New survey: Many voice concern about teen drug use

A majority of Vashon adults are concerned about teen substance abuse but believe the broader community doesn’t share their concerns, according to the first comprehensive survey of adult attitudes toward substance use on Vashon.

The results are noteworthy in a community where a large number of teens in recent years have reported using alcohol or marijuana, according to officials with the Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse (VARSA).

“It makes it harder for people to stand up against teen substance use,” said Ken Maaz, the executive director of Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS). “If you think everybody around you is tolerant, it’s harder to take a stand.”

The dichotomy between one’s personal concerns and a belief about community-wide tolerance is one of several significant findings from the survey, Maaz said. The survey also found a dichotomy between respondents’ personal tolerance for alcohol and marijuana use among adults and their perception of a wider community tolerance. And more than half of the respondents said they believe it’s too easy on Vashon for minors to get their hands on alcohol.

The 22-question survey, conducted in March, garnered 743 responses, or around 10 percent of the adult population, giving it a solid statistical foundation, Maaz said.

Called the “Community Attitudes Survey,” the poll explored several issues, including what actions an adult would take if he or she knew that an underage person was drinking, whether respondents had attended any community events focused on this issue and whether their beliefs about youth substance use had changed over the last two years.

“The main take-away for us is that we have a lot of educating to do with the community,” Maaz said.

Among the findings:

• 74 percent of the respondents consider alcohol use by Vashon teens as a “very serious” or “serious” problem and, based on another question, 84 percent said it’s “very wrong” or “wrong” for youth to drink.

• 67 percent consider marijuana use “very serious” or “serious,” and, again, 84 percent consider marijuana use by teens “very wrong” or “wrong.”

• When asked about community tolerance, 48 percent said they believe the community considers teen alcohol use “very wrong” or “wrong.”

• The results were similar when respondents were asked about teen marijuana use, with 47 percent believing the community considers such use “very wrong” or “wrong.”

• When it comes to adult alcohol and marijuana use, again there was a dichotomy, though not as great: 91 percent of the respondents believe the community is tolerant of adult alcohol use, while 78 percent said they’re personally tolerant; and 85 percent said they believe the community is tolerant of adult marijuana use, compared to 57 percent who say they’re personally tolerant.

• More than half of the respondents believe it is too easy for minors to get their hands on alcohol.

• 60 percent would support policies that limit the availability of alcohol at outdoor community events, and 57 percent would support such policies at nonprofit and school fundraisers.

• Women are significantly more likely to support policies limiting alcohol use in public settings than men.

Maaz and Luke McQuillin, VARSA’s coordinator, said the results, compiled in a 37-page report, will help the organization shape its campaign to reduce teen substance use as it moves forward.

“We’re definitely going to work on messaging to inform people that the community as a whole is not tolerant to the level that many individuals think it is,” Maaz said. “We’re going to try to impart to people that they should take a stand.”

They also said the survey is a milestone for VARSA, which received a federal grant three years ago to begin to address the issue of teen substance use on the Island — where use is higher than that reported by teens statewide and in other similar communities.

The results were not a surprise, McQuillin said; he and others had anecdotal information to support some of the findings. Still, McQuillin said, the organization needs data to ensure it’s on the right track.

“These are some hard facts that we can now start utilizing,” he said. “We had to have some data that we can use.”

Maaz and McQuillin said the results have already helped to inform a nearly completed action plan that they’re putting in place to determine how to spend five years’ worth of funding from the state to address teen substance use. That plan includes workshops and support groups for parents and other adults as well as social media to try to affect attitudes, Maaz said.

VARSA is also hoping to garner a stronger public response to the issue. “I’m hoping we can get community leaders to publicly take a stand and sign a pledge to combat this issue,” Maaz said.

The issue is not a moral one, he added. “It’s a public health issue. We’re focusing on brain development” among teens, he said.

Support for limiting alcohol at adult events, however, was not terribly strong, according to the survey. For instance, 57 percent said they’d support banning alcohol at nonprofit and school fundraising events, but there was a significant difference between men and women, the survey found; 61 percent of the female respondents supported such a restriction, compared to 51 percent of the men.

Jackie Merrill, who chaired the PTSA auction this year and will chair next year’s event, said the issue of serving alcohol has come up the past few years when volunteers have begun discussing the fundraiser. The problem, she said, is that a fundraiser without alcohol garners far less revenue.

About eight years ago, she said, the auction was held at one of the public schools, where alcohol consumption is not allowed, and the auction brought it around $34,000, she said. The next year, at a different venue that allowed alcohol consumption, proceeds doubled.

“That’s why we do it,” she said, adding that no one under age 21 is allowed to attend the event. “I personally think it does benefit the fundraising effort.”

But Maaz said he hopes the survey will lead adults to explore some of the policy questions and more fully understand the role that adults play in teens’ decisions to drink or use marijuana. Some who took the survey, for instance, said in a comments section that adult alcohol consumption doesn’t affect youth use and would oppose, for instance, an end to beer gardens at Strawberry Festival.

“Our charge would be to educate people that what adults do does affect what kids do,” Maaz said.


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