tolerate such use.

Two years ago, Vashon’s Healthy Community Network — newly reactivated after years of dormancy — won a highly competitive federal grant that enabled the coalition to undertake a number of strategies in an effort to reverse the Island’s high rate of teen alcohol and drug use.

The multi-year grant, which could total more than $1 million if Vashon receives subsequent funding over the next several years, is geared toward what some consider both a daunting and promising set of efforts — attempting to address not individual problems but the attitudes, norms and environment that have made Vashon a community with a demonstrated youth substance abuse problem.

Since then, the coalition has hired McQuillin to coordinate the effort and has undertaken a number of strategies. It has held three drug take-back events, where Islanders were able to dispose of their unused prescription drugs safely; has begun a campaign to identify those public places — parks and wooded areas, for instance — where drug and alcohol use is occurring and alter the environment to make it less friendly to such use; and has brought speakers and held events that highlight research that shows the impact marijuana and alcohol use can have on a brain that’s still developing. 

The fact that some of the numbers have improved in the 2010 survey compared to the one in conducted in 2008 suggests that some of the messages may be taking hold, activists said. 

“We’ve seen some good movement in some areas, and we still have a lot of work to do,” said Claudia Gross Shader, who chairs the Healthy Community Network. “We didn’t do any major backsliding, which is good.”

At the same time, those engaged in these efforts say, the results suggest the Island needs to continue to work hard to address Vashon’s high numbers. The fact that Vashon’s eighth-graders, for instance, were slightly above the state in marijuana use “is a reminder to us to redouble our efforts in terms of prevention and intervention,” said Greg Allison, principal of McMurray Middle School.

Ed Swan, one of two consultants who analyzed the results for Vashon’s Healthy Community Network, said he, too, sees the numbers as an indication that there’s much work still to be done. 

The survey is extensive and exhaustive, asking similar questions from various angles. As a result, he said, he feels it provides a meaningful snapshot of Island youth. 

“When you put (the data) all together, they add up to a picture. It isn’t a sharply defined (picture), but it does indicate that there’s higher use on Vashon,” he said.

As a father of two boys, he added, “I’m concerned.”


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