Faith Conference: State's attorney says we need more tools than law's 'hammer'

News-DemocratJune 12, 2014 

Faith-based organizations can work with law enforcement and treatment organizations to prevent drug and alcohol abuse among teens, if they can set aside the stigma of substance abuse, advocates say.

The Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention heard from three speakers at its Faith Conference Thursday, sharing resources with each other toward its goal of preventing alcohol and substance abuse, particularly among youth. ASAP is comprised of school, health, business, civic and other organizations as well as faith-based groups, and on Thursday they heard from State's Attorney Tom Gibbons, social worker Rebecca Mowen and Donna Nahlik of Chestnut Health Services.

Nahlik pointed out a few statistics from the most recent Illinois Youth Survey. It showed that 44 percent of Madison County high school seniors reported using alcohol within the 30 days before the survey, and 77 percent said they could acquire alcohol easily. Marijuana was almost as easy to acquire - 69 percent said they could get their hands it if they chose.

For students who reported alcohol use within the last year, 46 percent did so with their parents' permission. That's one thing Nahlik said Chestnut would attack head-on this fall.

"Stop. Don't supply alcohol to kids," she said. "They're well-meaning, nice people. They're in your churches. But they're doing something detrimental to their kids and other kids."

Mowen and Gibbons focused on drug addiction, on prescription abuse as a gateway to heroin addiction, which has resurged in recent years.

"People would look at me in early 2011 like I had two heads when I talked about heroin," Gibbons said. "Heroin hadn't been part of our national discussion for years."

In fact, Gibbons said heroin hadn't even been discussed in D.A.R.E. classes at the time, focusing instead on marijuana and methamphetamine. And at first, he said they used law enforcement and the courts as "a heavy hammer" to send a message to the community.

"At first I said, 'These bad guys need to be hammered,'" Gibbons said. "After thousands and thousands of cases, I realized there a lot of different paths to justice."

Gibbons said people need to get rid of the image of the heroin addict as a guy with a needle in his arm behind a dumpster in a far-off urban hellscape - especially law enforcement.

"The hammer is one tool that needs to remain in our toolbox," he said. "But it is a crude, violent tool that is only effective in certain cases."

Now, Gibbons said, they're focusing on coalitions, building a heroin task force with treatment providers and families and civic organizations and schools, much like ASAP. "This year we've dedicated ourselves to a different mission: to discover what other tools will be needed.. to address this problem on all fronts," Gibbons said. "If you're a drug dealer, I'm still going to use the hammer. But there are so many caught up in the sickness of addiction... We're the ones who can use our leverage to get things done."

Mowen spoke about her own self-image issues as a teen that led her into drug use, and how her personal faith led her out of it. She said religous organizations can help by putting out the word in congregations, starting conversations in youth groups, and erasing the stigma of drug addiction so that families will stop struggling in secrecy.

"We need to get the message to families and addicts and kids that if you made a mistake, it's okay," she said. "There is redemption. If you sin, you aren't going to hell. There is redemption."

She spoke about a family struggling with a teenager's addiction, and what they worried about. "Why wasn't our love enough to get him to make different choices? Why didn't we ask for help?" she said. But families often worry more about others finding out the family secret, she said - and only after a crisis or an overdose do they seek help. Sometimes, she said, that's too late; she has lost two clients to overdose in the last week.

"In the same breath, I can tell you there are a lot more in recovery," she said.

Gibbons advised families to do two things as prevention. "The first is easiest: Make sure you're not an accidental drug dealer," he said. Lock up legitimate prescription drugs to keep them out of younger hands, and take unwanted medication to disposal sites. Most police departments now have dropoff boxes, and the county has a take-back collection twice a year.

The second, he said, is harder to get people to do. He asked them to call legislators and tell them to dedicate money for drug treatment, detox programs and drug courts.

"It's not popular to talk about spending public money or spending money on drug addicts," Gibbons said. "They're not popular people, because of the hurt they cause people. As law enforcement, it's hard to adjust my attitudes to focus on the addict as a person in need.... It's easier to look at their parents, siblings and grandparents. But I know the addict is suffering too, and are good people otherwise."

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 618-239-2507.

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