Drugs take root in rural America

New evidence shows that teens in small towns now use more illicit substances than their counterparts in cities.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The setting is idyllic: fertile fields, bounded by rows of grain silos, and cows nibbling peacefully in pastures. Here, youths raise livestock for 4-H projects and help their families with crops. And in their free time, some experiment with drugs.

Not long ago, illicit drug use was considered a "big city" problem. Small-town families took comfort in the belief that their children were safe from the influences of urban drug culture. But the growing prevalence of methamphetamines and marijuana has darkened the Currier & Ives picture. As recent studies and interviews with local officials show, rural teens are now more likely to use drugs than their counterparts in the big city.

"Juvenile arrests have been on the rise over the past five years," says Sheriff Dave Strong. While tougher enforcement is a factor, juvenile drug use is simply more prevalent, he and others say.

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The causes range from the widely bruited decline of the nuclear family and that modern scapegoat, the Internet, to teenagers' tendency to experiment - a factor in any age. Those components, combined with the easy availability of ingredients needed to make drugs, are believed to be behind the startling statistics.

In fact, rural eighth-graders are twice as likely as urban teens to use amphetamines, 34 percent likelier to use marijuana, and 50 percent more likely to use cocaine, according to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University in New York.

"It was kind of a shock to me when I read the statistics saying that drug use was higher in rural areas," says Dennis Mooney, agent-in-charge at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's office in Montrose. Indeed, as a father to teenagers, Agent Mooney had viewed Montrose - a western Colorado town of 9,000 - as a safe, wholesome place to raise kids.

Colorado's farming communities are hardly alone, says Susan Foster, CASA vice president. Their problems with rising drug use are mirrored in small towns from coast to coast.

Last year, when the Alamosa school district surveyed seventh and eighth-graders, the results were alarming: Asked about drugs' availability, 70 percent said alcohol was easy to obtain, 62 percent said marijuana was readily available, and 37 percent said they'd have little trouble getting hold of cocaine.

Not isolated enough

Despite its relative remoteness - the nearest city is more than 100 miles away - Alamosa lies along a major traffic route, midway between Denver and Albuquerque. "Accessibility [of drugs] is not a problem," says Dave Thompson, superintendent of Alamosa schools.

In Steamboat Springs, Colo. (pop. 7,000), 250 miles north, Lt. Rick Crotz is battling the same scenario. When it comes to drug availability, he says, small communities are no different than urban areas: "Those who want to do drugs find them."

Ninth-grader Dan Parker does not do drugs - but not for lack of opportunity.

"Drugs are easily available at most schools, including mine," he says. In his rural town, many teens have tried drugs. And while it isn't requisite to be considered "cool," those who do drugs aren't shunned, either, he says. "I have several friends who smoke weed ... that's the people's own business."

Howard Simon, spokesman for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America in New York, says parents everywhere should view the latest data as a wake-up call: "It's important for parents to realize it's a problem, wherever they live. If rural parents think their kids aren't exposed to drugs, they should think again. And it all comes back to the key role parents play in this," he says.

Although small towns may be at a disadvantage in battling drugs, many are becoming more proactive now, says Mr. Simon. "They're not waiting for someone else to fix the problem."

Three years ago, the Alamosa school district initiated a drug-free education program in its middle school. Carla Garcia, program coordinator, says an early start is essential. "Students begin experimenting with tobacco in the sixth grade - sometimes earlier. And tobacco is considered a gateway drug," she says.

Looking for reasons

But schools can't solve this problem alone, says Mr. Thompson, district superintendent. "Our schools are a reflection of our society, and problems that we see in society will show up in schools." The decline of the family structure is one factor that can't be ignored, he says. "There are more single-parent families, and more two-career families," Thompson says. "There are greater demands on everyone, and no one has created a 25th hour. All of this takes a toll."

Simon, meanwhile, points to the role of pop culture in glamorizing drug use. Take multiple Oscar-winner "American Beauty," he says, which "focused on a character whose life altered when he became a drug user."

And then there's the Internet - which carries unprecedented influences to rural areas. "People complain that kids can go on the Internet to find bomb recipes. Well, the instructions for how to make drugs are on the Internet, too," says Simon.

Methamphetamine is one drug that can be made easily with ingredients from a hardware store, and illicit production of "meth" has been skyrocketing in the West. No one knows how much of this can be traced to the Internet, but lab seizures by the DEA have increased six-fold in the past five years. Local law-enforcement agencies seized more than 4,000 meth labs in 1999 alone.

In Colorado's Weld County, the highest agricultural-producing county in the nation, breaking up methamphetamine labs has become a routine event, says Greeley Police Sgt. John Gates. Last year, eight to 10 labs were seized within the city limits: "A couple of years ago, I would have said that's unheard of in Greeley. Now, I'm sad to say, it's common."

Still, some question whether rural drug problems are new - or merely getting more attention now. "A lot has to do with various organizations obtaining more accurate information from rural areas than in the past," says Mooney. "Narcotics is a major [problem for] society, and it has been for a long time."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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