Counselor takes anti-drug message to school

A Parkville High School senior donned a thick pair of what police call "drunk glasses." As her classmates watched, she reeled, nearly stumbled and only missed hitting a pole because she had her hands outstretched.

"It was crazy!" said Laura DeGuzman. "I couldn't see or focus. I couldn't tell where objects were."

The glasses, which simulate what it feels like to be legally drunk, were among the many props that Michael Gimbel, a substance abuse counselor, includes in his anti-drug presentations. He addressed Parkville's advanced health students last week and as usual, he found that teens are increasingly familiar with popular brands of alcohol and glitzy packets of synthetic drugs, he said.

Every time Gimbel mentioned a trendy drink or recreational drug, he asked how many of the high school juniors and seniors had heard of the product, seen it for themselves or knew someone who had tried it. Invariably, dozens of hands went up.

Heather Foti, their teacher, was not surprised.

"I ask those same questions and these students are honest with their answers," she said. "They tell me things every day that scare me in my soul."

Synthetic drugs are available online, marketed as bath salts or incense and sold for about $25 a packet. To demonstrate how accessible the drugs are, Foti allowed students to search online, a classroom exercise that demonstrated how easily a consumer can locate those products.

"The marketing is so clever it was not even blocked on the students' log in," Foti said. "On TV and the Internet, all we see is the fun side of these drinks and drugs. Kids are not getting the educational side and seeing what really happens afterward."

The products are marketed to youths, Gimbel said. "Without you, there is no future business for these guys."

Many in the class were stunned recently by the death of a 13-year-old Parkville Middle School student, whose sibling is their schoolmate. The youth died in an accident last month, after he became ill from an afternoon of drinking Four Loko, an energy drink with alcohol. He fell from his family's car into the path of an oncoming vehicle.

"Even if this tragedy had not happened, I would still want this presentation," Foti said. "The more facts available to these kids, the better decisions they will make. We need to bring in experts to educate them."

Gimbel speaks candidly as he shares the experience of his own youth, when he went from binge drinking in the eighth grade to hardcore drug use before he graduated from high school. He talks about 30 years of sobriety, training and running in marathons and his drug education program.

"I care about you," he said. "I want you to make good decisions. This presentation is for you. Ask anything you want. Everything we talk about stays in this room."

Teens don't drink as often as adults but when they do, they drink more, he said. He showed them a beer bong that promotes binge drinking or imbibing as much as possible as fast as possible. With a diagram of a brain, he showed how quickly binge drinking can flood the brain with alcohol. The potentially deadly activity relaxes inhibitions, impairs judgment and ultimately causes the drinker to pass out.

"Last year, on college campuses, more than 2,000 students died of alcohol poisoning," he said.

Now manufacturers are marketing energy drinks laced with alcohol, some of the strongest products available.

"One 23-ounce can of Four Loko contains four beer cans worth of alcohol for less than $4," he said. "It is just like drinking out of a beer bong."

He spoke of the dangers of GHB, an odorless, tasteless drug that has been dropped in drinks of unsuspecting women and of Ever Clear, "the strongest drink there is" and one that is often added to a punch bowl. He showed a pair of flip-flops with space in one heel for a one-ounce flask, an upgrade from last year's shoes with a corkscrew in the sole.

"I am not preaching prohibition, even though that is my wish," he said. "As a recovering addict, I am doing what I am supposed to — educating on the dangers of alcohol and drugs."

Foti said she was impressed with Gimbel's candor and knowledge and how effectively he engaged the students. She plans to invite him back.

"He knows his stuff and he grabbed the kids' attention and kept it," she said.

Senior Daniel Straub tried on the drunk glasses at the end of the presentation.

"I don't drink but I have friends who do," he said. "I wanted to see how they see and learn what they go through so maybe I can help.

"I know what alcohol does and I know I don't need it," he said. "Drinking is really a waste of time. I have more important things to do."

Gimbel said he hoped Straub's was the prevailing attitude, but he added, "I am a realist. I know what is out there. There are 22 million alcoholics in the U.S. and a quarter of them are in their teens."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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