The scourge of addiction is a struggle no parent wishes to see their child endure but, for many, it’s an unfortunate reality they’ve been forced to confront, as underage drug use continues to creep further into primary and secondary schools across Cayman.
Drug use data
In the National Drug Council’s 2020 Student Drug Use Survey, a combined total of 3,478 students from private and public schools were questioned about their drug usage. Of that number 44.4%, or 1,530 students, said alcohol was their number one drug of choice. The next most popular drug was e-cigarettes, or vapes, according to 29%, or 1,000 students.
For the past 20 years, the NDC has monitored and surveyed the use of drugs by Cayman’s students. Acting NDC Director Brenda Watson said during that time, the data shows a move from the use of cigarettes to e-cigarettes or vapes.
“We believe this shift has resulted from several factors, such as a change in the public perception of cigarettes, along with the proven health problems associated with smoking,” said Watson.
Although the survey is purely anecdotal – and relies on respondents’ honesty – it reveals that one in 12 students tried e-cigarettes for the first time at 13 years old or younger. In addition, the youngest age recorded for vapes as well as crack cocaine was nine.
Watson said, for now, the data suggests experimentation was the predominant reason why most teens and pre-teens use drugs. However, there is evidence to suggest roughly 3% of students face addiction issues, predominantly related to alcohol.
The road to recovery
William, whose real name has been changed to protect his identity, was one of the high school students who found himself addicted to vaping.
“It started with just one pull on a vape when I was about 14 years old,” said William. “Before I knew it, a couple of months later, I realised I was hooked and needed to vape every day.”
After an eight-month battle, he was able to rid himself of the addiction with the help of his mother and other family members.
“It was painful to watch,” said William’s mother, Elizabeth, whose name has also been changed.
“We are not a family of smokers, and we had spoken to [William] about the dangers of smoking, so we just never thought this would be an issue for him,” said Elizabeth.
A mother’s plight
Sarah, not her real name, is a mother-of-two. She said she dreads the thought that her teenage boys might become hooked on drugs.
“When they are home, I can control what they are exposed to, but when they grow up and go out and mingle with other people, there’s not much that I can do,” she said.
Sarah said she became worried after she found beer bottles and disposable nicotine vapes in her son’s room following a sleepover. The discovery prompted her to reach out to other parents, with the hope of rallying support against the underage drug use.
“What I found was that most parents don’t care; there are some who do, but many either don’t care or they say, ‘So what? At least they are doing it at home where I can keep an eye on them’,” said Sarah.
Her youngest son, who is in his early teens, told the Cayman Compass he finds it a struggle to resist, when all his friends are smoking or drinking.
“It’s very hard to resist. I mean when you look around, there is always somebody there vaping, or drinking,” he said.
From school bathrooms, to playgrounds, bookbags and even hidden on their person, students are resorting to crafty ways to sneak the products into school, where they either use them themselves or resell to other children.
His older brother has also encountered similar struggles.
“There is pressure to use drugs, not because people are telling you to use it, because if they offer it and you say no, then they won’t force you,” said the older brother. “But after a while, when you sit there you start asking yourself if you should use it as well or just sit there and be awkward?”
The temptation is worsened by what both boys have described as an overwhelming sense of boredom.
“I think that most people use drugs because they are bored. There isn’t much to do in Cayman, so that’s why they end up trying these drugs and getting addicted,” said the younger brother.
The illegal supply chain
Alcohol, tobacco and other nicotine-based products are all sold over-the-counter in gas stations, bars, nightclubs, some supermarkets and even pharmacies. The law requires that labels, which state that the products are only to be sold and consumed by people aged 18 and older, are clearly displayed.
In addition, clerks and sales representatives are obliged to ask for ID if they believe a customer is under 18 years old. Despite these preventative measures, children are still finding ways to get the drugs.
“Most places like gas stations and even a few of the vape stores don’t check ID,” the older brother said. “Sometimes they will either get an older friend, or a friend who looks old enough, to go and buy the drugs. Sometimes they will even use fake IDs.”
Businessman Prentice Panton, who owns a store that supplies e-cigarettes and other vapes, told the Compass he does not support the sale of any nicotine, tobacco, hemp or alcohol products to minors.
“The reality is that there is only so much we can do. The same fake IDs that they use to get into the clubs will be the same fake ID they use to buy the products,” Panton said.
“Plus, once someone has bought the product, we cannot police how they use it or who they then give it to.”
The NDC’s survey revealed that, while students are getting drugs from friends, the number one place is often at home, by young people raiding their parents’ liquor cabinets and cigarette packs.
“The data shows that students are most likely to get alcohol at home, and other drugs such as marijuana, cigarettes and e-cigarettes from friends,” said Watson. “They are also most likely to use these drugs at home.”
No cure in sight
There is no silver bullet that will end the teen drug use problem in Cayman, partly because of a lack of consensus on what is to be done.
For parents, like Elizabeth and Sarah, a greater degree of scrutiny needs to be placed on businesses that facilitate the sale of drugs to minors.
Sarah’s sons believe the way drugs are marketed to children should also be revised, as the designs, colours and names given to the various e-cigarettes only serve to entice minors to experiment with the drugs.
For business owners, like Panton, parents need to be more engaged in their children’s lives and warn them about the dangers of drug use.