By Orville Williams
Amid sustained concerns about drug use among the youth population in Antigua and Barbuda, the Substance-Use Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation Centre (SPARC) is urging communities and families in particular to play a greater role in curbing the issue.
Just last week, representatives of SPARC spoke on the many challenges to the prevention of drug use and also to rehabilitation, including the realisation that family members have increasingly been contributing to the exposure of drugs – particularly marijuana – among the teen and even pre-teen age groups.
Head of SPARC and Director of the Family and Social Services Division, Feona Charles-Richards, sang a similar tune yesterday, citing a 2016 survey that showed Antigua and Barbuda was “ranked third” in 2016 for marijuana usage among adolescents.
“That survey revealed that it is the family members – not necessarily peers – who are introducing substances to their cousins, their nephews, their nieces, etc.
“So…the family, which is supposed to be the protective factor in terms of prevention, is actually a very high-risk factor here in Antigua and Barbuda,” Charles-Richards explained.
Substance use among youth has been a longtime issue for several Caribbean territories, but Charles-Richards says it appears to have gotten worse in recent years.
She pointed to the adjustments made to the laws surrounding marijuana, which was decriminalised here in Antigua and Barbuda in 2018, allowing persons to legally possess up to 15 grams and no more than four plants to be cultivated in each household.
In lieu of up-to-date research, she insists that anecdotal evidence proves the increased access has come with an unwanted increase in use among the youth.
“Persons were able to utilise substances based on access, and it was provided by an adult, in our previous studies. Now that people have been given the opportunity to at least have four plants within their home, it means that within that home there’s the possibility of a child also having access to those plants, whether [known by] the parents or not.
“Even within our past studies, once alcohol was in the house, persons would go and take a sip [for example], unknown sometimes to the parents. So, the next question would be, how are parents monitoring their children having access to the substances within their homes?”
That, of course, is a very appropriate question as many parents believe marijuana use is fine for their children and other youth, largely based on the belief that they themselves used the drug and ‘turned out alright’.
Charles-Richards warned against that type of thinking, however, highlighting several factors that must be considered regarding youth and substance use.
“There is a misconception that there is no harm in using marijuana. Let me be very clear; the brain doesn’t stop developing until age 25, which means any type of substance that is utilised before the age of 25 is impacting the development of cells required for knowledge [and] especially concentration.
“Persons who have family members who have a history of mental health conditions should probably stay away from marijuana and alcohol, because depending on how much is used, it can have some altering [effects].
“Because they’re already susceptible to mental health challenges, it increases some of those issues for them, so it’s very important for persons to know their mental health status and the history within their families,” she added.
SPARC is gearing up for the recognition of International Day Against Substance Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, which falls this Saturday.
Local recognition will, however, be done tomorrow and Charles-Richards says the focus will be “ensuring that we get more educational material to our public…to ensure that persons have the facts”.
She added, “The facts as to how important it is for our community [and] for our families in terms of strengthening the area of prevention … it’s more knowledge that we have to share.”