Change coming for Juneau’s OxyCulture?
“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” – Stanford economist Paul Romer
Jaime Kissner is a witness to it all. When a crisis spreads and people are unprepared or unequipped to challenge it, there’s little you can do except bear witness to what or who will be impacted next.
For a community that has seen what Juneau-Douglas High School in Juneau, Alaska, is combating with its student-athletes and general student population, it is no different.
“I can name at least 25 star athletes from the past three years that have either been rehab specifically for OxyContin use or have been in trouble locally,” said Kissner, head coach of the school’s baseball team. “This past year, we had athletes at JDHS miss practice or games during their specific season to attend rehab or to get a shot or implant. Apparently there is a chip that can be implanted to inhibit the effect of the drug.”
Hold on. It gets worse.
“Within the last eight years, there are probably 10 ex-athletes that are incarcerated here in the Lemon Creek Correctional Center, a state prison,” he recalled.
Take it from one of Kissner’s players.
“There’s been kids on our team that can’t focus to play a game without using the drug before it,” one player recently said to the Anchorage Daily News.
Kissner remembers what a buddy of his once said to him about the problems in Juneau. The coach’s friend has been in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor-league system for six years and returns to Juneau during the off-season.
“I’ve been to a lot of parties all around the country,” Kissner recalls him saying, “and it’s amazing and scary to see what drugs are being used openly and recreationally in Juneau.”
Welcome to OxyCulture, USA. Population: Too many. It is a community with its share of despair, a city covered in darkness, a culture in need of detox. OxyContin hasn’t just become a crisis. It is seeped into the pores of the community, city and culture. A 2005 report conducted by the McDowell Group estimated that the cost of drug and alcohol abuse in Alaska was a staggering $738 million. The increased usage of OxyContin in not just Alaska but the U.S. in general is evident in the $9.6 billion totaled in national sales during a seven-year period this decade.
And now, Juneau is answering the call. A drug-testing policy was approved recently by the Juneau school board that will be centered around administering random drug tests for roughly 10 percent, or 15 to 25 athletes, of the school district’s high school athletes every week. In addition to OxyContin, the policy will test for marijuana, opiates, cocaine, alcohol and tobacco. While the testing’s lack of steroid oversight may be cause for concern later on, there’s a crisis that has overtaken the community and its student-athletes with O.C. as its lifeblood.
According to the school district’s 48-page drug-testing task force recommendations document, the OxyContin phenomena running rampant with student-athletes and the general student population sparked enough concern for more than 1,200 parents to sign and petition for mandatory drug testing. Players from Kissner’s baseball team even testified in favor of the program.
The Juneau district is very straightforward in what it hopes to achieve with the policy and how it’s going about it. The influence on what is outlined in the policy such as removal from a team for that given season comes from within the Juneau city limits instead.
“Our drug testing program was developed by a community task force appointed by our Board of Education, so it was really influenced by a broad range of individuals,” said Kristin Bartlett, communications manager for the Juneau School District. “The program includes mandatory, voluntary and educational elements.”
(Editor’s Note: At the time of publication, Ms. Bartlett and I were unable to talk at greater length for this article.)
Though tweaked in some areas to help Juneau’s specific needs, the policy, on its surface, doesn’t distance itself too much from the specific fundamentals of the tests themselves listed in testing policies for high school athletes in Texas, Florida and New Jersey – all of which have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in these states and others.
There’s little doubt that the school board has established and is attempting to instill what school board president Mark Choate called “a need to take action.” What remains the pulse of concerns for drug-testing high school athletes, as it has been for some time now, is whether these testing policies are acting as a true deterrent on the frequency and volume in which athletes will use drugs once the policies are in place.
These issues were brought to light in the Student Athletes Testing Using Random Notification (SATURN) study published in 2007 by researchers at Oregon Health & Science University (OSHU). The study, which collected data at 11 high schools within 150 miles of Portland, Ore., during a two-year period, found the lack of difference in drug and alcohol use among athletes at schools with policies and those at schools without policies. The study also detailed how it found that athletes at schools with testing policies were less athletically competent, how they perceived school authorities to be less opposed to drug use and how the athletes believed less in the benefits of drug testing.
Dr. Linn Goldberg was the principle investigator in the SATURN study. He is a proponent of evidence-based education, saying it is “the only strategy that has been shown to work.”
“Why educators don’t believe in education is frightening,” said Goldberg, head of the Division of Health Promotion and Sports Medicine at OSHU. “They should get out of the business of educating students if they refuse to do their own homework.”
Luckily for the people of Juneau, the school board did its homework. The testing policy will use recommendations and implement measures for collecting data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, and its own Youth Risk Behavior Survey among other factors. Whether this collection of data will be an effective methodology for producing the change it seeks is uncertain to this point. That said, they’re giving themselves more of a fighting chance for that change than they’ve ever had before.
Of course, there’s also a chance that backlash could result from the new testing. Dr. Diane Elliot was one of the main researchers for the SATURN study. She said that all the details and specifics that go into drug testing such as collecting the specimens and who’s going to observe the collection of the specimens may promote an adversarial reaction from athletes toward their school.
“Beating the drug test becomes part of the drug use culture,” said Elliot, a professor of medicine and founding member of the Division of Health Promotion and Sports Medicine at OSHU. “Kids have seen American Beauty and know about the Whizzinator.”
Elliot wishes the city of Juneau success and hoped the district does indeed go forward in its effort to practicing and implementing other strategies instead of relying solely on drug testing to help deter the OxyContin crisis in an effective manner.
“Otherwise it may be like pissing on flames in the locker room when the whole school is on fire,” Elliot said.
Kissner said this could be the beginning of that culture change Juneau needs.
“The ones that decided to use and get caught will be held accountable for their actions – something that isn’t currently in place,” he said, “and this is the first step to solving a huge community-wide problem.”
And the detox is underway.