by Alice Marie Beard
May 2001

"I survived the streets of Bethesda."

That's my idea for a T-shirt logo. People who watch TV's Saturday Night Live would laugh because Bethesda is supposed to be a place of privilege, and it is, but that T-shirt logo wouldn't be for laughs. I am a Bethesda mom. We moved here when my now-22-year-old son was three. We moved from an almost ghetto-like apartment complex into the neighborhood where we've lived since. The first my son saw a squirrel cross his path, he was more afraid than the squirrel: My son thought it was a rat because that was what we had outside the apartment complex that was populated by law students, graduate students, and life's failures. My son got used to squirrels; Bethesda's loaded with them. And it has plenty of trees, and open spaces, and houses with more bathrooms than people living in them, and plenty of money, and few parents home during the day, and fewer parents who know what goes on.

I began knowing the kids of Bethesda as a Camp Fire leader, taking them hiking and camping, trying to teach them to give service. I have continued knowing them as a mother doing battle against them.

Drug and alcohol use among Bethesda kids is high. Boozing and toking are typical exposures for 9th graders in the area. Private school, public school; it makes no difference. The kids here tend to smoke marijuana in pipes; it's easier than rolling. The booze often comes from parents' liquor cabinets, or from six packs left over from parents' parties. The kids seldom have to pay for it. It's "just there." Many kids who use pot will never pay for it; it, too, is "just there." Yes, someone pays for the pot, but these are kids with ready access to too much money, and they freely share their pot with friends. At the low end of the "suppliers" are the kids who aren't making any money, and who don't think of themselves as supplying. They do it for cost, making no money, and gaining only "friends." The very kids most at risk for being used in such ways are the ones who were treated as outsiders before. Hey, life's tough: This is the DC area, and kids learn early how to use and take advantage of those who want even temporary inclusion as a "friend."

Not all Bethesda parents share my opinions about pot use. I sat in a meeting with other parents as we discussed how to deal with the problem, how to work at keeping our kids away from it, how to beat them at their own game. I argued for getting tough, even getting mean if that's what it took. One mom completely disgusted me. She is a lawyer with an NYU law degree, and she's a mom with a son who smokes pot and knows how to beat the pee tests. The mom thinks his knowing how to beat the test shows how smart he is, and she laughed about her own pot use while in law school at NYU in the late '60s: "I was always afraid the cops would catch me." She was disgusting. I looked at this woman lawyer and said, "You SHOULD have been caught." Here was an officer of the court, laughing about having used pot. Would she see how HER use, how HER being part of the drug culture of the late '60s helped to spawn the nitemare we deal with now, the nitemare that teenagers are dealing with?

She and her husband want to get their son off pot. They plan to send him to a two-month "outdoor wilderness camp" in Maine this summer. Cost: $250 per day; $15,000 total. Not a dime covered by insurance. She's convinced her son will go willingly. Parents wondered HOW he could be forced to go if he resisted. I said, "He's under 18; hire off-duty cops." Another parent said, "No, there are official escort services that do that. Don't get the police involved." Bethesda parents tend not to like police in such situations.

Another mother said she hadn't used pot in college but had been around some who had: "Everyone used in the '60s." I said, "NO! Not 'everyone' used. I did not. The people I associated with did not." The mother argued, "Then you must not have been in college then." She was wrong, but not worth the bother of an explanation. These were people born into privilege; they are people whose parents had paid to send them to residential universities. I'd gone to a regional campus of a state university. Most of the students I went to college with lived with their parents and worked from 20 to 40 hours a week to pay their costs; the others were married with young children. Most did not use drugs because there was no spare money or spare time for dope, and because working class parents would not have tolerated it. "Would not have tolerated it" means that, if we had used, we'd have been hit, and we'd have been put out of our parents' house. There would have been no $15,000 "wilderness camps."

Conversation drifted back to that $15,000 wilderness camp. I acknowledged that my son had battled with the bottle and said, "I maneuvered him into six-months of boot camp. Now, he has to submit to random drug tests. If he ever pees dirty, he'll spend time in prison at Ft. Levenworth." The parents were shocked! They'd NEVER heard of such a tough program. Which one had I found? I hadn't intended to talk in code and was surprised by their question. I answered, "The U.S. Marines." It shocked them even more that the Marines would be so tough. I thought, "You'll spend $15,000 to send your son to a wilderness camp that some people would WANT to go to it. At the end, you'll have one more overly indulged, spoiled Bethesda brat who has not taken responsibility for anything, and who has been allowed to excuse both his behavior and the harm he has done to your family.'" I bit my tongue.

