Whatever the reason or excuse for wanting to feel good or get high, it all boils down to addiction.
A group of Crestview High School students recognized the problem and sought to offer solutions. In doing so they organized Students Working Against Tobacco, also known as S.W.A.T. What started as a concern for tobacco use and vaping spread to other areas of addiction such as opioids, other narcotics and alcohol.
S.W.A.T hosted a panel discussion with leaders from the community on April 28 to talk about the issues surrounding addictions of any kind.
Panel members were Ann Wing, Circuit Network Coordinator Northwest Florida Health Network; David Manger, Celebrate Recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous Mary Esther United Methodist Church; Denise Manassa, Director of Community Prevention CDAC Behavioral Healthcare; JB Whitten, City of Crestview Mayor; Jessica Trimboli, Investigator, Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office Chair, Drug Endangered Children and Communities; Stephanie Wedel, Recovery Minister, Crosspoint Church, Founder of Freedom Life Compass Inc.; Thomas Harvell, Assistant Principal of Discipline, Crestview High School.
Students of S.W.A.T. were Lauren Woodward, Julianna Bascom, Daniela Elliott, Marta Elliott, Khila Hoffman, Gabriella Pittman, Kiley Smith.
One of the major drug problems in the country, county and state is fentanyl. Mayor Whitten cited a study that showed the illegal use of fentanyl is up more than 1,000% between 2012-2018. If you do the math that is an increase of about 115% a year.
Wedel pointed out that a little more than 3,700 people were arrested on drug-related charges last year. Deputy Trimboli said that drugs lead to other crimes such as robbery and domestic violence.
“The addiction problem in Okaloosa County is huge,” she said. “I don’t know the percentage, but most calls we go to have something to do with drugs. Most violent crimes have something to do with drugs.
“Most child crimes have something to do with drugs, so I would say it’s a massive problem here. In the school system it is a major problem. I was just an SRO (School Resource Officer) supervisor for approximately a year and the amount of THC (cannabis oil) vapes I took out of just Choctaw High School (was huge) so I can’t imagine the other high schools.”
Harvell said that cigarette and other tobacco issues at Crestview High School have almost disappeared but have been replaced by the vaping craze.
“It has all gone to vapes,” he said. “There are all varied kinds of them whether it be a flavor, whether it be a mix with nicotine or a mix with THC. We have seen a mix of it (THC) of two or three percent all the way up to 80 percent.
“When you look at the lab reports of these companies that are selling them (the vapes) they have to put them up online and we are seeing levels of up to 92-99 percent.”
Trimboli stressed Harvell’s observation about the kind of vapes she sees.
“These vapes are not just nicotine vapes,” she said. “It’s a high percentage of THC in these vapes to make the kids act disoriented in schools. You’ve got 13-year-olds and 14-year-olds disoriented in schools now.
“THC vapes are the most prevalent drug in schools now. It has a distinctive odor, and we usually see it.”
Harvell said the students he has talked to about vaping are almost always doing it because of peer pressure or for a coping mechanism.
He also said the more involved a student is with extracurricular activities the less likely they are to be vaping or using other substances.
“You see a decrease (in vaping) in our athletes and kids that are involved in clubs and organizations as compared to kids that are not,” he said. “You have to find a way to fill that void with something or somebody else will. We do have athletes that have used vapes, but a large of majority are the kids that just have nothing else going for them.
“If you look at the athletes it’s more sporadic use like maybe on weekends or a certain situation compared to those kids that are using daily because they don’t have to worry about the physical aspect of it.”
Wedel said events like the panel discussion are important to give people a forum to talk about the addiction problems and let them know what resources are available for those battling addictions.
“I think it’s very important to get awareness out there and educate our community about what’s going on and what resources are available,” she said. “We have so many things going on and we have to have a way to get that information out to the community and these types of events allow us to do that.”
Wedel also pointed out the role that faith-based organizations play in helping those seeking recovery.
“A lot of the resources in our community are provided by our faith-based partners,” Wedel said. “Homeless shelters, food banks, these recovery resources are being provided by our faith-based partners. So, if we are not including them in this we are missing out on tons and tons of resources.”
When asked, Wedel mentioned other addictions people might be battling aside from drug or alcohol abuse.
“It can be pornography, it can be shopping, it can be food,” she said. “They call them acceptable addictions. Alcohol in the community is normal, food in the community is normal but they are still an addiction that takes our will.
“We no longer have a choice. We are doing it because we have an impulse to do it. I heard a sermon that was really, really good and he said at the root cause is all sin and we have to figure out what our sin is and we have to get on our knees and give it to him (God) and ask him to give us the strength to deal with it.”
Harvell had nothing but praise for the students of S.W.A.T.
“For them to come up here and put this on and put it on social media, that takes courage,” he said. “You are going to have kids–talk about peer pressure–that are going to look at them and think, ‘Why are you wasting your time?’ Or probably crack a joke here or there.
“For these kids to do something positive and try to rise above it to do something positive in this community and school is outstanding.”