The first I heard of illegal drugs was when I read Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land in my junior English class at Mt. Lebanon High School. In this autobiographical novel about a young man coming of age in the ghetto, guys smoked “reefers.” I wasn’t sure what that was, but I knew it was bad, and I was sure there was none of that stuff in Mt. Lebanon.
But the next summer, I saw two 19-year-old Mt. Lebanon guys under the influence of drugs. They were huddled in a corner at a party bobbing to the music, oblivious to the crowd. “They acted so weird,” I told my mother, who was as clueless as I. One of those boys died later of a drug overdose. The other did a long stretch in prison.
My first summer home from college, I met a drug pusher (although I didn’t know it) at a party sans parents in a beautiful Mt. Lebanon home. It was peculiar that a slick dude in pegged pants and Cuban heels was “best buds” with a couple of preppy football players, I thought. But, oh well… The host of that party later died of brain damage related to drug use.
It took me a while, but I finally figured it out. There were drugs in Mt. Lebanon.
By the time I graduated from college, pot, amphetamines and hallucinogens were as ubiquitous as the psychedelic rock that provided the backdrop for revelers who in some cases ended up hooked on hard drugs. Oh wow, man, the high was so outta sight, they said.
What happened to them? I hope they are leading productive lives, but I suspect their fates paralleled those of the idols of the day—The Doors, Cream, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix—some of whom overdosed and died, others who struggled with addiction and today are exhorting kids to avoid drugs.
Unfortunately, today’s teens seem no more willing to listen to good advice than their counterparts of 40 years ago, despite the proactive educational efforts and rehabilitation options that have emerged since suburbanites realized drugs weren’t confined to Claude Brown’s ghetto.
Mt. Lebanon police say prescription meds are now the drugs of choice for teens here and elsewhere because painkillers are plentiful and accessible. Pill poppers often end up addicted to heroin because it is a cheaper high. And the first-time user is becoming younger and younger.
That underage drug use is thriving under our suburban “bubble” is sad news to anyone who has seen a young life ruined by addiction. But there are bright spots. Today, many more kids, teachers and parents recognize the signs of drug use than back when I wondered what “reefers” were. And families and teens who acknowledge drug problems find that help is available through trained specialists, good treatment facilities and a criminal justice system that is increasingly open to rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. (See Merle Jantz’s story, page 42.)
Dangerous drugs will always be around, and some teens will always push the limits, but thanks to caring professionals, Mt. Lebanon offers a safety net for young people with addictions—if they take the leap toward sobriety and allow the net to catch them.