I spoke of my daughter, part of the current crop of Bethesda teenagers. I said I did not like some of her new "friends," and I hope to scare some of them into staying away from her. One of my tools is "Caller ID." A call had come from a number I did not recognize. I called back. The male who answered recognized the number on his end as coming from my daughter. NOT a good sign. I put on my "I'm sweet and dumb" voice and began asking him questions, because I'm just a confused mommy. He admitted to being 20, and he sounded like a thug. I said, "Don't have any further contact with my daughter. Don't phone her. Don't see her." By then, my voice had changed to me at my toughest. Bethesda moms weren't supposed to talk to him that way, and he responded, "B*tch, shut the f*ck up, or I'll come over there and beat you." My response was immediate and not thought out: "Go ahead. I'm armed. If you come to my house to beat me, I'll shoot you." A Bethesda mom in the discussion group said, "You could be arrested for making such a threat." The woman seemed shocked at my brutality. She did not seem shocked that a 20-year-old likely drug user would threaten to come to my home to beat me.

My first exposure to drugs in Bethesda came towards the end of my son's 9th grade at a Bethesda high school. My son's drug of choice was booze. It was a school nite; he had checked in after school, discussed his homework, and asked to go outside until 7 pm, "to play" within the boundaries of the neighborhood, to spend time with his oldest and best friend. In first grade, the two little boys had jumped across mud puddles together. He left the house with his buddy. At 7 pm, a cop was knocking at my door: "You need to get to the hospital. Your son is unconscious. He was drinking." My first words were, "My son does not drink." I was wrong. Twenty ounces of vodka in 30 minutes, on the empty stomach of a skinny 15-year-old. Alcohol poisoning. Stopped breathing in the ambulance. Arrived at the hospital in a coma with an EMT working an ambi-bag to pump air into his lungs, having grand mal seizures. I drove my Taurus station wagon mom-mobile so fast that I walked into the emergency room about a minute after my son arrived. I expected to find a groggy boy needing a good tongue-lashing. Instead, I found my son stripped to his undershorts, convulsing, tube down his throat, surrounded by six or eight professionals, several in long white jackets. The quick translation was, "They've got more than one ranking physician on him."

The lead doc looked up and shouted, "WHO LET THE MOTHER IN?! GET HER OUT!" I was ushered out by a policeman. When I was allowed back in, I was told not to speak. The doc had calmed the seizures with medication. My son lay there, attached to a breathing machine with a large tube down his throat, small tubes down his nostrils caked black from charcoal that was part of the stomach pumping process. Tubes in his arms to supply fluids and Rx drugs. Electrodes taped to his chest to monitor his heart, a catheter coming from under the sheet, draining into a urine bag. Still with a physician, a respiratory therapist, and a nurse. I said quietly, "He is Catholic. Has anyone phoned for a priest?" The doctor looked at the cop at my side and said, "She was not to speak. Get her out of here." His fear was that this Catholic boy in extreme distress would hear his mother's words as, "My son is dying."

The priest came. Two boys I'd taken hiking and camping came. The mother of another boy I'd taken hiking and camping came, like a mom, with food and prayers. She held my hands and prayed. The hospital put us in a little room with a hospital employee whose task was to "bond" with us in case the time came to ask for permission to harvest my son's organs. The lead doc came in and said, "He is not responding. He may not make it."

By a miracle of God, my son made it. He returned to school amidst rumors that he had died. For a few golden weeks, he opened up and told some of the world of Bethesda 9th graders. By the time of his drinking episode, most of the 9th graders he knew had been drunk at least once. Many had used marijuana. He'd walked into the school bathroom and found two childhood friends licking LSD stamps. Some kids would skip school, hang out in the neighborhood woods, and use drugs all day. A few were sexually active, during afternoons when they were expected to be home baby-sitting for younger siblings. One had gone thru an abortion; THAT one I learned from my younger daughter. She'd overheard older kids talking on the youth bus as it made its way to the marina. These were ALL white kids from an upper-middle class neighborhood where bottom-end houses begin at about $300,000, with dads and moms who are doctors, lawyers, and "Indian chiefs." I live in a neighborhood where former Vice President Al Gore and his wife used to sit on the ground across from my house and watch one of their kids play lacrosse at a neighborhood park.

This wasn't supposed to happen in "my world," but it was happening. I learned one boy had had a "brick" of marijuana. [Street price, over $2,000.] He'd been pulled into heavy-duty selling because a druggie held a gun to the head of his brother who was unable to pay off a pot bill that he'd run up. The brother kept saying he'd make good on the debt by selling, but he didn't really want to sell. The younger brother walked outside their Bethesda house one day when the neighborhood was as usual empty of most adults, found their new "friend" holding a gun to his brother's head. The older brother still didn't want to start selling drugs. The younger one said, "I CAN DO IT! I'LL DO IT! I'LL DO IT! Don't shoot my brother." Welcome to the Bethesda that too many teenagers know. (Uh, no, the drug pusher didn't get the gun legally, and no law would have prevented him from having a gun. Complying with the law was not "his thing.")

