Most people who know of Mercer Council only know part of the story. If they put the Council and children or teens together in the same conversation, most people usually think in terms of prevention. How nice, we are going to engage the youth, find ways to inform them, their parents, teachers, counselors and the universe at large about the perils of being involved with a virtual galaxy of illicit substances. They can connect with us by coming in to our offices, through school sessions, at community meetings and events of various kinds and we will provide brochures, workshops, whatever in an attempt to convince them that avoiding all mind and mood altering substances is a good thing. Meanwhile, most people drink alcohol, if only on “special occasions”, take a pill for every ailment large and small, caffeine and sugar are in everything, and many of us still use tobacco, sometimes discreetly and sometimes not. Oh, and wake up people, marijuana may very well soon be legal for recreational use in the state of New Jersey.
My job, here at the Council, is to attempt to engage those who have, rather understandably sometimes, disregarded all of the above and are abusing every illicit substance you can think of. As a substance abuse evaluator, I go into New Jersey’s juvenile justice detention reception centers to meet teens, mostly between the ages of 13 and 19. They are there because they are have been sentenced for being involved in some form of illegal activity which can range from joyriding and burglary to rape and murder. They are males and females from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Their sentences can be four months or twenty years.
Most of these teens, more than 95%, have used some sort of substance. Actually, most of them have abused a variety of substances. Their reasons are many—peer pressure and the perceived need to fit in, family can’t pay the rent much less buy you school clothes, abuse of some kind, mental health issues, maybe just the thrill of it. They’ve heard all the horror stories…yadda, yadda, yadda… “But my uncle smokes weed and has sold it all his life and now he drives a Mercedes and owns two corner stores and a laundromat.” Getting locked up once in a while is all part of the process if it has already happened to your dad, both of your older brothers and at least a third of your friends. Gangs protect. School is a waste of time. Maybe your parents are rather well off, have a history of getting you out of anything and have sent you to great rehabs where information went in one ear and out the other.
Talking with these teens, reviewing any background information I can find on them, with the assistance of screening tools and diagnostic materials, allows me to write assessment reports that help the NJ Juvenile Justice Commission determine if a particular individual has a substance abuse issue of any kind as these issues are often at the root of their life problems or sometimes compound those problems. Do they abuse opiates, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, phencyclidine, nicotine, sedatives, hallucinogens or something else, or some combination? Is their abuse mild, moderate or severe? What type of help might be most beneficial? The Commission uses the information collected in my reports to help direct each individual to the most appropriate treatment or other services available within their system and beyond. Surprisingly, if this information is presented to them in a way that they can relate to, the teens also take stock in it. I feel successful when I’ve gotten them to at least think about the consequences of their actions and consider what could be possible if substances were taken out of the picture.
My days can be depressing, as when I met with an 18-year-old, hard as nails, street-oriented, who smokes weed, drinks alcohol and Lean (codeine/promethazine mixed with 7-Up) and takes Percocet and/or Xanax here and there while selling Molly (Ecstasy), heroin and crack cocaine. He went home after 18 months and within a year his body was found between two parked cars on a seedy side street in his town. He was shot by rival drug dealers. But my days can also be hopeful, as when I was sitting on the stoop of my house conversing with a friend on a pleasant summer day when three boys, all about 16 or 17, happened to be walking down the street. One of the boys recognized me, suddenly ran up and slapped me on the knee. (They call me Mr. Jones, “the cool drug guy”.) “I told you,” he exclaimed. He had no idea that I lived in the ’hood. “I told you I was not going to do that stuff anymore!” Then he introduced me to his friends who were as startled and amused as my friend and I were. He had been sent to a Juvenile Justice Commission residential treatment center and released after six months, he completed his parole four months later, he declared that he was not selling marijuana anymore, he was not using anything and neither were his friends—and in the fall he was going into the 11th grade.
All in all, I love my job, and I am grateful that Mercer Council allows me to do it. We are an agency that reaches out any way we can on both sides of the substance abuse spectrum.
Cy K. Jones, CADC