For Arroyo Grande resident Carlos Guerrero, an addiction to marijuana as a teenager started him down a path that led to harder drugs and crime.
He went on to use mushrooms, acid, crank and methamphetamine and spent years in and out of jail for convictions on drug and assault charges before finally getting sober on Jan. 26, 2012.
Now, the 40-year-old is working as a tile setter and serving as an advisory board member to a nonprofit group that wants to develop a new school curriculum on substance abuse prevention that will educate children about the harmful health effects of drugs.
“If it wasn’t for the drugs, I wouldn’t have made the decisions I did,” said Guerrero, co-founder of Central Coast Alumni for Recovery. “Kids need to know that drugs aren’t harmless. They can ruin your life.”
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The nonprofit group, Prevention of Substance Abuse for Youth (POSAFY), is collaborating with the sheriff and San Luis Obispo’s police chief, who are offering advisory support toward adopting a drug education curriculum for children ages 11-14. The group launched in October 2016 and organized a public talk on “Today’s Marijuana: What You Need to Know” in April in San Luis Obispo.
The group hopes to present its proposed new curriculum to the San Luis Coastal Unified School District in the coming year and eventually adopt new curriculum in grades K-12 countywide.
“What we’ve found out is that kids often don’t know how they’re messing around with their brain chemistry,” said Jody Belsher, POSAFY’s president. “We’ve also learned they want to know the science of drug use — the biology and the chemistry. Once they find out, they’re much less likely to use.”
While some drug abuse prevention education already exists in schools — including lessons in health and science classes on choices and impacts to the body — POSAFY officials say the program aims to boost awareness at a time when the legalization of marijuana in California, the opioid epidemic, and penalty reductions for drug offenders under Proposition 47 present new, dangerous avenues to addiction.
What we’ve found out is that kids often don’t know how they’re messing around with their brain chemistry. We’ve also learned they want to know the science of drug use — the biology and the chemistry. Once they find out, they’re much less likely to use.
Jody Belsher, POSAFY president
It also comes at a time when local police departments have cut existing drug-prevention programs — including the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program and school resource officers.
Using grants, volunteers and donations, Prevention of Substance Abuse for Youth would provide resources for school programs that borrow from evidence-based curriculum proven to be successful elsewhere. The group’s tentative curriculum pulls from the RAND Corp.’s Project Alert and the Michigan Model for Health Clearinghouse.
The San Luis Coastal school district hasn’t made a decision on whether it would adopt the program now under development. But San Luis Coastal officials have met with the program’s leaders.
“We are pleased that POSAFY invited us to the conversation,” said Kimberly McGrath, San Luis Coastal’s assistant superintendent of educational services. “They have many knowledgeable members, and we are thankful to be part of the discussion. Our goal will be to analyze current practices, look at additional resources, and make an educated determination.”
Additionally, POSAFY will continue to provide community educational events, materials — including videos, brochures and other information — and informational forums, speaking engagements and in-service trainings.
Threat to youth
Though recreational marijuana use was passed in California, it’s illegal for those under 21. POSAFY coordinators say kids’ developing brains will be affected if they use it at a young age.
“There are many misconceptions about drugs, both legal and illegal, such as alcohol and marijuana,” San Luis Obispo police Chief Deanna Cantrell said. “Education about substance abuse and effects can help prevent our youth from using them, especially ones that are made to sound harmless but are in reality very addictive and dangerous.”
Cantrell, San Luis Obispo police Capt. Chris Staley, Sheriff Ian Parkinson and Undersheriff Tim Olivas all serve in advisory capacities to POSAFY.
“We are learning lessons from Colorado, and it’s been shown that the use of marijuana by the youth in that state has risen significantly,” Parkinson said. “In addition to legalizing marijuana, the passage of Prop. 47 reduced possession of heroin, meth and cocaine to misdemeanors. Our drug overdoses for heroin continue to rise, particularly among younger ages. It is a significant concern to us and parents in the community.”
Proponents of Proposition 47, however, argue that the legislation has saved over $100 million that has been reallocated to community-based treatment programs.
“Because of Prop 47, the state is beginning to build up a treatment and prevention infrastructure that millions of Californians have needed for generations,” said Will Matthews, public affairs manager with the nonprofit Californians for Safety and Justice.
There are many misconceptions about drugs, both legal and illegal, such as alcohol and marijuana. Education about substance abuse and effects can help prevent our youth from using them, especially ones that are made to sound harmless, but are in reality very addictive and dangerous.
Deanna Cantrell, San Luis Obispo police chief
The impetus for Belsher’s work was a family member who started smoking marijuana heavily as a teenager, triggering a psychotic break and delusions.
Belsher produced a documentary, “Other Side of Cannabis,” that includes interviews with doctors, psychologists and recovering drug addicts. The documentary presents information about how the levels of the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), have significantly increased in recent decades.
If it wasn’t for the drugs, I wouldn’t have made the decisions I did. Kids need to know that drugs aren’t harmless. They can ruin your life.
Carlos Guerrero, former drug addict
THC, the chemical that creates a euphoric high, used to be about 1 to 3 percent in the 1960s and 1970s. But over the past 10 to 15 years, THC levels have climbed to 15 to 25 percent, and up to 90 percent in forms such as honey oil and dabs, Belsher said.
“This is not the same pot that the Baby Boomers were smoking,” Belsher said. “It’s far more potent. The brain continues to develop until the age of 30. There’s no doubt a major disruption in the brain will take place if people use before then.”
Her family member’s experience pushed Belsher to earn a master’s degree in addiction studies from the Breining Institute near Sacramento and she has spoken nationally at around 50 schools, she said.
For more information
Go to POSAFY’s website at www.posafy.org.