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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Counselor Curtis deLagerheim, left, gestures as he talks with a group of young men at a youth corrections facility.

The number of Utah teenagers in trouble with the law is on the rise — due in large part to a burgeoning substance-abuse problem and the increasing availability of drugs and alcohol.

Any weekend night, any time of the year, make your way to 5-Mile Pass on the west side of Utah Lake and join the party. In the sagebrush and dirt, teenagers drink and smoke.

Anytime you want, anywhere you want, 16-year-old Stephanie Riddle says. "You can't believe how easy it is to get anything."

"It's way too easy," said Eric Doxey, 18. "People talk about it like it's nothing."

Doxey and Riddle are not in trouble with the law — they are two teenagers among dozens interviewed by the Deseret Morning News for "The State of Teens" series. And every person interviewed said it is easier than ever to get your hands on about any kind of drug or type of alcohol.

Some teenagers sell it out of their lockers. Others from their cars. Young people get alcohol from friends, older siblings and their parents' liquor cabinets.

"I am absolutely amazed at the exposure that teenagers have to drugs. It flabbergasts me," said Ray Wahl, who supervises juvenile courts for the state of Utah. "It's got to be a really strong-willed kid who really has a strong set of values to be able to withstand some of the stuff that's around him."

And this exposure to drugs and alcohol is taking its toll on Utah's schools and criminal justice system.

In 2001, the statewide number of delinquent referrals to juvenile court was about 35,000, Wahl says. In 2002, that number dropped to about 33,000, following a downward trend that began in 1990.

But now that trend is reversing. About 34,000 Utah young people were referred to the juvenile court system in 2003, Wahl says.

Admissions to lock-down juvenile detention centers increased between 2000 and 2002, and the state always has too few beds to house its troubled teens. In 2002, 14,417 young people were in the state's detention programs.

It's simple math, Wahl says.

There is a direct correlation between referrals to juvenile court and the number of "at-risk" kids in the community. And today, there are a growing number of at-risk teenagers in Utah.

About 26 percent of juvenile referrals are specifically for drug or alcohol charges, but that only tells half the story, Wahl says.

About 70 percent of the youngsters involved in the juvenile court system on a regular basis have a substance-abuse problem.

"It's a big issue. It's a big risk factor, and what I can tell you is that if it doesn't get resolved when they are a juvenile, they're going to have more problems as an adult. It's just a fact."

Wahl's concerns provide a concrete context for a collection of statistics that give mixed signals about drug and alcohol abuse among Utah teens.

Good: Teenagers are smoking less and seemingly driving under the influence less frequently. They are also committing fewer crimes in school than in recent years.

In 2003, 7.3 percent of Utah young people in grades nine through 12 smoked cigarettes, down from 16 percent in 1997, according to a 2003 Utah Health Measures Report produced by the Utah Department of Health.

In 2001, officers and under-age shoppers were able to buy tobacco in 19 percent of stores they approached, according to the Department of Health. In 2002, that dropped to 12 percent, and in 2003 the underage "sell-rate" dropped even further to 9 percent.

Utah's tobacco prevention and cessation programs are clearly working, says Susan Burke, director of the Utah Substance Abuse and Anti-Violence Coordinating Council.

Bad: But according to those who provide treatment to teens with substance abuse, the top three drugs of choice for teenagers are marijuana, alcohol and meth. And use of these three drugs has remained consistent in the past three years.

Good: The Utah Highway Safety Department reports that the number of youths between 15 and 20 arrested on DUI charges has fallen from 1,470 in 2001 to 1,322 in 2002 and to 1,256 in 2003.

Bad: But 14 percent of Utah high school students — about 22,000 teens — have five or more drinks of alcohol in a row, according to a state survey that evaluated behavior during the past 30 days.

Good: The State Division of Substance Abuse reports overall use of all substances — drugs and alcohol — has decreased the past 25 years, according to division director Randall Bachman.

Bad: According to the Utah Department of Human Services, in the past 30 days 8 percent of Utah teens have used marijuana and 3 percent have used inhalants.

Bad: Young people are getting more creative with deadlier drugs.

