Sen. Butch Miller said when he told a young employee he would be participating in a panel on drug use among youth in the county, the worker immediately offered an insight.
“‘Well, I’ve been out of high school for about five years, and when I was in high school it was much easier for me to obtain drugs than obtain beer,’” Miller recalled the worker saying.
Figuring out how to treat drug abusers and prevent use is a constant concern for public health, law enforcement and criminal justice officials. Local leaders from all of those realms came together Thursday evening at Northeast Georgia Medical Center for a public presentation to assess and answer questions on how drugs are being dealt with in the community, with a particular eye toward youth.
Juvenile Court Judge Cliff Jolliff said arrests would corroborate Miller’s anecdote, and marijuana possession is by far the foremost reason youth come to face him in criminal court.
“Last year, I had 50 cases of marijuana possession, compared to about 15 alcohol charges, and the rest were a smattering of other drugs,” he said.
In 2013, he saw fewer cases overall, although the decline was not “significant,” he said. And often, he said, drug use is detected among kids who are charged with other types of offenses.
Whatever the reason that brought a youth to the attention of the youth court’s system — which is most often instances of parental neglect, not juvenile crime, Jolliff noted — the response has been geared more toward community intervention.
“We really are right now back in an era of focusing on treatment and supervision in the home,” he said.
Presented by the Drug Free Coalition of Hall County in collaboration with the hospital, other panelists on the “Drugs and the Law in Hall County” agreed the state’s recent response to drug use has been tough, but more considerate of underlying problems and causes. Although there is more to be done, Miller said.
“Our resources are being squandered because we’re not identifying it on the front end,” Miller said.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that’s never more true here,” he added.
Dr. Vinay Nagaraj, a psychiatrist for the hospital’s Laurelwood treatment center for addiction and mental illness, said the first step is acknowledging drug addiction as a health issue.
“We have to recognize that substance abuse is a biological trait of the brain. It’s not a character flaw,” he said.
Nagaraj said the trend in other states toward legalization of marijuana has hampered efforts to curb use among youth, among whom negative effects are more pronounced.
“Marijuana has been known to be linked to several clinical conditions, a-motivation syndrome, which is very much depression, and ... has been known to create psychosis in the young,” he said. “Despite all these negative effects, it’s alarming that we’re moving toward legalization.”
Synthetic marijuanas that skirt barely above the law — a phenomenon Miller said legislation is attempting to combat — are also leading to negative mental health outcomes including psychosis, Nagaraj said.
“It is a tremendous problem,” he said.
One of the fundamental conflicts that emerged from the dialogue was the balance of legal punishment that sends a message and conveys consequences, to needless and arbitrary rules mandated by legislative code rather than a judge’s discretion.
Lt. Scott Ware, who heads the Hall County-Gainesville Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad, said even the “threat of arrest” for a youth using drugs can be deterrent enough.
“I would much rather see someone get the help that they need,” than add an arrest to his law enforcement record, Ware said.
“That’s what we’re here for. We’re here to help.”