Interviews BLOG

One of the reasons I enjoy working for this company so much is because it connects me with great organizations all over the country. One of those organizations is the Metropolitan Drug Commission.

Based in Knoxville, TN, the Metropolitan Drug Commission is a non-profit agency specializing in evidence-based substance abuse prevention. Primarily focused on advocacy, awareness, and education, they work with youth, in the workplace, and also sponsor "drug take-back events." They recently developed a curriculum for their local high schools and middle schools on emerging drug trends, including synthetic cathinones (bath salts, plant food), synthetic cannabinoids (K2/Spice), salvia, and prescription drugs. They have developed a wealth of resources providing information on a wide range of subjects within the topic, including treatment options, packaging descriptions, side effects, street names. They have also developed separate sections of their website for teachers, parents, and businesses.

My conversation with Heather Sutton focused on some of the factors behind teen drug use, as many conversations in this series will. But, because of this organization's work in schools, we were particularly interested in the effect of drug education in schools and some of the programs they were currently putting into action in order to make a difference in their area. Heather had some very interesting things to say not only about the growing threat of synthetic drugs but also the misuse of prescription drugs.

TestCountry: We have been hearing so much lately about new synthetic drugs in the news, and how teenagers have started to experiment with them as an alternative to marijuana. Can you talk to us a little about the similarities teens may be drawn between the two, and about whether or not synthetic drugs act as a gateway to other drugs?

Heather Sutton: Synthetic drugs can be a gateway to other drugs, but it is unlikely. Many users report such unpleasant side effects from these substances that they do not want to continue use. It is more likely that abuse of other drugs may lead to experimentation with synthetics. For example, some teens mistakenly believe that K2/Spice produces the same high as real marijuana. They may try K2/Spice not knowing they may experience extremely severe side effects rarely seen with marijuana.

TestCountry: Are synthetic drugs just a fad, or are they here to stay? What makes them desirable to teens, and are they currently the drug of choice for many youth?

Heather Sutton: Drug trends come and go, but synthetics will always exist in some form or another. Synthetic simply means man-made. Chemists are constantly coming up with dangerous new substances of abuse. The synthetics that are popular today may change in name and chemical structure, but they will never permanently go away. Synthetic drugs are desirable to teens because they are easily available and relatively cheap. Plus, their prevalence in the media has led to more curiosity among adolescents.

The most popular drugs of abuse among teens continue to be alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and prescription drugs. However, synthetics are gaining ground. According to the 2011 Monitoring the Future survey, 11.4 percent of high school seniors used Spice or K2 in the past year. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 303 exposures to bath salts in 2010. Between January 1 and August 31, 2011, poison centers received a remarkable 4,720 calls.

TestCountry: You currently work in businesses as well. What is the most common issue in the workplace, and what do you recommend as the first step for an employer who believes an employee has a problem? For example, should they call the police?

Heather Sutton: Similar to teens, the most commonly abused drugs within the workforce are alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and prescription drugs. Substance abusers do not make good employees. Abuse on and off the job can lead to injury to one's self or others. In fact, anywhere from 38%-50% of all workers compensation claims are substance abuse related. Further, substance abusers incur 300 percent higher medical costs than non-abusers. They are also 2.5 times more likely to miss 8 or more days of work per year and one-third less productive.

We recommend that all businesses develop a comprehensive drug-free workplace program. Drug-free workplace programs not only promote a safe, healthy workplace but also encourage treatment, recovery and return to work of employees with abuse problems. Model programs are not designed to push someone out their job or get them in trouble with the law. It is designed to identify those with substance abuse issues, connect them with appropriate treatment services then reintegrate them back into the workplace if and when they are ready.

TestCountry: Do in-school awareness building activities help to create a drug-free environment? What is one of the major obstacles to working within a school program that you think educators should be prepared for?

Heather Sutton: Aside from education within the classroom, it is important that schools develop norming campaigns that promote a healthy, substance-free life as a highly valued social standard. Over time, positive social norming campaigns can bring about declines in underage drinking and drug use. If a teen believes substance abuse is uncool and understands that most of their peers do not use drugs, the likelihood they will use decreases dramatically.

TestCountry: What do you have planned for your community Drug Take-Back Events in Knoxville? Are these events that could be replicated in other communities?

Heather Sutton: Medication take-back events are hosted four to five times a year in Knoxville. Our next event will be held on November 17 from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. Residents can dispose of their old, expired or unused prescription or over-the-counter medications, no questions asked. Medications will be collected by local law enforcement and incinerated in an environmentally-friendly manner.

Medication take-backs have proven extremely successful locally. Since 2008, approximately 5,000 pounds of pills have been collected and destroyed in Knox County alone. That's more than 2.4 million pills that will not end up in our water system or in the hands of abusers.

There is a federal push to increase the number of drug take-backs nationwide. Local law enforcement agencies are encouraged to register with the Drug Enforcement Administration and download the Partnership Toolbox to help promote the event.

TestCountry: What is the most important fact for parents, employers, and school administrators to know about synthetic drugs? Do you have one big piece of advice or some expert tips for all (or for each, separately) of these groups?

Heather Sutton: Synthetic drugs are still drugs. They can cause permanent damage and addiction. Synthetic drugs are made of many different chemicals. A person can't be sure what chemicals are in each packet. These substances can cause death after the first time experimenting.

TestCountry: How serious is the problem? Do you see synthetic drugs in particular on the rise, or is there another substance that you perceive as a larger threat? Feel free to share numbers or personal experiences.

Heather Sutton: The problem of synthetic drugs is extremely serious. However, prescription drug abuse is by far our nation's greatest drug threat. It is a problem that crosses all race, gender and socioeconomic boundaries, and it doesn't discriminate based on age or education.

Pill addiction has truly reached epidemic proportions. Overdose fatalities have increased threefold since 1990. It is now the leading cause of accidental death in America, just nudging out motor vehicle crashes. Prescription drugs have significantly contributed to this trend. More frightening, 2,500 teens use them to get high for the first time each day.

People often believe that prescriptions are safer to abuse than illicit drugs because they are legal and prescribed by a doctor. Plus, prescriptions are easily accessible in home medicine cabinets. Many people are unaware of their highly addictive nature and dangerous side effects. We must make prescription drugs more difficult to obtain and less appealing to abuse or usage rates will continue to climb.

TestCountry: What is the biggest factor in drug use? Is it socioeconomic, environmental (for example, prevalence in the media), related to self-esteem, lack of knowledge, etc?

Heather Sutton: There is no single factor that will determine drug use. However, exposure to multiple risk factors will increase the chances a teen will abuse. These risk factors can include chaotic or abusive home environments, ineffective parenting, poor coping skills, failing grades, low perception of harm or underlying mental illness.

Parents play a key role in creating a protective environment for their children. They are the first line of defense against underage drinking and drug use. According to the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, teens with hands-on parents have a 25 percent lower risk of smoking, drinking and using drugs than those with hands-off parents. Parents should talk early and often with their children about substance abuse. They must be supportive, askable parents. In addition, parents should develop clear household rules, spend quality time with their children regularly and promote engagement in alternative activities.

You can find this organization and their many great resources online at

About The Author

Grace Fisher has experience in childcare and working with teens, specifically in promoting positive lifestyle choices through healthy eating, exercise, and open communication. She believes that educating the public on the dangers of alcohol and drug dependence, in particular, is necessary in order to help people make safe and informed decisions in their lives due to the level of misinformation she has seen deeply affect entire lives.