CHEYENNE — While the use of illicit drugs continues to pose problems, alcohol is the biggest menace to Wyoming's youth, Gov. Dave Freudenthal said during a panel discussion.
The forum was held Thursday as part of Red Ribbon Week, which focuses on the dangers of drug abuse.
"Alcohol kills more kids than all illegal drugs combined," Freudenthal said. "Alcohol is the single largest killer of young people in this country."
Freudenthal said the problem of underage drinking doesn't necessarily belong to the 20-year-olds. Kids as young as 12, 13 and 14 are engaging in binge drinking or other unhealthy excesses, he said.
Many Wyoming youths also have their first drink before the fourth grade, Freudenthal said.
Kurt Dobbs, director of the state Division of Criminal Investigation, said methamphetamine is growing in usage, and he likened it to a three-pronged monster because it attacks victims physically, mentally and environmentally.
The drug increases crime and endangers children who are exposed to labs and addicts, he said.
Dobbs said during a recent undercover operation he met a woman who was eight months pregnant and begging for the drug.
Marijuana also is a problem, and arguments that it can be used as a medicine are false, said Glenn Gaasche, local bureau director for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
He said groups such as the Institute of Medicine, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Center for Medical Cannabis Research have all determined that marijuana has no future as a medicine.
Gaasche said instead of helping ailments such as glaucoma, marijuana actually creates new ones such as heart disease. He said advocates for legalization appeal to emotions and not logic.
Groups with names such as Americans for Medical Rights imply the government is trying to keep medicine from sick people, he said, adding that efforts to try drug legalization in Europe have not worked.
An experiment to legalize heroin in Switzerland increased the number of addicts from about 700 to 20,000 within five years, Gaasche said.
Heather Cassell, a pediatrician at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, said conditions such as undiagnosed cognitive disorders or depression can trigger drug use in adolescents.
"If a person thinks highly of themselves, they won't abuse their bodies," she said.
Inhalants such as cans of whipping cream, spray paint and glue are often the first drug teenagers try because they're inexpensive and readily available. Those are dangerous and can cause brain damage, Cassell said, and be a gateway to other drugs.
Tobacco also is considered a gateway drug, she said.
In 2001, 85 percent of the nation's high school seniors had tried alcohol, 51 percent had tried marijuana, 12.8 percent methamphetamines, 12.1 percent cocaine and 3 percent heroin or other opiate drugs.
Parents should get to know their child so they can identify trigger symptoms like anxiety and depression, Cassell said. She also said parents should be aware that drug abuse does not affect a specific cultural, socioeconomic or social background.
"Just because you think you have the picture-perfect child doesn't mean they're not exposed to it or they're not at risk," she said.
Freudenthal said parents should be aware that their own behavior affects their children. He said kids are aware if adults around them need alcohol to have a good time.
He said parents also should be honest with their kids and that every parent will probably be asked if they ever drank alcohol underage. Just because a parent was once a reckless youngster doesn't make it right, he said.
Freudenthal said the difference between when he was a kid and today is that experimentation hits more frequently and much sooner.
"If you think your kid is drinking, they probably are," he said. "If you think your child is not drinking, they probably are."
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