Survey: Alcohol still drug of choice for Portsmouth youth


PORTSMOUTH — The latest results from a town-wide survey on substance abuse has reinforced something the coordinator of the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition says he already knew:

“We’ve got a very serious problem in Portsmouth,” said Ray Davis of the Coalition, a non-profit group focused on substance abuse prevention issues in the town. “I mean the Town of Portsmouth as in everyone who lives here: the government, schools, police, parents — everybody. We need to get our act together and start taking things seriously before something really tragic happens.”

The Coalition recently released its second Youth Substance Needs Assessment which details survey results of 929 student respondents in grades 7 through 12. The report, prepared for the Coalition by John Mattson Consulting, has come up with many of the same findings as the one carried out last year, Mr. Davis said.

While the majority of Portsmouth students are not using substances, a “significant number of students starting in the middle school and becoming more numerous at the high school are using tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and a few other substances at rates higher than some people might expect,” according to the report, which also looked at tobacco and prescription drug use.

Alcohol remains the clear favorite as the drug of choice among Portsmouth youths, followed by marijuana, he said, adding that the new survey merely reinforces what the Coalition found last year.

Here are some findings of substances students reported using the past 30 days:

• More than a third (34.6 percent) of students surveyed in grades 7 to 12 reported consuming alcohol in the past 30 days. More than 62 percent of high school seniors reporting drinking in that time frame, while more than 20 percent of grade 8 students reported doing so.

• About a quarter of all respondents said they had used marijuana in the past 30 days, including 44 percent of high school seniors, 43 percent of juniors, and 14 percent of eighth-graders.

• Nearly 20 of students in 11th grade reported taking pills or pharmaceutical drugs that were no prescribed to them in the past 30 days, the highest percentage in any grade.

• Cigarette use was relatively low, with less than 5 percent of students overall reporting that they had used tobacco in the previous 30 days.

“We have very similar results, but there are some differences. First of all we did not get the same response as we did last year. That’s been addressed with the school,” Mr. Davis said.

Last year about 1,200 students took part in the survey, but that number dropped by a little over 20 percent, with the highest percentage of students not returning surveys in grade 12, according to the report.

New trends reported

Some new trends did come from the report, however.

“We’re seeing an increase of usage of all these substances across the board with girls,” said Mr. Davis, adding that kids are also starting experimenting with drugs and alcohol at an increasing rate in the lower grades. ”As things tend to be in our society, it’s getting younger and younger, which increase the danger.”

The report details a noticeable change in the age of onset for those who report the use of prescription drugs, while it’s relatively stable for cigarette, alcohol and marijuana users.

“Especially in the seventh and eighth grade, a high propensity of students said they started using prescription drugs — but not prescribed to them — at 10 and younger,” he said. “The age of onset is important because we know the sooner a child begins to experiment with drugs or alcohol, the greater the statistical element that they’ll develop problems down the road. The opposite is true, too.”

‘Perception drives behavior’

An important part of the survey and focus groups, Mr. Davis said, is how students perceive risk and harm. The report, like last year’s, reveals troubling impressions from students about marijuana in particular, he said.

With the rise of medical marijuana — Greenleaf Compassion Center is right in our backyard — and decriminalization of pot, many youths don’t see any problems with the drug, Mr. Davis said.

“Perception drives behavior,” he said. “In focus groups, kids are telling us, ‘What’s the big deal about marijuana?’ The State of Rhode Island has introduced legislation to legalize it, and it’s been decriminalized. There’s nobody sitting in the ACI for one ounce of marijuana or less.

“But it is addictive and it does impair people in their ability to drive and do other things. I don’t want anyone who’s been smoking pot or drinking to run into me or my wife.”

Another problem is the wide accessibility of marijuana in Portsmouth, he said.

“Kids are telling us it’s easier to get marijuana than it is getting alcohol,” he said, adding that kids are getting it from friends or at parties, from parents, or someone with access to medical marijuana.

Rise in edible marijuana

The Coalition also learned from students that edible marijuana products, such as candies and brownies, are getting into the schools more often, he said.

“I want to make it clear, however, that I’m not saying they’re going to Greenleaf and getting marijuana from there. It’s coming from someone who has a card or has access to medical marijuana or from someone who’s a grower,” said Mr. Davis, adding that there’s anywhere from 100 to 300 growers in the local area.

“It’s supply and demand. Anytime you introduce a drug into the community it’s going places and its going there,” he said.

Another concern is the quality of marijuana available today. “The marijuana today is not like the old hippie days. The THC content has been engineered to give to chemotherapy patients and that’s why it’s so expensive,” he said.

Students are also bringing to school hookah pens — similar to e-cigarettes — and putting hash oil into them, he said. “They just take a single hit and there’s no smoke coming out,” he said.

One interesting revelation in the survey, Mr. Davis said, was what Portsmouth students said when asked what their parents would think if they found out they were using drugs or alcohol.

“John Mattson said, ‘I’ve never heard such a high rate of disapproval than I do in Portsmouth.’ Portsmouth kids also have high expectations for themselves,” said Mr. Davis.

What to do?

Several things have happened since last year’s survey, said Mr. Davis.

For one, the Portsmouth school district approved an overhaul of its chemical health policy. The schools also welcomed John Underwood’s Life of an Athlete program, a community approach to reducing risk and increasing protective factors for students and athletes.

Project Purple, Portsmouth resident Chris Herren’s community-wide substance abuse awareness program, culminated in a week-long Coalition campaign in January. “I’ve never seen the town get behind a substance abuse issue like that,” said Mr. Davis. “Most of the kids don’t use this stuff and we can’t lose track of that.”

For the first time, the Coalition has applied for a five-year, $625,000 federal Drug Free Communities Grant, which will be awarded in late August or September. Substance abuse task forces in Tiverton and Middletown have won similar grants.

“It would be huge if we got it,” Mr. Davis said, while adding that most applicants don’t win the grant the first year they apply.

But more could be done, he said, such as having police resource officers in the schools like they do in Tiverton and Middletown, he said. Police Chief Robert Lee is behind the idea, which helps kids form positive relationships with police, he said.

“Things are taken care of before there’s a big problem. It’s a proven thing that works,” said Mr. Davis.

Kids have also told the Coalition that there’s also not enough activities for them in town.

“We have the largest student population in Newport County. We don’t have a town center, we don’t have a teen center, we don’t have a Y. We need to do more,” he said.

The bottom line is, the town needs to address its substance abuse issue before tragedy strikes, he said.

“It’s like a ticking time bomb,” said Mr. Davis, whose father was an Ohio state trooper.

“I remember asking him, ‘What was the hardest part about your job?’ He said the worst thing was having to respond to a traffic accident death and notifying the parents.”

The Coalition is hosting a community meeting on underage drinking from 7-8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 25, at Town Hall. 8:30 a.m. The Coalition meets on the last Wednesday of each month at 8:30 a.m. in the second floor conference room at Town Hall. Anyone is welcome to attend. Mr. Davis said anyone with questions about the report or the Coalition in general can contact him at 401/864-2015 or 


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.