February 19, 2014 | Volume 101 / Number 8

Is The Brain On Drugs, Or Are Drugs On The Brain?

Courier Special Series: The Truth About Drugs In Valley County

This is Part 2 of a series of articles focusing on educating the community about drug use in Valley County.

For The Courier
The brain at left has no exposure to meth. The meth-abused brain at right was tested 80 days after detoxification.

It's a chicken or the egg question. Which came first? Do drug users develop mental problems or do drug users use drugs to deal with their mental problems? The simple answer from most law enforcement, mental health service workers and chemical dependency counselors is both.

It's hard to say why a person might try drugs for the first time. Maybe they're under pressure from friends who are doing it, maybe they're looking for an escape from all their problems, or maybe they just want to experiment. One thing that is found with both alcohol and drug users is that one brain reacts the differently to the same chemicals.

Elizabeth "Liza" Dyrdahl is a licensed clinical professional counselor. She was licensed in March 1999 and has been working in Eastern Montana since July 1998. She's been in Plentywood, Wolf Point and Glasgow. She's also a licensed addict counselor. Her dual licenses help her serve an important role in this part of Montana.

"We see everything in Valley County, different diagnosis, different ages; we're rural mental health, it's just like an ER. We take everyone who walks in," Dyrdahl said.

When it comes to substance abuse, she said that alcohol has always been a constant but there have been periods of time where meth has become a bigger issue. She said that substances don't discriminate – in particularly meth, as it will be found in all economic classes, all ages and races of clients they visit with.

Dyrdahl said that a drug will affect each person differently. How much a person uses, how long they use a substance and genetics could determine the outcome. Children of addicts have a higher percentage to become an addict themselves and the environment of an individual could also add to the likelihood of abusing substances.

LeeAnn Pekovitch of the Glasgow Police Department is somewhat of an expert on chemicals and addictive substances. She went to college and got her degrees in criminal justice and forensic chemistry. She eventually went on to complete her master's degree, and her thesis focused on forensic surface contamination. You might worry about surface contamination in a house or car that was turned into a meth lab.

"Meth is a chemical that leaves traces even when it's gone," Pekovitch said. "It also is easily absorbed into the skin."

She's been helping with educational conferences for other law enforcement, educating kids and the community about drugs and their effects in the Glasgow area. Before she came to Glasgow, Pekovitch worked in Minot, N.D., and did chemical research on street drugs. She was funded through a federal grant and her focus on meth has helped educate others on the drug. She came to Glasgow in 2011 and started working full time last year.

While she's been hired on to help with patrols and investigations, she's continuing to educate the public on the effects of drugs. She explained that all drugs have benefits and aren't entirely bad. Problems tend to stem from long-term use and overuse. Many drugs that started out to help for medical reasons have become abused substances over time.

"I want to help kids make an informed decision, they need to know how drugs might affect them," Pekovitch said.

Marijuana might have some benefits with anxiety and other disorders but not everyone will receive those benefits. Studies have also proven that long-term use of the drug can cause depression and anxiety. A study was published in General Psychiatry that labeled the cannabis, a hallucinogen drug, as the third most widely used addictive substance, under tobacco and alcohol. More than 16 million Americans use cannabis on a regular basis with many starting to use the drug in their teenage years. The study also found that the substance has ties to psychotic illness. The study that was released in February 2011 also found that cannabis was related to earlier age at onset of psychotic distorters.

Pekovitch explained that meth was created was created for medical purposes as well. It was created to make super soldiers, to treat patients with Alzheimer's and to give housewives an extra boost of energy. While the short term effects might seem enticing the long term effects can be devastating.

"Things won't feel the same. You'll get a flatness in the effect. You'll never feel the same euphoric joy again," Pekovitch said.

Never being able to feel joy naturally and permanently could be a potential long term affect from heavy drug use. While not every person will become addicted the first time they use drugs, there's always a chance they could. Pekovitch compared it to a person trying a cigarette for the first time. They might never try it again, while others will continue to smoke. Some may smoke for a year and quit without any problems and others will fight their addiction to tobacco for years to come.

When you look into the brain and the body and search for how the drug is affecting you, it could vary to each person. Chemicals like dopamine and serotonin are affected with the use of drugs. These are chemicals that might control sleep, depression, anxiety and other functions. The problems facing adults is that drugs like marijuana today is not the weed they smoked 30 years ago. Meth currently in the area is more pure than in the past. Time-released prescription drugs are being misused and creating overdoses.

"We don't live in Mayberry anymore," Pekovitch said. "Kids are facing bigger choices today."

The best defense against youth using drugs is parents and the community educating themselves on drugs and what to look for. Valley County Attorney Nickolas Murnion has been giving presentations to the community as well on the effects of drugs. He's been doing a lot of research on how drugs like marijuana might be effecting the youth. He also believes that educating high school kids on drugs is too late because kids in junior high and middle school are of the age when rebellion starts.

"I'm seeing the use of marijuana at the age of 12 in many of my cases," Murnion said. "Brain chemistry isn't as talked about as the focus on the body and looking good with kids."

He explained that he's done some presentations to local clubs and high schools during Red Ribbon Week, but prevention has to come from the community and parents. Trying to reach children before they begin to experiment with drugs could keep them from incarceration or later treatment for substance addictions.

"A partnership with the public is important," Murnion said.

So what do parents and the community need to look for? Dyrdahl explained that trying to help those addicted to substances is a difficult task, especially if they don't want to get help or they can't admit they have a problem. She said that those who can keep an open mind and attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous have found success. Looking to those outside their comfort zone and learning skills to help with early recovery in their outpatient program can help those who are already addicted to substances.

Pekovitch says that parents should keep an eye on strange behavior. Empty pill packets and cough syrup bottles can be a sign they are abusing substances. If anyone comes across plastic bottles with liquids of unknown substances should call the police department.

The answer that all these local experts suggest is preventing use of a substance and getting educated. Pekovitch said that parents and community members should be asking questions. If they want to know something they are welcome to come in and ask.

Those facing a mental health crisis can call the Eastern Montana Community Mental Health Center in Glasgow at 406-228-9349. The center provides substance abuse and dependency services, as well as assessment. The clinic also provides outpatient care, intensive outpatient care and continuing car for those in need.

Next week: Understand how drug offenders are processed through the court system in Glasgow and Valley County. Take a look at what the costs are for the jail and the county when dealing with drug offenders.

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