Guest Column : We must reduce stigma with substance abuse |

Guest Column : We must reduce stigma with substance abuse

A few weeks back I wrote a column comparing the negative effects of marijuana and alcohol. Citing empirical evidence, I concluded that marijuana is safer than alcohol.

Apparently, my comments were mistakenly interpreted by some readers to mean that, “You’re for marijuana.”

No, I am not “for” marijuana. Nor am I “against” marijuana. What I am “for” is presenting the facts and then drawing my own conclusions based on those facts.

I do realize that others may draw different conclusions, and would hope that those conclusions are derived from expanding the fact base. That’s healthy debate. Otherwise, it’s personal opinion.

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Hoping and happy to further the discussion, I recently had the good fortune to moderate two panels on substance abuse sponsored by Tahoe Forest Hospital’s Wellness Neighborhood Program, one in Truckee and another in Incline Village.

Here, highly abridged, and perhaps prey to selective recall, are some of the more salient points culled from those events.

Adam McGill, Police Chief of Truckee, charted his surprise at witnessing adults publicly drinking at youth sporting events, the Town Fourth of July parade, and the Halloween parade, all events attended by children.

His point: While there is an underage drinking problem, that problem is amplified by an adult culture that condones parents who drink at public venues while their observant children conclude that drinking is cool.

Building on this thesis, Corine Harvey, executive director of student services for the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, noted that while parents are enablers, so are residents who encourage and “normalize” underage drinking by purchasing alcohol and hosting parties for minors.

River Coyote, director of Tahoe Truckee Future Without Drug Dependency, emphasized the need to educate youth about the dangers of alcohol and drugs on the front end, before problems take hold.

Lastly, Christi Goates, now a counselor, talked about growing up in an Incline Village awash with the ready availability of drugs and alcohol, her own descent into addiction, and the complicity and role modeling of adults then and now.

Goates explained that as a youth her suppliers include the parents of friends, and now, as a counselor she works with youth who smoke marijuana with their parents.

We also had a stellar panel for the Incline Village event at Sierra Nevada College.

Katherine Loudon, Director of Counseling for the Washoe County School District, talked about the importance of family dynamics in substance abuse, while counselor Charles Stookey emphasized the importance of individual and group counseling.

Washoe County Sheriff Michael Haley explained that jail can serve a “detoxification” function for substance abusers, as did Alan Tiras, Incline Village/Crystal Bay Justice of the Peace. Tiras also focused on the baleful impact of marijuana use in teens, while Haley noted that jail has become the holding facility of last resort in the absence of community substance abuse resources.

Haley explained that substance abuse problems are fundamentally mental health issues and that law enforcement has neither the means nor the skill set to address them over the long haul (more about this fundamentally critical issue in a future column).

Our last panelist, an obviously emotional and anguished Patrick Cashell, recovering meth addict and son of Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, talked about his own personal hell of methamphetamine addiction, and its impact on his family.

Cashell, born to a prominent family, made it clear that a “good family” providing abundant life opportunities may not inoculate you from substance abuse. His presentation, searing in its intensity, had the audience mesmerized.

The audience turnout in both Truckee and Incline was disappointingly small given the weight of this issue in community life. This was no surprise, as the stigma and humiliation that routinely accompanies identification of substance abuse problems ironically results in a reluctance to talk about them.

But talk we must if our communities hope to address this public health epidemic. 

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at


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