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Chariho task force points to a positive: most students don’t use drugs

WOOD RIVER JUNCTION — The Chariho Task Force is ramping up efforts to prevent drug use and abuse, while also recognizing that the majority of the district’s students are substance free.

Several members of the substance abuse prevention and awareness group shared updates about current and upcoming programs throughout the Chariho area at a School Committee meeting on Tuesday night. Among them was Richmond Police Chief Elwood Johnson, who said his department would continue to review the logistics and potential benefits of training officers with Narcan, a fast-acting drug antidote that has been used to treat an overdose of opiates.

Johnson referred to the statewide problem of overdoses — 69 overdose-related deaths in Rhode Island as of March 21 — as a “health crisis.”

While marijuana and prescription drug use has been steadily rising over several years, Johnson noted that there has been a trend toward opiates like oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl and heroin

“This isn’t a Providence problem. It’s not a Woonsocket problem. It’s a statewide problem,” Johnson said, referencing several recent cases in the area involving opiate drug use, including a 17-year-old juvenile found with 6 grams of fentanyl near Chariho High School in January.

The state Department of Health has encouraged police departments to supply officers with Narcan, a nasal spray that provides a fast-acting antidote to opiate overdoses. Johnson encouraged area public officials to continue to research the issue: “Like any other concept, your best bet is to vet it and explore it thoroughly.”

He also said that other drugs like marijuana and prescription drugs can lead users down a path to more dangerous drugs, like opiates.

Many of the state’s recent overdose toxicology reports revealed marijuana in the users’ systems as well, Johnson said.

“When your decision-making is impaired under marijuana, it can also impair your decision-making towards using another drug,” he said. “The 15-22 age group in particular is at high risk because it’s the experimental stage.”

Johnson and other members of the task force emphasized the need for educational and treatment programs to stop students from starting down this path.

Terri Censabella, the prevention counselor for Chariho Middle School, said: “We’re not just in our offices. We’re in the classroom, we’re in the hallway, we’re in the lunchroom. We’re reaching out to educate these kids.”

Censabella and Deirdre Murphy, the high school prevention counselor, provide several prevention programs and therapy treatments, as well as chances for students to get involved in the cause through groups like SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions).

The task force members also noted, however, that just as crucial as spreading awareness about the risks of substance abuse is the need to recognize that the majority of Chariho students do not engage in substance abuse. In 2013, 71 percent of students from grades 7 to 12 did not smoke pot, according to survey results reported by Kathy Gardner, the group’s community outreach coordinator.

“We’re tired of talking only about the youth that are doing it,” Gardner said. “Let’s talk about those that aren’t.”

This idea, and the corresponding statistic, will be part of the discussion at an upcoming health forum organized by the task force on April 14. According to Gardner, emphasizing that the majority of the region’s students are not using marijuana might sway those students leaning towards substance use to side with the majority of their peers.

Johnson noted that the forum, and the work of the task force as a whole, could help to destigmatize substance use and addiction, explaining that the current stigma may prevent current substance abusers from seeking the help they need.

“Destigmatization is what we need,” he said.

For more information on the task force and its upcoming events, visit

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