Rural areas finding more young users

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 15, 2000

Students in Lawrence County aren’t necessarily following a national, rural drug-abuse trend, local law enforcement officials said.

Tuesday, February 15, 2000

Students in Lawrence County aren’t necessarily following a national, rural drug-abuse trend, local law enforcement officials said.

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Illegal drug use among adolescents in small-town and rural America is reaching alarming proportions, according to a private study that urges the government to spend as much money fighting drugs in nonmetropolitan areas as it does in Colombia and other foreign countries.

Eighth-graders in rural America are 104 percent likelier than those in urban centers to use amphetamines, including methamphetamines, and 50 percent likelier to use cocaine, according to the study. Eighth-graders in rural areas also are 83 percent likelier to use crack cocaine, and 34 percent likelier to smoke marijuana than eighth-graders in urban centers, the study said.

But, those statistics are an average –  and a bit steep  - as far as visible trends in Lawrence County are concerned, Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Jim Cochran said.

"Those statistics aren’t really true for us," Cochran said. "We don’t have a whole lot of problems with kids and hard drugs."

Lawrence County’s drug problems with younger students are evident, however, he added.

"We do have a lot of kids smoking marijuana. I wouldn’t say it’s an epidemic, but we do have quite a few kids around here who are smoking drugs on the weekends," Cochran said, adding that, while not a "hard drug," marijuana leads the way for more drug abuse. "Marijuana is a gateway drug –  it’s often the drug the kids start with and then they work their way up to other substances."

Although the statistics in the county are below the national average for rural America, the problem is something that cannot be ignored, federal officials said.

”We’ve long heard the warning, and we’re trying to reach beyond the cities to the suburbs and rural areas to see the reach of drugs across America,” Attorney General Janet Reno said. ”We have to look at a radius beyond the cities.”

The study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University was released at the mayors’ winter meeting. It was based primarily on 1999 data.

”Bluntly put, meth has come to Main Street, along with other drugs and with magnum force aimed at our children, said Joseph A. Califano Jr., president of the research group. ”It’s time for all Americans to recognize that drugs are not only an urban problem.”

To help counter the trend, Califano called on the Clinton administration and Congress to adopt a $1.6 billion ”emergency aid” package to fight drugs in rural America. Clinton proposed a two-year, $1.6 billion aid plan for Colombia, in part to assist with anti-drug efforts there.

Clinton and Congress must match ”dollar for dollar aid to Colombia with aid to the rural communities,” Califano said.

While federal anti-drug programs often are helpful, the real battle has to begin at home, Cochran said.

"Of course, everything like this is going to start at home with the parents and at school with the teachers, who need to watch for any visible signs of possible drug abuse," he said. "They should watch for changes in behavior, in grades, in friends, things like that. There are items the kids might hide or carry around in their pockets, like small pipes, rolling papers - any type of paraphernalia."

While every parent wants to believe his child will not succumb to peer pressure and drug abuse, it can, and does, happen, Cochran said.

The Lawrence County Drug Task Force, comprised of the county prosecutor’s office and a cooperative effort between local law-enforcement agencies including the South Point, Coal Grove and Ironton Police departments, as well as the county sheriff’s office, has made several arrests since its formation in 1998, a well-educated public is the best defense, Cochran said.

Meanwhile, the task force keeps a careful eye on the types of drugs – and how to stop drugs from entering – the county.

"In the schools, marijuana is the biggest problem," he said. "If there is something else out there, we haven’t discovered it yet. It’s hard to disagree with a national study, but when talking on a local level, these are the main problems we encounter with students."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.