The road to recovery
(Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a year-long monthly series about how alcohol and drug addiction effects the community and how those affected work to achieve a better life.)
The young man sitting on the dirt ditchbank, leaning against the rear bumper of an unmarked Los Lunas Police Department SUV, swears he is sober.
“I haven’t been drinking. I think it was the mint from my gum.”
His mother leans down, allowing him to blow in her face, a poor man’s breathalyzer.
She stands up, shaking her head and looking unconvinced.
“No, Mom … really.”
She and the boy’s father turn away to talk with a member of the Valencia County Underage Drinking Task Force to learn what is next for their errant son. Cited into magistrate court on a minor in possession charge, the 17-year-old will most likely face probation, but there are no guarantees.
As the task force members process the seven young men, all cited with minor in possession, crying, yelling and slurred denials pepper the night air on the ditchbank down by the river bridge in Belen.
One boy refuses to keep his hands out of his pockets and eventually has to be handcuffed.
“Dude, I’m in handcuffs. I feel like a criminal.”
Isleta Police Department Lt. Darryl Chavez smiles and shakes his head at the indignity of it all.
Of the seven cited on the evening of April 13, the night of the Los Lunas High School prom, their ages ranged from 16 to 20 — so close yet so far from the legal drinking age of 21.
There were no warnings, no second chances — if you were underage and drinking, you were cited. Some of the blood alcohol levels — a .15 and .18 — left no doubt that the young men had been drinking, despite their passionate protests.
“What are you doing? I should let them take you. I’m not lenient like some of these other parents,” said a single mother to the high schooler who blew the .15.
She rounded on his friend, the young man with the .18.
“Are you proud of yourself? You’re older. You’re supposed to be an example. Do you feel good?”
She paused, staring at the two of them, her son silent and defiant, jaw clenched.
“I don’t know what to do with him anymore. Belen youth are struggling, they need prayers.”
That night, officers from Los Lunas, Belen and Isleta police departments, as well as Joe Griego, the school resource officer for the Los Lunas School District, patrolled the county, taking all calls for underage drinking parties.
In addition to the seven minor in possession citations on the ditchbank, the task force cited one young man there for resisting arrest and made an arrest on an outstanding warrant later that night.
The task force has officers from every department who are cross commissioned by the Valencia County sheriff — Belen, Los Lunas, Bosque Farms, Valencia County Sheriff’s Office, Isleta and New Mexico State Police officers all participate in task force operations in one way or another.
The operations are funded by special state and federal overtime grants.
The main goal of having a designated underage drinking task force is to give relief to the officers on regular shift when chances of underage drinking are especially high.
“Prom, graduation, the fiestas,” Griego said. “Chances are, there will be more youth drinking during certain events.”
Ginny Adame, the DWI coordinator for the village of Los Lunas/Valencia County DWI program, said processing an underage party can take an hour or more.
“Processing a DWI can take even longer,” Adame said. “We take the party calls so they can deal with other things during shift.”
The night of the Los Lunas prom, the task force was called out to the ditchbank just after 8 p.m. After more than an hour there, members split up to patrol known party spots around the area, before meeting at the Starlight movie theater in Los Lunas just before midnight.
As part of the safe prom initiative sponsored by the DWI program, Los Lunas students and their dates could go to the theater for a free movie, along with a complimentary drink and popcorn.
The “free” part of the night seemed to be the motivation for most of the students, but the idea of having fun without life-threatening consequences was also on their radar.
Lacrisha Armijo, 17, said maybe 25 percent of those at prom came to the movie.
Where are the rest? Why didn’t they come too?
“I guess they think having fun is being irresponsible,” Armijo said, shrugging.
Her date for the evening, Arik Montoya, 17, said he had a few friends who were caught drinking.
“It’s just not worth it,” Montoya said.
Jackie Garcia said coming to the movie was a better, less dangerous way to spend the time after prom.
“So many people think it’s cool, but it’s not,” the 17-year-old said of her peers who drink.
The task force members actually make it through the movie without a call. But as the final credits are rolling, they are dispatched out to a possible party on Loma Cordiniz.
The house is dark and quiet, so they leave. But not before alerting the Bosque Farms officers on duty, asking that they show the address “lots of love” for the remainder of the night.
They swing by a party call in the subdivision behind Los Lunas High School, but no minors are involved.
At 3 a.m., the task force calls it a night.
Adame said after seven years with the DWI program and the task force, she has come to realize that members of the community really don’t take underage drinking as seriously as they should.
