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Six issues from Forsyth County's 10th Drug Summit
Virginia Vereen
Virginia Vereen shares her experiences with drug and alcohol addiction on Monday night during the county’s 10th drug summit at the Forsyth Conference Center at Lanier Technical College.

About five years ago, the first Forsyth County Drug Summit was held to address issues with addiction and recovery in the county and the surrounding area. 

On Monday, that commitment from the Forsyth County Drug Awareness Council continued with the 10th drug summit at Forsyth Conference Center, where elected officials, law enforcement, local students, school leaders, those in recovery and others gathered to discuss drug issues, including prevention, recovery, what parents should look for and what steps are being taken locally. 

“In the years we have done these drug summits, each one is unique in that they each have a different story to tell,” said Forsyth County District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills. “We try to work with our sheriff’s office and our nonprofits and our drug council and the schools in trying to bring you what is happening in the community, what should you be aware of as parents and what you should be aware of as kids and young adults and the decisions that are being made that could affect your life forever.”

Below are six things worth noting from the drug summit.

Rewiring your brain

The evening’s keynote speaker was Virginia Vereen, with Ignite the Change. Vereen shared her experiences with drug and alcohol addiction, a suicide attempt and the physiological impacts on her brain from the dopamine rush from drugs and alcohol. 

“Because addiction runs in my family, I inherited a vulnerable reward pathway that could easily rewire itself if that brain rush happens too many times, AKA if I used alcohol and drugs, which I did,” she said. “So once my brain rewired, my brain considered alcohol and drugs necessary for survival. I couldn’t just stop because my brain felt like it needed alcohol and drugs on a biological, mechanical level.”

Dangerous substitutes

Commissioners are in the process of updating the county’s vape/nontraditional tobacco ordinance to included restrictions on “unregulated marijuana substitutes,” which are often sold under names such as Spice or K2. Violations of that ordinance also count against the alcohol license for stores that sell both.

At the summit, county attorney Ken Jarrard told the crowd about the difficulty of creating rules since the chemists producing the substitutes change the composition to a similar but not prohibited chemical as soon as rules are changed and the dangers of using them, including hospitalization and death.

“This is, unfortunately, a topic that is pervasive,” Jarrard said. “It is here. It is in adjacent counties. I was telling the commissioners that I’ve had the opportunity, not to buy it, but have seen where it can be bought, where your children can purchase this as well.”

The proposed county ordinance will “make illegal anything that the state of Georgia has not caught up with yet.”

How to help

Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman said gas stations and stores selling vape products are checked regularly but urged members of the community to speak up if they know of places selling items like marijuana substitutes or other items “giving a high effect.”

“That gives me what I need to go make a case against them,” Freeman said. “Sometimes with this product not being labeled, not having the right chemicals in it, I can’t make a criminal case against it, but if I have parents calling me almost on a weekly basis … if that happens, please God, call and tell me where it’s coming from.”

Concerns with JUULs

Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Mark Hoffman also spoke about additives teens are adding to vape juice or using alone and the rising use of JUULs, an electronic cigarette that has recently grown in popularity. 

“Just one hit on that thing is about four cigarettes worth of nicotine,” he said. “One thing that nicotine does to you is acts as a stimulant in low doses but the higher you dose nicotine, it acts as a depressant … so they’re getting toxic levels of nicotine that are affecting the way their brain works.”

Drug counselor 

Matt Meyer, Director of the Insight Program, and Drew Hayes, principal of The Academies of Creative Education in Forsyth County Schools, highlighted a recent agreement between the school district, the county government and the sheriff’s office to bring a new drug counselor to Gateway Academy.

“Over 80 percent of the kids who are there with us admit that they are using at least on a weekly basis,” Hayes said. 

Student viewpoints

As one of the stated goals of the summit was to prevent students using drugs, local students Tapasya Katta and Madison Foster, both sophomores at Lambert, told the crowd what the situation is like for those in school and what they hear from peers. 

“A much larger issue that needs to be addressed is the question, ‘Well, why do teenagers try drugs?’” Katta said. “A multitude of issues and influences can push teenagers into experimenting and potentially getting addicted to these drugs.”

She said adolescents are in a tough spot between adulthood and childhood and it can seem like “everyone is doing them,” which creates pressure to fit in.

Foster said drug use isn’t always evident by a student’s extracurricular activities and grades but can impact all students, including those who take drugs like Adderall to study for exams.

“Contrary to popular belief, straight-A students who are in 15 different clubs and volunteer on weekends and are just the perfect little angels do in fact use drugs,” she said. “It’s actually quite common.”