“Just say no” or “Just say know"?

Could controversial harm reduction information have saved Nicole Crowder’s life?

Lt. Jackie Long was the featured speaker at a recent drug forum in Yuba City.

Lt. Jackie Long was the featured speaker at a recent drug forum in Yuba City.

Photo by Larry Dalton

More info: For more information about harm reduction and DanceSafe, visit the DanceSafe Web site at www.dancesafe.org.

Nicole Crowder’s mother is ready to speak. A petite woman in jean shorts and manicured, red fingernails, she looks like the kind of mom whose house you’d go to after school. She takes the microphone at the front of a packed Yuba City High School gymnasium to address an audience that hopes never to be in her shoes.

As parents and teens sit hushed, some have tears in their eyes. This is just too close to home. No doubt, Kathy Ford wants people to understand that her daughter’s Ecstasy-related death nearly two months ago (see “Drugs and death,” SN&R News, May 16) can happen to anyone—that death is real.

“Sometimes it doesn’t hit me that I’m never going to see Nicole again, and sometimes it hits me like a train,” cries Ford, as her voice tightens and the microphone in her hand starts to shake. “Be careful, you guys. Be careful.”

The dilemma, however, is how? How should this crowd go about being careful?

Following the death of Yuba City High School junior Nicole Crowder, families are scared and the faculty is dumbfounded. How can anyone stop teenagers from doing what they will do? How can we prevent more deaths and other potential hazards of drug use?

Nobody seems quite sure what to do. Perhaps that is why hundreds of people have showed up for a school district forum on Ecstasy and other club drugs.

Still saying no
The air-conditioned gym at Yuba City High School is filled. Television cameras circle the room as teenage girls dressed in sundresses and high-heeled sandals walk around looking for each other. Parents file into the gym picking up brochures from the state Department of Justice, Attorney General’s Office, and drug and alcohol prevention programs. One reads: “Club Drugs: Community Drug Alert Bulletin.” A PowerPoint slide projected onto a large screen at the front of the room adds, “Sacramento—Rave Capital of the World.”

In the second row of the audience, four people wear matching, white T-shirts with pictures of Nicole Crowder. One of these four is Crowder’s mother, Ford. The forum opens with humbled pep talks from administrators and frank comments from students, as a group of teens read quotes from their peers:

“If I had enough money, I could get my hands on anything I wanted.”

“I was the lookout while my friends did lines in the bathroom.”

“Drugs are more available at school than at raves.”

Some in the audience are visibly shocked. Those who came seem attentive, ready to listen and learn. But this opportunity will become a standard platform for the war on drugs as seen through the eyes of law enforcement, a repetition of similar programs held across the country repeatedly since this war was declared many years ago.

The forum’s special guests sit at a table at the front of the room—five men representing the local narcotics enforcement team, the Attorney General’s Office, the school district, the California Department of Justice and the California National Guard (in uniform). The night’s featured speaker is Lt. Jackie Long, Department of Justice officer with clean-cut movie star looks who wears his holster and badge throughout his slideshow presentation.

Long explains that he’s seen this happen all over the country. Club drugs are everywhere, and we need to be informed. He spends a good deal of time explaining the biochemistry of drugs like Ecstasy and the neurological factors at play. He then goes on to show pictures of kids on Ecstasy that he downloaded from the Internet—“classic cases of Ecstasy usage” featuring kids with pacifiers, blow-pops and vapor rub masks; girls kissing each other, kids with dilated pupils and clenched jaws, and one girl lying on the ground staring into space. He talks about kids being more sexually oriented during Ecstasy use and of kids stripping down because they’re sweating so profusely. He shares all of this, he explains, so that parents can know what’s going on. It’s enough to scare any parent to death.

While Long speaks, two men in their 20s shake their heads while taking notes. Every once in a while, one will lean back in frustration, rub his hands over his head, smile and sigh. This is Brian Oley, volunteer president for the local chapter of DanceSafe, an international nonprofit organization that promotes safety and harm reduction in the rave and nightclub community.

DanceSafe provides a range of drug information from a “Your Brain on Ecstasy” Web site slide show to first-aid basics to, the most controversial, on-site pill testing. DanceSafe works at raves and clubs where people ready to take a pill can approach a DanceSafe volunteer to have their pill tested for lethal substances increasingly found in adulterated pills. DanceSafe volunteers also work the crowded clubs and raves looking for anyone who is in trouble or needs help.

“We’re not saying your pill is safe, go ahead and take it,” explains Oley. “There is always an inherent risk in drug use. But we can at least tell someone whether these substances are in their pills.”

According to Oley, DanceSafe is highly effective because they are one of the few organizations treated by users as trusted insiders. “We’re literally the first line of defense at a party,” says Oley. “Kids trust us and will come up to one of our volunteers when they have rejected everyone else.”

Oley had hoped to speak at tonight’s event, but he was not invited. Instead, Oley stands to address the crowd during the audience question and answer period:

“I want to encourage everyone to research this yourself,” he says. “Your child is going to do what your child is going to do, and the best you can do is learn about it together. To say that drugs are good or bad is irrelevant. Drugs are a tool. If you’re going to use that tool, you better know about it. Instead of Just Say No, just say K-N-O-W.”