“So many people as adults say, ‘We did what they are doing. It’s no big deal. We turned out fine,’” she said. “But did they? Did any of us? Think about how smart you are right now. How smart do you think you would have been if you hadn’t done those things as a kid? How many more brain cells would you have now?
“Drinking is something of a tradition and a habit when you’re young. If something wasn’t such a big part of your life when you were young, would it be now?”
Not condemning adult drinking, Adame says she’s not trying to be a Puritan about things.
“But you hope there is more for these kids. Some of them are already having a really rough time. You add drugs and alcohol and you’re just making it worse,” she said. “Those kids that night, if the task force hadn’t come along, they could have driven off, killed someone.
“One night can change your entire life. Kids don’t understand that. That’s why we put the responsibility on the adults. And often they look the other way or host the party themselves. Then they cry about it later when something bad happens.”
“You know, we were all young once. I was. Did some things that weren’t too smart. But in the end, now I’m a mom and things are different. You don’t want to turn into your parents, but you do.”
According to the 2011 New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, 38.7 percent of the 1,792 high school students surveyed in Valencia County currently drink, 23.6 percent engage in binge drinking, 28.6 percent used alcohol before the age of 13 and 8.1 percent have driven while drunk.
It is possible Dave, not his real name, now 18, was one of the students who took the YRRS in past years. If he was honest about his drinking and drug use, he is part of the statistics.
Growing up in Peralta, Dave said his parents didn’t do drugs, drink or even smoke.
“In middle and high school, I had a lot of friends who were bad friends. A bad influence,” Dave said. “They seemed fun.”
In seventh grade, Dave started smoking marijuana. With a brother already in high school, it was easy to come by and that made him even more popular with his friends.
He began using pot regularly, then added semi-regular use of cocaine.
About the same time as the regular marijuana use, Dave started drinking heavily.
That ended his freshman year after drinking to the point of a black-out one night.
“I threw up all day the next day,” he said. “I haven’t drank since. Just the smell of it makes me sick.”
In middle school, Dave had multiple suspensions from school for possession of marijuana or paraphernalia and for being high at school.
At 16, Dave earned his GED and called his time in public school done.
He finally pushed his luck too far and ended up on probation for possession of marijuana. He was put into the juvenile drug court program.
Through intensive counseling, Dave figured out why he used drugs.
“I was mainly using to be part of the crowd, to fit in,” he said. “I realized those friends from high school weren’t my friends.”
Over the last three years, Dave has “fell back” a few times.
“I would use and the next morning I would realize, ‘Man, I’m dumb,’” he said, chuckling.
His most recent slip was in January, on his birthday — his 18th birthday. Dave is now acutely aware that his next charge will be as an adult and could ruin his future.
“I’ve realized that all this is not worth it,” he said.
He has steady employment at a fast food place, but Dave said he wants to do more later in life. He is enrolled in classes at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus, and is working on an associate degree in science.
Eventually, he wants to get a bachelor’s in biology. Or architecture. Or astronomy. The possibilities are endless and many.
Cynthia Ferrari, the program coordinator for the Valencia County Juvenile Justice Board, which oversees the juvenile drug court, says Dave’s story is one of the program’s many successes.
Since the program’s inception in 2002, it has had a 23 percent recidivism rate. It has had 405 participants, 231 graduates and there are currently 32 active participants.
Participants in the drug court receive various sanctions, usually some kind of community service, Ferrari said. In the past 11 years, juveniles in the program have performed 28,866.25 hours of community services, a value of $202,063.75.
Participants get rewards, such as gift cards, for progressing in the program, Ferrari said. They also get the opportunity to experience things such as performances at Popejoy Hall in Albuquerque, gym memberships and rafting trips.
“We show them there is more to life, to having fun, than committing crimes and getting high — positive, healthy things,” Ferrari said.
Dave said the program has definitely helped him.
“I realized what I was doing wasn’t as good as I thought it was,” Dave said. “Without it, I would probably be out on the street trying to get high the rest of my life.”
Ferrari says the youths who enter the program are not “bad kids.”
“They are kids who made bad decisions. And we need to remember that just because they are young doesn’t mean they are not doing dangerous things,” she said.
Prescription drugs are something juveniles think are relatively safe because a doctor prescribes them, Ferrari said.
“They snort or smoke them and eventually learn they are cheaper than most street drugs,” she said.
According to the YRRS, 14.2 percent of the high school students surveyed in the county currently use prescription painkillers to get high.
That usage rate is second only to marijuana at 28.8 percent.
Speaking from the vantage point of someone who has recently discovered and embraced his sobriety, Dave had some advice for his peers out there.
“Everything you want to do? It’s so not worth it.”
-- Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.