Forget the days of telling teenagers to “Just say no to drugs”. It’s not the 1980s or the 1990s.

Some things, though, haven’t changed, like the pressures to fit in, to play sports, to work, to get into college.

“People these days are facing a lot of stress, a lot of social pressure,” said Kelsey Lowman, a student at a high school in Wisconsin, the United States.

On social media, Lowman and her classmates see friends crowding around role models who, though talented and charming, “romanticise and de-stigmatise drug use”.

“It’s a very gilded image,” agreed Chris Cavoli, a classmate. “They never explore the depths of self-destruction that accompany drug use.”

What’s worse, the old image of a junkie under a city bridge seems disingenuous, and rightly so, to students who accept addiction as a disease with no ZIP code.

It’s a dangerous game – not being upfront and honest. What could happen, said student Katherine Roegner, if a teenager sees a friend take a pill. It looks nothing like the edgy image of addiction.

“Then, you think maybe it’s not so bad,” Roegner said, imagining the paths others have taken at her upscale school district.

Justifying that first pain pill isn’t that hard to imagine. The needle is a logical endpoint. “We don’t see it happening now. We see it happening five years down the road,” said student Connor Neifert.

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What could happen, said Katherine Roegner, if a teenager sees a friend take a pill, it looks nothing like the edgy image of addiction. Photos: TNS

A string of fatal opiate overdoses have torn through his older brother’s yearbook in the past two years. “It’s troub­ling. I think about my classmates,” said Neifert, winding the clock forward. “Is there something I could have done to help them?”

The answer to that question could come from educators who work with the community to help students help themselves.

Testing for drugs

About 10 Hudson students will form a new club. “All you have to do is pass a drug test and you’re in,” said Lowman.

The students are launching a chapter of the Drug Free Clubs Of America, voluntarily agreeing to no more than five drug tests a year. Clean results would be rewarded with incentives provided by local businesses, like coupons for free T-shirts or ice cream – whatever the students decide.

Three firefighters started the programme in 2005 with the idea that if teen drug use never begins, it never has to be defeated. The programme is in several school districts in Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Kentucky.

“We want it to be student run,” Lowman said. “I think a lot of time when kids see a programme administered by adults, they shy away from it.”

Lowman admits the programme can be costly, especially for urban school districts with concentrated poverty. In Hudson, Roegner has asked the Dalton Foundation to subsidise the US$67 (RM291) cost per student to cover the drug testing supplies. The students will pay US$20 (RM87) out of pocket, in line with fees for other clubs.

And the local chamber of commerce is talking with Superintendent Phillip Herman about donating the incentives.

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Instead of locking up addicts, Connor Neifert said they should be treated for the disease they have.

Sowing hope

The club could work if it catches on, said Lowman. She is hopeful that philanthropists will step up to provide seed money for less fortunate schools in Summit County.

“Just like how drugs are normalised,” she said, “we could normalise drug-free life.”

With a network of private and public partners, educators in every community are rallying around their children. The examples are everywhere.

Through the spring, 10 public service announcements will air at local movie theaters. The We Are The Future messages of deterring drug use and properly disposing of prescription pills are voiced by students, with technical support from the University of Akron’s Z-TV studio and grant funding from the United Way and Leadership Akron.

The drug-free club in Hudson came about after 10 Summit County schools attended a workshop held by Greg McNeil, a Hudson resident who formed Cover2 Resources after losing his son, Sam, to heroin in 2015.

“He spoke with me many times about wanting to do something so that others wouldn’t go down that path that he went down,” McNeil said. “I didn’t think this would be me doing it; but in a sense, he and I are working today.” – Akron Beacon Journal/Tribune News Service/Doug Livingston