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A boy, once lost to drugs, is reclaiming his life

Published: Saturday, Aug. 4 2012 1:01 p.m. MDT

Josh Stauffer, 17, plays ball with his brothers at their home. Josh first tried marijuana in ninth grade.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The church is quiet, the audience in the chapel attentive as 17-year-old Josh Stauffer stands at the podium, hands stuffed in the pockets of his dress pants, eyes down a little as if he's reading, though he's not. Teetering between adulthood and a child's world, he is tall, thin, handsome and — as he has been his whole life — painfully shy. But here he stands, clearing his throat lightly, trying to ignore the little shudder in his stomach.

"Hi," he says, addressing no one in particular in this Mormon congregation. "I'm Josh. And I'm in drug rehab."

The denial and efforts to hide his illicit drug use are gone as he shares his story in the setting where he's worshipped all his life, surrounded by friends, family and strangers. He has been lost, and his mom and dad, Melonie and Rod Stauffer, have tried to lead him home.

This time is different, though. This time, Josh is trying to find Josh, too.

One story, many variations

Josh's journey into drugs is an earthquake for the Stauffers. But experts say it isn't uncommon. The National Institute of Drug Abuse tracks drug use among teens. Each year, it surveys eighth- 10th- and 12th-graders about their substance abuse, noting most recently that marijuana use is up, while cigarette use is down. In its 2010 survey, NIDA said 21.4 percent of high school seniors admitted to smoking pot in the past 30 days. After marijuana, they were most apt to use prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

Alcohol use was even higher, though falling slightly — from 43.5 percent to 41.2 percent of seniors over the month they were surveyed in 2010 compared to 2009. Binge drinking dropped from more than 25 percent to 23.2 percent.

When seniors were asked about the entire year, numbers shot up. Alcohol had been used by 70.6 percent of the seniors, marijuana by 34.3 percent, stimulants by 10 percent. The list goes on. Substance abuse numbers are staggering, experts told the Deseret News, and the families and teens involved are impacted on multiple levels.

Teenhelp.com, a website dedicated to helping parents and teens with social issues like substance abuse, said even kids who don't use drugs know how to get them easily, sometimes on school grounds.

Josh describes getting lost in drugs: He tried marijuana in the ninth grade. At first it was casual; he felt guilty and worried that he'd be caught. Later, as he also did spice and mushrooms, alcohol and tobacco, he learned to deceive his parents, who would do almost anything to help him straighten up. The Stauffers hoped the juvenile court system would "fix" him, since the parents didn't know what to do.

His mom's first clue emerged when she found marijuana and a pipe in Josh's backpack. She flushed the pot and confronted him. "He didn't deny it. He was mad that I'd flushed it and that's when I knew it was a real problem," said Melonie Stauffer. She said she and her husband then tricked Josh into counseling that didn't work. He got in some legal scrapes and did community service for them — neither happily nor wholeheartedly. His mom looked into residential treatment options, "in case," but told herself Josh was going through a phase.

His escapades got bigger, the consequences more demanding. His grades plummeted and he started skipping classes. He was caught stealing. When drug testing was ordered, he figured out ways to keep using, at least some of the time. When he couldn't avoid a drug test, he ran away. Even then, though, he let his parents know he was OK. And as his life spiraled out of control, he didn't know he was actually moving closer to finding the path that would lead back home.

Lost and found

Josh has been lost and found before. His drug use is not the first time he's taken a wrong turn and slogged his way up a seemingly impossible hill.

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