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Students come clean, sometimes face ostracism

If you could save someone from injury, or even death, by speaking up, would you hesitate?

What if, by speaking up, you risked consequences that included losing friends, losing a parent’s trust, being looked down on by your community, or even legal ramifications? Would you still speak up?

That is one risk a group of students from Pine River-Backus High School took in spite of the fact that in speaking out, some of them were admitting to using drugs at one time.

Kathy Wagner, a teacher at PR-B, has a group of very determined students. They are on a mission to make it harder for kids to get “synthetic marijuana” and easier for them to make the right decision and avoid it. Among her students are a few former users, but those students are some of her most passionate.

“‘Bill’ (not the student’s real name) came in with another student really angry because it was zombifying their friends,” Wagner said. “People were mad, so I said, ‘Let’s take this energy and make an editorial.’ Then it got so big we needed more than an editorial.”

Bill is a former user. He was attracted to synthetics by a daily marijuana habit, but when he watched his girlfriend go through a bad reaction to the drugs and then had one himself, he quit both drugs with help from his mother and friends.

“I got on my hands and knees and begged God to take away my addiction,” Bill said.

The group began by pooling resources. They contacted Karen Dobner, founder of To the Maximus Foundation, a group dedicated to working against synthetic drugs and founded when Dobner’s 19-year-old son, Max, crashed into a home while under the influence of synthetic marijuana in 2011 and died.

The group spoke to Pine River police officers and Kelly Felton of the Working Together Coalition for advice. Bill even got in contact with Brian Welch, an advocate for recovering drug addicts and formerly of heavy metal band Korn.

“We have been hearing about it on and off for the last couple of years, but we don’t have any data at this point to show how many students are or are not using it. At this point it is just hearing it from community members and our students,” Felton said. “I’m excited that the kids have taken this on themselves and that they are being proactive and trying to prevent their peers from using this substance.”

They made posters and began selling rubber band bracelets for $1 a piece, with proceeds going toward Dobner’s foundation. Wagner’s class also circulated a survey at PR-B High School. Overall, their goals are simple.

“We’re just trying to get people as aware as possible so they don’t get blind sided like me,” Bill said.

Synthetic marijuana is a product labeled for sale as a sort of “herbal incense,” but it has attracted attention worldwide as a source of a high. It is sold under many different brands and names, which, unfortunately, can be easily accessible, hard to detect, hard to regulate and dangerous.

Among the reactions to this drug that have been witnessed, experienced and read about by Wagner’s group are: seizures, strokes, coughing blood, vomiting, unconsciousness, hallucinations, psychosis, violent and self threatening behavior. Some of these reactions, such as seizures and coughing blood, are very common.

“I quit because I saw my best friend almost die. He had a seizure and he didn’t wake up for 45 minutes. We thought about calling an ambulance but we’re just a bunch of kids, what are we going to say to an ambulance?” “John” (not his real name) said. “As soon as he was done with the seizure and woke up he was like, ‘That was the best time of my life,’ and we said, ‘You almost died.’ He said, ‘I don’t care.’”

Synthetic marijuana is made by adding chemical compounds to natural herbs. These chemicals pose some difficulties to lawmakers.

“They can change a chemical that’s already been made illegal and then it’s legal, it’s back on the market,” Bill said.

In addition, the product is sold as incense, almost always with a label that reads “not for human consumption,” which allows manufacturers to get around other laws.

“What we learned in this class is how people can use words to make it look like it’s something good,” Wagner said. “And they have this website that is condoning it and saying, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”

In addition, it is hard to detect synthetic marijuana in those who have smoked it, partially because of how the body absorbs it and partially because of its constantly changing composition.

Bill has found that coming clean about his prior use and the things he did while using synthetic marijuana has cost him friends and other things, but he still considers it a worthy cause.

“It wasn’t hard to speak out against it. After my friend almost died, I didn’t care who heard, I was going to say what I wanted to say about it. My parents were very, very upset,” he said. “My parents don’t trust me anymore.”

It was this type of honesty, however, that made this group possible.

“They were honest with me, and it allowed this platform to become a place where they could share,” Wagner said.

“I think that’s great, I really do,” said Pine River Police Chief Paul Sand. “These guys are putting their necks out there to do something, to make people aware of it, because they are former users. They know.”

The survey distributed throughout the school reached more than 200 students. Among them, 90 percent of students said they had never used synthetic marijuana, though 38 percent said they had friends who had.

The results of this survey reflect findings with local law enforcement.

“I think there’s been some issues with it, but not a big problem that I’ve seen,” said Sand. “We’ve seen it. We’ve also confiscated some.”

“From what I’ve found we haven’t really dealt with that at all. It’s been very few and far between. I can’t actually find a case we had to send in for prosecution,” said Lt. Scott Thompson with the Cass County Sheriff’s Department. “I know it’s available and out there. The officers that I’ve talked to haven’t dealt with it or seen it.”

Cass County Attorney Christopher Strandlie said sale and possession of synthetic marijuana is treated similar to that of marijuana. Strandlie also said there have not been any cases referred to the Cass County Attorney’s Office for prosecution, though this could simply mean most incidents regarding this substance result in a misdemeanor and a payable ticket. The sale of synthetic marijuana is a felony and would result in significantly more serious charges. Strandlie applauds the efforts of these students.

Wagner said there were some at PR-B with mixed feelings about her class’ campaign, due to a fear that it could give the wrong message concerning actual marijuana.

“We are against all drugs,” Wagner said. “We just wanted kids to recognize that this thing is out there and we don’t want any of our PR-B kids to die.”