Panel sheds light on youth drug use in Pasco

Speaking before a roomful of adults, a panel of teens offered their insights and observations about drug use among youths in Pasco County.

Marijuana use appears to be the biggest drug-related issue among youth across Pasco County, said the panelists, who are members of Safe Teens Against Drugs (STAND).

They said kids are increasingly turning to marijuana as a way to escape their personal problems.

From left: Maddie Horn, 12; Destiny Winter, 17; Jocelyn Meriwether, 14; Christos Loupis, 17; Austin Vaughan, 13; Ashley Dew, 19; Jeromy Vaughan, 14; and, Yahkaira Barbosa, 14. (Kevin Weiss)

“They’re not happy, they feel depressed, they have anxiety, so they smoke,” said panelist Destiny Winter. “They’re constantly trying to solve these problems by self-medicating instead of seeking help,” said the 17-year-old Anclote High student.

The group of youth leaders who make up STAND are determined to end youth substance abuse in Pasco County by educating teachers, police, business owners and other community members about their observations, and offering suggestions for solutions. The youth group is organized by the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP).

This is the fourth year that members of STAND have addressed members of numerous community stakeholder groups — in a forum arranged by ASAP — to talk about various health and safety issues facing Pasco youths.

Marijuana has become prevalent among teens because of peer pressure and relatively easy access to the substance, panelists told the audience.

And, the way it’s sensationalized in pop culture and social media hasn’t helped, either.

”It’s being influenced as cool, so they’re trying it out,” 14-year-old Land O’ Lakes High student Jocelyn Meriwether said.

“I believe it’s happening because of its popularization online by many celebrities, many singers or rappers that kids listen to,” added 14-year-old Gulf High student Jeromy Vaughan.

Moreover, the teens said the legalization of medical marijuana in Florida and throughout the country has contributed to the impression that it’s is OK to use, and a quick fix to cope with anxiety, boredom, sadness, depression and so on.

Winter pointed out that her peers aren’t adequately warned about marijuana’s side effects, such as withdrawals that can result from abusing the substance.

“They’re misled about how good it is for you,” said Winter, an Anclote varsity basketball player. “They’re told constantly about all these benefits from their peers and from social media, but they’re not told enough about what might not be good,” she said. “It’s just misinformation.”

The panelists also told those gathered at the Land O’ Lakes session that e-cigarettes and vaping, as well as vaping marijuana, are growing issues among teens.

They said it’s perceived as both cool to do and safer than smoking because it’s electronic and so prevalent in public spaces, such as parks and beaches.

Vaughan called vaping “the norm among this generation.”

“It’s become a very big problem,” the teen said. “Everyone believes it’s OK. Everyone does it. Everyone knows someone that does it, and still no one says anything about it.”

Added Winter: “I feel like many kids don’t understand the effects, they don’t understand we’re not quite sure yet what vaping is doing to our bodies and that there’s still research being done.”

Aside from drug use, 12-year-old Maddie Horn said youth violence is another issue in her community.

“A lot of kids are generally angry,” said Horn, “and it could come from things that are happening at home, and they don’t know how to cope with that.”

Besides talking about issues, STAND members offered some possible solutions.

They advocated for more mentorship programs, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, as well as more free afterschool programs, in general.

“I think partially just having safe spaces (would be good), places where kids can go after school that might not be home,” Winter said. “A lot of kids, especially in the area that we live in, don’t live in homes that are very supportive or leading them in the right direction.

“Where I live, the rec center is the only free place I can go to hang out and feel safe, really,” she said.

More robust education programs and awareness campaigns on the negative side effects of drug use might be another step in the right direction, panelists agreed.

“I remember last year we had three school assemblies and not a single one was about health or anything,” Vaughan said. “Just informing people about what happens when you do this kind of stuff and how your brain is affected, and how monumental it is compared to someone that doesn’t do it.”

Other STAND panelists present were: Ashley Dew, 19; Yahkaira Barbosa, 14; Christos Loupis, 17; Moriah Morales, 15; and, Austin Vaughan, 13.

STAND’s mission is to:

  • Change youth perspectives of drugs
  • Reduce accessibility of drugs
  • Reduce marketing of drugs to young people
  • Create an environment where young people in recovery can thrive

To learn more about STAND, contact .

Published July 10, 2019

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