Hannah Huffman didn’t need a health class to know the destructive powers of marijuana and meth, because by her freshman year in high school, she was addicted to both.

She spent much of what would have been her freshman year at R.A. Long High School in a detention center. She ran away from home multiple times. She sold her father’s 25th anniversary JH Kelly ring and her mother’s pearl earrings for drug money.

“They mess your life up so bad,” Hannah said of the drugs she abused. “I am so lucky to be alive. There were so many chances when I could have died.”

Hannah, 16, has turned her life around, but youth like her are costing Cowlitz County citizens and themselves millions of dollars in crime, treatment, lost opportunity, discipline problems and wasted effort. Local juvenile justice costs — much of them related to drug use — easily top $4 million. More compellingly, drug use is a major contributor to high local dropout rates, costing taxpayers and the students themselves tens of millions of dollars, much of it in lost opportunity over their lifetimes.

“I think the big cost is to the student themselves and their future," said R.A. Long Principal Rich Reeves. "If you’re a recreational user, you’re probably going to be for the most part OK. If it gets to the point you’re using daily, the impact is going to be greater. Attendance is affected. Grades become less important. The more they use, the harder the struggle is in their future.”

A hit every two weeks

Hannah says she picked up the marijuana habit from her mom when she was in eighth grade. She started slowly: two hits every two weeks. By the end of her eighth-grade year, she was smoking five days a week. She didn’t have the money to buy weed, so she depended on a network of friends, acquaintances and boyfriends to supply her. From time to time, she sold it.

Her habit degraded her love for learning and her drive.

“I didn’t want to do anything anymore,” she said.

Marijuana became a gateway to meth, which she began doing with her aunt the summer before her freshman year. Soon, she said, she was smoking $100 in meth daily, funded by friends, boyfriends and family valuables she stole and sold.

“I found out all of my friends were doing it,” she said of meth.

Hannah spent close to four months between October 2013 and September 2014 in the Cowlitz County juvenile detention center for resisting arrest, drug possession and running away.

She repeatedly sobered up, then relapsed. In April 2014, her father sent her to Northwest Behavioral Healthcare Services in Gladstone, Ore. Rehab didn’t curb her habits, though.

“I was on and off clean, and on it and not on it, and running away,” she said.

She would eventually attend rehabilitation twice for a total of two months, racking up a $3,000 tab her father is still paying off.

Drugs drive juvenile crime

Like adult drug use, juvenile drug use is often the bedfellow of juvenile crime.

Cowlitz Superior Court Judge Marilyn Haan handles most juvenile cases in Cowlitz County. She estimates that 90 percent of the juvenile criminal cases she handles involve drug use in some way. She’s witnessed many youths who inherit drug problems from family members.

“These kids come along who are supposed to have a different outcome, and they can’t,” she said. “Many days I feel like I’m sitting there being a mom.”

That's very expensive parenthood. The county spends $3.75 million running the juvenile detention center and probation department, and that figure does not include mental health and education services, indigent defense, prosecution and enforcement costs, and costs to victims and schools. The Cowlitz Office of Public Defense estimates it spends at least $200,000 on juvenile defense, and the County Prosecutor estimates his office spends $127,000 on payroll for juvenile prosecution.

Of the prosecution office's 130 juvenile cases this year, 26 involved alcohol and/or drug charges. Of 93 cases sent to diversion programs such as drug court, 20 involves alcohol and/or drug charges. 

In addition to taxing the criminal justice system, youth drug abusers undercut schools and waste taxpayer money in many other ways. Two cases in point: the costs to schools to boost security and the education money wasted when students are suspended or expelled.

For example, in the 2014-2015 school year, Longview suspended or expelled 25 students for 353 days because of drugs. In the same year, Kelso suspended or expelled 45 students for 1,343 days because of drugs.

Schools also hire security and drug prevention staff. Between an intervention specialist, a Kelso police officer and a second security officer for Kelso High School, the school district spends about $172,000. Longview pays about $111,000 for one security officer but does not have a designated intervention specialist.

Security officers are important for larger schools, says Reeves, to help students and parents feel more safe and to handle drug, weapons and assault issues among others.

Dropout crisis

High local dropouts rates are the most costly consequence of juvenile drug abuse.

Numerous studies have demonstrated a clear link between the two. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research estimated high schoolers who battled substance abuse before they were 18 were three times as likely to drop out. A 1995 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry estimated substance abuse before graduation increased the dropout risk two-fold.

Of the class of 2013, 91 students dropped out from Longview high schools, and 48 dropped out of Kelso High School.

Ben Hoppie, a chemical dependency professional with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, estimated that, conservatively, 75 percent of dropouts in Cowlitz County are affected by substance abuse. Hoppie himself dropped out of high school in California when he was a sophomore because of drug addictions. He’s been a chemical dependency professional for close to three years.

“It’s the factor. They go hand in hand,” Hoppie said. “Why else would you drop out?”

R.A. Long Principal Reeves said a student's decision to drop out is often the product of a complicated web of problems, some of which originate with or contribute to drug use.

"It could be home life," for example, he said. "All of that is spun into self-medicating. The less you’re in school, the less connected, (and) that increases your chances of not walking back through the doors.”

National Public Radio estimates that dropouts cost the nation anywhere from $320 billion to $350 billion dollars in lost wages, taxable income, health care, welfare and incarceration costs annually. According to a 2012 City University of New York/Columbia University study, each dropout costs society nearly $600,000 over their lifetime. This means that every 100 dropouts cost themselves and taxpayers nearly $60 million over their lifetimes.  

Moving forward

Had Hannah not recovered from her addictions, she said she would certainly have dropped out.

She said the support of her father, boyfriend and the team at juvenile drug court, and the needs of her unborn son, Maecyn, have kept her on the right track. Maecyn is expected this August. Hannah graduated from drug court on June 24.

“(My dad) always knew I had it in me,” she said. “I didn’t know it back then.”

In the back of Hannah’s mind was the reminder of potential careers as an emergency room or traveling nurse. Hannah said she was always smart, but she got off track.

“I’ve always had goals,” she said. “I knew with (my) felonies, I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere in life.”

Instead, she got clean, transferred to Mark Morris High School and just completed her sophomore year with a 3.5 GPA.

Manager of Cowlitz County’s juvenile drug court SAFE Court, Adam Pithan, sees the potential in youth like Hannah.

"I see the strength in people," Pithan said. "There’s probably a lot of people in this community who don’t understand that if you do drugs, you can’t just stop.”

Hannah said she wants to pass on her lessons about drug use to Maecyn.

“I wanted to keep (Maecyn) away from it as much as possible,” she said. “Maybe I can scare the crap out of him.” 

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Contact Daily News reporter Lauren Kronebusch at 360-577-2532 or lkronebusch@tdn.com.


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