I wonder if the NYU lawyer-mom would laugh at that story.

I'm not a pharmacist. While I know that marijuana is not "health food," I also know that the biggest risk is from the kind of people one begins associating with to get the stuff, the lies a child tells when he enters that world, the distance the child has from safety when he gets into the world of using. Don't waste my time arguing that, IF it were legal, that danger would be eliminated. My task as a mom is to get a crop of children to adulthood -- alive, well, and able to care for themselves in a safe manner. Marijuana doesn't help with that task.

Parents who imagine their kid is using "only" booze or "only" pot are kidding themselves. The kids know that the two go together like peanut butter and jelly. If a kid has used one, assume he has used the other. Oh, sorry. They don't "use." They "experiment." Many of the parents in the discussion also liked to use the word "experiment." As in, "If Joey is just experimenting, I would understand. All kids experiment." I was in the minority among the parents hoping to find a solution. My recommendation was to get "ruff 'n' tuff," as one of my old Camp Fire groups named themselves:
(1) Remember that your kids have no 4th amendment protection against YOU in your home. Even if they did, you may have probable cause. Glean every bit of info you can from every source possible, in every way possible: caller ID, phone tracks, room inspections, computer inspections, backpack inspections, school locker inspections. (If your kid is under 18, YOU have the right to have the lock cut and to inspect what's in the locker.) Schmooz with your kid and his or her friends to get info. Lie if you must in order to get info that ultimately will protect your kid. Share the info with people you trust at your kid's school to get more info. Share what you learn with other parents. Depending on what info you find, share it with the police.
(2) Ground your kid. Don't give any privileges.
(3) Be as mean as possible to the kids you don't want your kid around.
(4) Don't hesitate to look at kids and say, "Cut your hair. Phone your mom and tell her where you are. Stop wasting your time and my kid's time on the phone. Stop skipping class." I am uniformly not liked by my daughter's "friends." As my niece tells her favorite dolly: "I'm not your friend. I'm your mommy."

A kid who gets involved with marijuana is at risk of people who would put a gun against the head of a teenager and say, "Pay up, or I'll kill you." That risk is there whether the kid lives in Bethesda, or in Rossville, Indiana; whether he lives in a trailer, or in an expensive house.

Kids who want out will admit, "If I try to get out, people will still call me to try to get me to tell them where they can get it." And kids will admit, "If I tell on anyone, I may be hurt. Maybe not by kids at my high school, but they have people they get it from. No one can tell anything." Once your kid walks into hell, as an "experiment," the only way you can get him out is to walk in after him and do your damnedest to scare the devil. Make it clear to your kid that you neither expect nor want him to give you names. His only task is to do everything you say from that moment forward. Take control of his phones, his friends, his time, his internet access, his clothes, his money, his car keys, his driver license, and even his urine. Move in like the 2nd Army and take charge of commerce, transporation, communication, and association. Send out a message to his "friends" that your kid has NO choice. Run a flag up to identify yourself as the craziest, meanest, nosiest parent on your side of the Mississippi. Let 'em wonder if you really WOULD take a garden shovel to some kid and beat him to death if he comes near your kid again. At the same time, make sure to provide safety for your kid: Find out if he owes ANYONE drug money; pay it off personally if it means your kid is out, but make it clear to the druggie that his side of the payoff is that he's OUT of your kid's life. Flush anything you find as you fine-tooth your kid's territory.

In Bethesda, the marijuana use is starting as young as 14, frequently in middle school. The middle school across the street from me with the park where Al and Tipper Gore sat on the lawn and watched their son play lacross? Security officers there are constantly battling marijuana and booze use.

Bethesda has some behaviors and practices that make it especially ripe for drug and booze use. (1) Kids have easy access to too much money. (2) Few kids have real responsibilities. (3) Many kids are given pagers and cell phones by protective parents who want Suzy and Billy always to be able to be contacted; Suzy and Billy quickly learn that pagers and cell phones put them into a world of secret, virtually untraceable communication. (4) Bethesda has houses where kids like to throw parties when parents aren't around. (5) Bethesda has a high rate of divorced parents with kids going back and forth between two parents, the better for a kid to lie about where he is. (6) Bethesda has a high rate of parents who are sometimes out of town for professional reasons, or even out to dinner for a few hours in the evening. The kids use those cell phones and pagers as a phone tree. Once the kid is "in the party circuit," as soon as there's a house free for an evening, a few phone calls can produce a "party," in other words, a place inside for teenagers to gather drink, drug, and generally misbehave. No parent wants to believe that HIS child is doing that, and few parents have the guts to phone other parents and say, "This is what I know." After all, it's not "polite," and we don't know each other that well in Bethesda. So, our kids continue in their hidden worlds.

