No big surprises in report -- drugs are available -- but there are ways to help protect kids By Loreth Beswetherick Whistler is a young town with a party atmosphere and kids are getting mixed messages from parents and the media about drug use. This is one of the findings of a social profile compiled by Sea to Sky Community Services school-based drug and alcohol prevention worker Heather Donaldson. The report, released this week, identifies social issues and other underlying causes of substance abuse in the communities of Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish. It also looks at the resources available in each community and makes recommendations for preventative policies. Instead of dealing with cold statistics, the profile talks more about the community attitudes of the three towns. There are no real surprises to come out of the assessment but Donaldson, who started working on the profile when she was hired in December last year, said the perceptions a community has of itself are an important factor in identifying prevention needs. She said although there is a perception of Whistler as a youth-oriented party town, she found some outstanding "protective factors" through the recreation opportunities available for children who could otherwise find themselves at risk. Whistler also has resources that communities like Pemberton are crying out for, she said. While she expected to find differences, there were some common risk factors throughout the corridor communities. She said marijuana is easily available and the use of cocaine, magic mushrooms (psilocybin), crystal meth (methamphetamines) and their analogs such as ecstasy, LSD or acid, heroin and other illicit drugs has been identified throughout the corridor. "While these drugs are less prevalent than marijuana, some designer drugs like ecstasy can cause brain damage with as little as one dose," said Donaldson. In Whistler, youth representatives and youth workers report marijuana use starts to become substantial in Grade 10. Many parents are concerned, said Donaldson. More than 200 turned out for a recent forum on adolescent drug use. "But, kids are still getting confusing messages from parents who share alcohol and marijuana with them at home. Complacency is a big problem," she said. "Children also see glamorised images of drinking in the media." Kids are not seeing consistent boundaries or consequences of drug use, she said. Donaldson added some parents in Whistler and Pemberton were worried that students starting high school in Grade 7 are being exposed to drug use before they were equipped to deal with it. She said, at one student forum an elementary pupil noted he was at the top of the heap at elementary school but at secondary school he would be at the bottom and Grade 7 kids may feel they have to fit in and succumb to peer pressure regarding drug use. "Research shows the younger they start, the more likely they will have problems." Donaldson plans to do a comparative study in the corridor in the fall — between Grade 8 students who have been at high school a year and those that haven't — to see what influence the early secondary school start actually has. Whistler youth, however are not that concerned. Members of the high school youth action team say kids watch out for each other and generally avoid "out-of-control" visitors. One answer Donaldson said she can't find is how many accidents — skiing, snowboarding and biking — are a result of drug use. She suspects the number is high. Pemberton is just starting to acknowledge its problems, said Donaldson, unfortunately because the community has had enough local tragedies related to drugs and alcohol. "I hate to say it, but it's a reaction out of fear. We would like a proactive approach but that really doesn’t happen." Other issues identified in the study include: no youth centre and unsupervised parties in Whistler; few organized activities for youth in Pemberton and no movie theatre or evening bus service in Squamish. These issues are all being addressed. The profile will now form a backdrop to Donaldson's preventative work. Her next step is to highlight issues through the media. "This is a multi-year process but I do have some priorities." She plans a series on cable TV involving youth and parents. She hopes to target some parents who don't ordinarily attend public meetings but who may catch the information while channel surfing. She also wants to help older teens give presentations to elementary kids using drama and creative ideas to get messages across. Other initiatives include providing teachers with resources, professional development, information and other classroom supports. "This will help students develop emotional, cognitive and the social skills they need to protect themselves from substance abuse." She plans to help communities recognize how improvements in underlying conditions, such as employment and adverse living conditions, will affect child development and help combat future problems. The profile content has been reviewed and verified as accurately reflecting the towns by long-term residents and community leaders, including the RCMP, the mayors, the school system and municipal parks and recreation departments.