The crowd is silent. After an emotional evening of pep talks and law enforcement information, nobody seems quite sure what to do with Oley’s comments.

The forum closes shortly thereafter, but not before Oley tries to place some DanceSafe literature on a refreshment table. Oley has a stack of postcards about drugs and their effects, how to be careful and whom to contact for help. The tops of the cards feature a picture and the name of a drug. The Ecstasy card, for example, is lavender with a butterfly perched upon the “y” of “Ecstasy.”

“They are meant to be eye-catching,” explains Oley. “Kids pick them up because they look interesting, and then there’s all this information on back.”

But District Superintendent Pat Godwin has asked Oley to put his materials away. He has not heard of DanceSafe before tonight and does not know what these cards say. Oley packs up his materials and shakes his head. “They’re going to keep doing it,” he says. “It’s so frustrating; we could be saving lives.”

Trying something new
There is a certain irony to Godwin’s statement of not knowing about DanceSafe or its mission. Just days before Crowder’s death, Oley had been in touch with Yuba City High School in efforts to establish a relationship with the school’s staff and students.

According to Oley, deaths related to pure Ecstasy, or methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), are extremely rare. Most Ecstasy deaths have occurred when Ecstasy was mixed with additional substances, or when heatstroke, dehydration or hyponatremia (drinking too much water) occur. Although heatstroke is possible even when sober, Ecstasy adulterants such as DXM (a cough suppressant that, in even small doses, quickly raises the body temperature) and PMA (a drug that can cause a sudden, large and potentially fatal rise in blood temperature, body temperature and blood pressure) can, and have, contributed to heatstroke when in warm, crowded conditions. DXM can be found in over-the-counter cough syrup, and PMA is cheap and easy to manufacture, making it an increasingly prevalent substance.

At press time, results of final tests to determine exactly how Crowder died were still pending. So the question then remains, could her death have been prevented if she had access to information provided by groups like DanceSafe, if she knew that her pill may contain lethal substances, or if she and her friends had responded differently to her bad reaction to the drug?

“Whether or not DanceSafe information itself would have helped is irrelevant, because we can’t determine that without having been in her place,” responds Oley. “The important question becomes, if Nicole and her friends had known how to get accurate and non-biased information on these drugs, beyond the myths and ‘Just Say No’ education she already had, and through that knew more about what she was doing, and what to do if something went wrong, would she still be alive today? Yes, I believe she would be.”

Crowder’s mother dismisses DanceSafe’s life-saving potential, primarily because of the pill-testing focus. “I just cannot get behind that,” she says. “All the kids took the same pill, and Nicole is the only one who died or had any reaction. It was just something unique to her biochemistry.”

Organizations like DanceSafe operate in a gray area many parents and administrators aren’t willing to enter, a space that blurs the line between condoning behavior and providing necessary information.

“It’s such a fine line between trying to keep your kids safe and stamping approval on something,” Ford says.

“We need to be real careful,” adds Joan Zappatini, an assistant principal for Yuba City High School who has been considering a number of programs for drug education at the school, including the one offered by DanceSafe. While Zappatini emphasizes the importance of open, honest communication, she says she could never support pill-testing or information that condones drug use in any way.

“We need to look for ways to resolve the problem, not just solve it,” she says. “Designated drivers are a solution, not a resolution, to the problem of drinking and driving.” The same is true with Ecstasy use, she says. “When people are using drugs, it’s usually to mask another problem. Those are the things we need to get to.”

Where does that leave kids at a party who have taken a drug and are in trouble? Most agree that kids must get each other medical help immediately, without fear of repercussion. Crowder’s mother equates it to a new law that allows mothers to leave unwanted newborns at the hospital without punishment. The same should be true for teens who take a friend to the emergency room after taking drugs, she says.

“Don’t think your friends are going to sleep it off,” Ford says. “Don’t avoid the hospital just because you think you’re going to get in trouble.”

Rubbing salt in the wound, another Yuba City High School student nearly died of alcohol poisoning on prom night, days after Nicole’s death. Fortunately, friends took the student to the hospital, saving his life.

Yet between “Just Say No” and rushing to the hospital lies a realm of information that could keep kids out of harm’s way: knowing appropriate first aid, recognizing the signs of tampered drugs, understanding drug contraindications. This is the kind of information Oley wishes kids—and their parents—had. This is also the kind of information that comes too close to supporting drug use, say many Yuba City parents and administrators.

It’s a tough call, reminiscent of the condom/sex education debate that also troubles today’s decision-makers. Do we provide condoms for our kids to protect them from HIV and unwanted pregnancy, or does that go too far in condoning teen sex? Or an even closer parallel: should IV drug users be allowed to buy clean needles in order to stem the spread of HIV and other diseases, as Senate Bill 1785 would allow?

In response to abstinence-only programs, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recently had this answer for his readers, “When the well-intentioned kid falls off the wagon, he or she ought to know what to do. The consequences of not knowing can be lethal. … Where else, in what other area, do we insist on ignorance and maintain that knowledge is wrong? This is not our way. This is a totalitarian concept. It amounts, truly, to abuse of power.”