And the streets of Bethesda get more dangerous with each new crop of teenagers. It's a safe place for NYU lawyer-moms who work downtown during the day and come back to Bethesda for shopping and sleeping. It's a safe place to put your money as money is invested in your house. The danger is for the teenagers who walk into a dangerous, hidden world, with just "an experiment" or two. Please, to other Bethesda moms: Be as mean as you can be. It will make my job of being as mean as I must be a little easier.

And, don't be afraid of these kids: The green-haired boy to whom I finally said in disgust, "Cut your hair if you want to be around my daughter"? He cut his hair about a week later. The Chinese girl who was using pot and isolating her parents with their lack of English? I found a Mandarin-speaking lawyer to tell her parents what I had learned; she got a whipping from an angry parent, but the whipping and new parental involvement may have saved her butt. The 20-year-old thug who threatened to come to my house and beat me? He's beyond my saving, but I may be the first Bethesda mom to tell him, "I'm armed. If you come to my house to beat me, I'll shoot you."

The following info has been gleaned from various sources:

The effects of smoking marijuana can be felt 8-9 seconds after inhaling smoke. The effects usually reach their peak within 10-30 minutes, and the effects generally continue for 2-3 hours. The user typically feels "normal" within 3-6 hours after smoking.

  • Possible effects of cannabis (pot, marijuana, 420, etc.):
    • diminished inhibitions
    • impaired perception of time and distance
    • distortioned perceptions
    • body tremors
    • chronic reduction of attention span
    • increased heart rate
    • dryness of the mouth
    • reddening of the eyes
    • impaired motor skills and concentration
    • frequent hunger and an increased desire for sweets ("munchies")
    • possible birth defects, still births, infants deaths (with long term use)
    • possible loss of sexual potency for males

  • Signs and symptoms of cannabis overdose:
    • paranoia and possible psychosis
    • sharp personality changes, especially in adolescent users
    • acute anxiety attacks

  • Marijuana contains known toxins and cancer-causing chemicals that are stored in fat cells for as long as several months.

  • Marijuana users experience the same health problems as tobacco smokers:
    • lung damage
    • chronic bronchitis
    • emphysema
    • bronchial asthma

  • Extended use increases risk to the lungs and reproductive system, as well as suppression of the immune system.

  • Occasionally hallucinations, fantasies and paranoia are reported.

  • Kids commonly use drugs for four general reasons:
    • They're bored.
    • They're socially uncomfortable and trying to fit in.
    • They feel angry, upset or sad and don't know how to process those emotions.
    • They are frustrated at a lack of success at school, home or socially.

The information above came from sources that are trying to discourage marijuana use. However, the information below comes from a pro-pot site. In other words, even people who are supporting the use of marijuana say marijuana use can be problematic. Here's what the pro-pot folks have to say about what marijuana use can do:

  • Persistent impairment of short-term memory has been noted in chronic marijuana smokers up to 12 weeks following abstinence.

  • Marijuana-smoking does cause changes in the heart and body's circulation characteristic of stress, which may complicate preexisting cardiovascular problems like hypertension, cerebrovascular disease, and coronary atherosclerosis. Marijuana's effects upon blood pressure are complex and inconsistent.

  • Smoking marijuana has the potential to cause both bronchitis and cancer of the lungs, throat, and neck, but this is generally no different from inhaling any other burnt carbon-containing matter since they all increase the number of lesions (and therefore possible infections) in your airways.

  • The carefully-designed NCTR study has found that marijuana use may consistently produce something akin to amotivational syndrome in adolescent monkeys. A full recovery to normal motivation levels was typically observed to occur between two to three months following cessation of exposure. [NCTR is FDA's National Center for Toxicological Research.]

  • Domestic marijuana's average potency probably doubled in the '70s with the advent of sinsemilla.

  • Driving in any inebriated state is adding complication to what already amounts to a constant life-threatening situation.

Encouraging words for parents:
Studies have found that, "[A]mong high school students who quit, parental disapproval was a stronger influence than peer disapproval in discontinuing marijuana use. In the initiation of marijuana use, the reverse was true. ... Social factors were not a significant predictor of continued use."

In other words, while your child's "friends" may be the strongest influence in getting your kid started, YOU, the parent, are the strongest influence in getting the use discontinued.

Letters home
by Alice Marie Beard

|the devaluing of human life| |guns in the desert|
breakfast with a cop who went to the Supreme Court|
a visit with Justice Thomas| |remembering a teacher|
London & Paris| |an abandoned kitten| |a kiss goodbye|
conversations with my father|


the chapters of
Alice's place:

|dead people stories| |old people-features|
not a law journal| |ONE HELL| |Camp Fire|
child sexual abuse|



Alice Marie Beard,
Bethesda, MD