Teenagers are participating in their share of the Utah methamphetamine phenomenon, which has now captured a second generation of "tweakers." Wahl mentions as a side note that half of the children who are being removed from their homes in Salt Lake City are being removed because their parents are on methamphetamine.

Bad: They also "huff," or inhale, paint or whatever they can get their hands on: spray paint, lighter fluid, spray air freshener, White-Out.

Burke recognizes inhalant abuse as an emerging problem. "Kids are very novel when it comes to using these substances, and in some cases will be doing it right under our noses," she said.

For example, students might paint multiple layers of White-Out — which now comes in colors other than white — on their fingernail and inhale fumes during class. Or they might soak a wrist band in a solvent and inhale those fumes, she says.

One Lehi mom says her daughters' friends sniff the spray used to clean computers — spraying into a rag and then taking a deep whiff that kills brain cells and numbs the senses all at once.

Bad: Students are also getting into drugs much sooner.

Steroids have become such a problem in the Jordan School District that school officials are producing their own video about natural alternatives to the illegal performance-enhancing drugs, says Melinda Colton, district spokeswoman.

And families may inadvertently add to the problem by allowing their young athletes to take protein drinks and creatine, which can certainly be considered "gateway drugs," says Susan Chilton, director of at-risk programs for the Jordan School District.

She worries more about the big picture. "What is it saying about our society that physically feeling isn't enough for our teenagers," Chilton said. "That they have to feel 10 times as good by taking "X" or Ecstasy. That all sensory perceptions have to be heightened. That the lights have to be three times as bright and everything has to feel three times as good."

Peter Shiazowa and Tobin Story, who will both move from Butler Middle School to Brighton High next year, said peer pressure is real and they've had to shuffle friends to stay out of trouble.

"They were doing things I didn't want to do," Shiazowa said.

A study by the Utah Health Department and some interested students at Ogden's Bonneville High School showed teenagers often believe more of their peers are using drugs and alcohol than actually are.

A survey of students showed students thought 67 percent of their peers used alcohol on a weekly basis. But in actuality, only 22 percent actually were, says Kimberly Sieb, 17, a Bonneville High School student and member of the Governor's Youth Council.

"Most of these people who use alcohol are outspoken about it," Sieb said. "They want you to believe everyone is doing it. When the reality is the majority isn't."

Perceptions lead to behavior, she says. "So our goal is to decrease this "social norm," to change the misperception of most teens and reward the majority who don't do drugs."

Still, the 22 percent of students who use drugs or alcohol is unacceptable, she says.

Sieb has a friend who ruined his life by smoking marijuana. "His whole life went down the drain. He went from being a 4.0 GPA student to a dropout," she said. "Over a year, he lost his girlfriend, his grades dropped . . . he was so addicted he didn't want to do anything except go home and get high."

Society is getting better at solving substance concerns among young people, Wahl says.

"We now have a much better handle on what is working with kids and what's not," he said. Traditional one-on-one counseling doesn't work well, for example, because teens don't like to be told what to think and feel. Juvenile courts involve parents in as much of the treatment protocol as possible.

About half of teenagers make an appearance in juvenile court and are never seen by the system again.

But during the next 10 years, officials expect 100,000 more children in the state's education system. So court officials aren't expecting anything but booming business — 3 to 7 percent growth each year — in the next several years.

While Provo-area courts are getting fewer juvenile referrals in the past three years, juvenile courts in the Weber/Davis/Morgan area and Salt Lake/Tooele/Summit county jurisdictions are growing quite rapidly.

Talk about at-risk "kids" technically refers to children ages 10-17, but the vast majority of those in the system are teenagers 13 and above, Wahl said.

Thomas and Tony are a couple of those teens in state custody. They told their stories to a reporter on the condition that their real names not be used. They spoke about how they began drinking and taking drugs and what contributed to the choices that cost them their freedom. Peer pressure was at the top of the list.

"I wanted to look cool. I wanted to be tough, so I did a lot of things I shouldn't have," Thomas said. "I also thought I was a lot tougher when I was high."

Tony and Thomas are part of a program in the state's Division of Youth Corrections that evaluates youths to see what treatment or punishment is most appropriate for them.

"It's just totally not worth it," Tony said. "Now I don't even have my freedom."

E-mail: lucy@desnews.com