MATT WILLIS, MARIN’S chief of public health, is pacing the rug as he
ticks off statistics, a frown creasing his forehead. We’d planned this
interview to discuss Marin’s high rates of teen drinking and drug
abuse, along with efforts by Willis and colleagues around the county
to bring those numbers down.
But things had taken a dramatic turn the day before, when news broke
about a “party bus” stopped by police near the Larkspur Ferry Terminal
with 33 Marin teenagers ages 15–17 aboard, along with jaw-dropping
quantities of hard alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs.
The kids, who hailed from practically every community in Marin,
had planned a six-hour joyride to celebrate the first day of summer, a
plan initiated by a Tiburon 16-year-old with a $900 cash payment. And
although the bus was stopped as it pulled out of the terminal, the trash
was already full of empty alcohol containers.
The situation has Willis rattled, and that’s understandable. Since
his arrival on the job in 2012, he’s worked exhaustively to raise aware-
ness about the county’s substance abuse problems, creating task forces,
“This isn’t just about the bus; this is an ongoing public health crisis
for us here in Marin. Our numbers for teen drug and alcohol use are way
higher than the state average,” Willis says. According to the most recent
data from the California Healthy Kids Survey, almost half of all Marin
11th graders and more than a quarter of ninth graders drink or use drugs,
while a third of all 11th graders and 10 percent of ninth graders qualify
as heavy drug users.
There are more shocking stats, too: over the last 15 years, drug-related
ER visits and drug-related deaths in Marin more than tripled. “We had
one accidental overdose death every t wo weeks from 2012 to 2013; that’s
about three times as many accidental overdose deaths as car vehicle
deaths,” Willis adds.
While the number of fatalities within the county dropped in 2014,
deaths are just the tip of the iceberg, he says. “We know that for every
overdose death, there are about 1,000 people affected by the problem.”
And, says Willis, county data don’t include the young Marinites who die
of similar causes while away at college.
“We’ve had too many of these tragedies recently, and the seeds are
here; those habits were established during the high school years, and
WE HAVE A SERIOUS PROBLEM ON OUR HANDS AND
WE’RE JUST NOT GETTING THROUGH TO PEOPLE.
— MATT WILLIS, MARIN COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICER
With more prescriptions, more opportunity, more access and
BY MELANIE HAIKEN ● ILLUSTRATIONS BY DAVE URBAN
more stress than ever, what is being done to help kids avoid drugs?