Busting myths: Community forum sheds light on teen substance abuse

Before the talk, attendees could visit informally with various community organizations and non-profits that work on issues of substance abuse. (courtesy Kevin Davitch/MN Adult and Teen Challenge)

Bridget Kranz

staff writer


Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, a local addiction recovery center, hosted a free community education forum at Irondale High School aimed at informing families and community members about teen substance abuse trends.

The May 16 event, held in partnership with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office and other local agencies, was part of the “Know the Truth” prevention program, which includes both community forums and classroom visits. 

Speakers at the event in New Brighton ranged from law enforcement officials to young adults in long-term recovery. Together, they hoped to address the lies that can cover up drug use and the popular myths surrounding different substances.  


Increasing access 

and potency

According to a presentation by Cmdr. Ryan O’Neill of the county’s Violent Crime Enforcement Team, VCET has typically seized higher and higher quantities of drugs each year since 2008. 

As of late, there has been a marked increase in seizures of methamphetamine, as well as opioids. There were 72 opioid-related overdose deaths in Ramsey County in 2017, up from 39 a decade earlier, according to data from the county’s medical examiner. 

The fact that illegal drug producers are not always honest about what’s in a product, and that they often mix in more potent substances, has led to a number of accidental overdoses. 

O’Neill showed pictures of what looked like marijuana and oxycodone tablets that were actually made of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid roughly 80 times stronger than morphine. One of O’Neill’s slides showed a side-by-side picture of heroin, fentanyl and carfentanyl.

“Most people, when they get anything laced with carfentanyl, die instantaneously,” said O’Neill of the animal tranquilizer that has recently been sold as a drug in Ramsey County.

He also noted that roughly 80% of heroin users start by abusing prescription drugs; because heroin is cheaper and more widely available, it has become a popular alternative when people can no longer find or afford prescription painkillers. 

When it comes to marijuana, O’Neill acknowledged that there were many different opinions on the drug, but emphasized that some waxes and oils used to inhale it through electronic cigarettes could contain upwards of 80% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, making it roughly 20 times more potent than typical marijuana was 30 years ago. 

O’Neill encouraged family members to talk to their children, saying he often talks to his 9-year-old daughter about drugs. “I want to make sure she knows, when that first person asks her at that party, this is not something she wants to get into.”

Further, he encouraged parents and older family members to monitor any prescription painkillers they may have on hand, and to bring unused medication to one of six drop-off boxes located across the county.


Accidentally providing a lethal dose 

Another of the night’s speakers was Mounds View High School graduate Bill Banholzer, who took the stage to share his personal history of addiction.

“When I talk to kids, I say, I did drugs for seven years and nothing really bad happened to me, other than hangovers,” said Banholzer, who visits classrooms with Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge. “But all it takes is one time.”

After starting to use marijuana at the age of 14, Banholzer slowly began experimenting with other drugs. Still, he noted that there was a line, which would always seem to move. “When prescription pills came around, it was like, that’s not heroin, that’s not crack, we can try that.”

After using what he believed to be fentanyl one night with a friend in college, Banholzer called his friend’s room the next day to check on him; a roommate picked up. 

“He said, ‘Bill, he’s dead. He’s dead and the cops are here, they’re looking for you,’” recalled Banholzer. Before serving a 10-year prison sentence for reckless homicide, he finally came clean with his mother about his addiction.

“That was the first time I was free again, to tell my mom who I really was. I remember that feeling of liberation,” Banholzer said. “Once I felt that, I was like, I’m never going back to that drug-using self, covered up with lies upon lies.”


Families’ concerns

At the end of the night, the audience was able to ask questions of Banholzer and other speakers. Asked for advice on how to prevent future drug use with younger children, Banholzer encouraged parents to take an active interest in their kid’s hobbies.

“I was always in [my parents’] world, so I was pretending to be what they wanted me to be,” he said. “I think my parents maybe missed out on an opportunity to get really involved in the things I loved.”

Multiple speakers encouraged family members to investigate when something wasn’t adding up, whether that was a sudden change in behavior or a suspicious alibi. They advised checking the mileage on the family car, or counting older family members’ medications to make sure no pills were missing.

The mother of a recovering heroin addict encouraged parents to research what to look for in their child’s bedroom. “Had I known about the tar marks on furniture, the tin foil, the cartridges of pens — I didn’t know any of this. So, make yourselves really familiar with all that stuff.”

As part of the forum, Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge set up its “Cracking the Code” exhibit for parents to explore before the talk. It included a virtual teenage bedroom on a touch screen monitor, which participants could search for signs of substance use, while learning how drugs are often concealed.


–Bridget Kranz can be reached at bkranz@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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