Cary Quashen, Founding Director, ACTION

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal City Editor

Sunday, October 19, 2003
(Television interview conducted Oct. 9, 2003)

Cary Quashen     Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The half-hour program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is Cary Quashen, founding director of ACTION, a nonprofit organization that provides substance abuse and crisis counseling programs for parents and teens. Questions are paraphrased and some answers are abbreviated for length.
    Quashen will conduct a Valencia Recovery Center workshop on the signs and symptoms of teenage drug use on Monday at 7 p.m. at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital. Also, Oct. 23 to 31 is Red Ribbon Week, a nationwide event targeting drug abuse.

Signal: How young are kids now when they start using drugs or alcohol?

Quashen: That's a good question. We're seeing kids using younger and younger all the time. They come to us at all different ages. I was in a group last night and there were probably over 40 kids, and we asked that question: When was the first time you guys started using? And the average was between 9 and 12.

Signal: Here in the Santa Clarita Valley? Nine to 12 years old?

Quashen: Yes. That's a national statistic, and it's pretty close here, too.

Signal: What are they using?

Quashen: When you look at the younger ones — they're stealing a little alcohol from mom and dad ... and when they get a little bit older, they're getting a little bit of marijuana from their brothers and sisters, their friends. So it depends on the age. At 9, 10, 11, they start with the alcohol. But the average that we're really seeing, when they really start messing around with drugs, is 12, 13, 14, when it starts to get noticeable.

Signal: Who's bringing it to junior high schools and where are they getting it?

Quashen: They can get it anywhere. You go down on a Friday night to the malls, look around and see the teenagers hanging out, or down by the movie theaters. There are kids everywhere. Where you have this many kids in the city, along with that come drugs. They all know where they can get their hands on it.

Signal: Santa Clarita prides itself on how excellent our schools are academically. Are there seriously drug problems in our schools?

Quashen: I was in a group today in one of the schools, and again I asked the kids — there were about 15 kids in that group — and I was saying, statistics show that 50 percent of the kids will at least experiment with alcohol and drugs before they're out of high school. And these kids said you're crazy — it's more like 90 percent up in this valley. I actually debated with them, because that seems very high, but these kids were pretty adamant that most everyone is at least experimenting.
    It was pretty scary to hear that. But you've got to look at Santa Clarita. We have groups like this in a lot of different cities, and in every city that we're in, everybody says the same thing: Not in my town. There are no drugs here. Everybody says there's denial here; well, there's denial in every city. Nobody wants to believe that it's happening.

Signal: Valencia High School, Canyon, Saugus, Hart, Bowman — is it the same everywhere?

Quashen: I say absolutely, yes. I wouldn't say there are more drugs at Canyon than Valencia or Saugus — it's the same thing across the board.

Signal: What kinds of drugs are we talking about in the high schools?

Quashen: The most-used drugs right now are marijuana and alcohol, and then you've got the other drugs coming pretty quickly, which is crystal (methamphetamine). The scary thing with kids and drugs right now (is), they're also getting into over-the-counter drugs, where they're going to the local supermarkets and buying Coricidin and those kinds of drugs, and they're taking between eight and 12 of those things. We had a girl who ended up in an intensive care unit for taking 26 of them the other day.

Signal: Coricidin? That's cold medicine, right?

Quashen: That's cold medicine.

Signal: What kind of a high do you get when you take eight or 12 of those?

Quashen: Almost like LSD, like an acid high, they just kind of — they're out. But again, they have no idea what the dangers are ... they're doing anything they can to get that buzz.

Signal: When you think of parents who used pot 20 or 30 years ago, and now they've got kids of their own and they're smoking pot — what's wrong with that?

Quashen: We're really suffering from the old days when it comes to marijuana, for lots of reasons. One, 10 years ago, marijuana was 0.3 mg of THC. Now it's up to 29 mg. It's not the same drug. These kids start using this marijuana, and it's almost like night and day: They lose their motivation, their short-term memory gets affected, their long-term memory; they drop out of sports, their grades drop, the mood swings start, and it's crisis.
    The problem with pot — it's not the kids. We have a 24-hour crisis line, 1-800-FOR-TEENS — I get 15 phone calls a day from parents saying, thank God it's only pot. I want to jump through the phone and land on them.

Signal: So this is not your mother's pot anymore.

Quashen: No, this is not the old pot that we're thinking about. This is pot that's got some serious side effects. And it's pretty addictive.

Signal: Is pot a gateway drug, or is it a drug in itself?

Quashen: I don't look at marijuana as a gateway drug at all. Neither do most professionals. We look at it as a primary drug. Marijuana today is a primary drug.

Signal: High school kids who smoke pot today — are they going on to different drugs?

Quashen: Let's ask that question: How does somebody become a drug addict in the beginning? Everybody knows — I don't care how old you are, once you're old enough to talk and think, you know drugs are bad. It's just something that is taught to us. So when we grow up we say to ourselves, I've got these contracts. Contract No. 1 is, I'm never going to use drugs. I'm going to grow up and be a doctor or lawyer or TV star. And we mean it. We go through life knowing these are things we're not going to do. And all of a sudden we go into a room, somebody walks in, and they've got that gateway drug.
    You know what the gateway drug really is?

Signal: What?

Quashen: Cigarettes. Ninety percent of all people who use alcohol and drugs start with cigarettes.
    Somebody walks in and they light the cigarette up and you (say), no way, not me, and you mean it. But after sitting in there four or five times, it looks cool. It's dangling, you want to be like everybody else. You take that first hit. And you don't say to yourself, I'm going to get addicted and have to stop using this in 30 years. You don't fight that battle. You say it's only cigarettes, and I'll never use — drugs. And you mean it. Now somebody else walks into the room and they've got a joint. And they light it up. And again you say no way, not me — and you mean it. But after sitting in that room 10 times, nobody's dying, you can't see what's going on in their brains, you don't know what's going on at school. It just looks good and everybody's saying, try it. And you get curious. And you take that first hit, and what did you just do? You broke one of those contracts you had when you were 5 or 6 or 7.
    So you make another commitment: It's only pot; I won't use anything stronger. And you mean it. But you sit in that same room again, and somewhere down the line, someone else is going to walk in that room and they're going to have something else. And they're going to say, try it, and you're going to get curious. And if you're there long enough, you're going to try it. And once you do, what happens to most of these kids is, they drop that speed or they smoke it and they're almost immediately addicted.

Signal: Certainly when we were in school, kids who smoked cigarettes didn't necessarily go to that next step. Aren't we just talking about bad apples? How prevalent is it?

Quashen: Today it's so much more available than it has ever been before. It's there. It's more accepted, and in our culture, we really have to do a lot of things to change it.
    These kids really believe marijuana is organic and God put it there for them to smoke. What about heroin, cocaine and opium? They all come from plants, too. So God put (them) there, too. ... We've really got to do a lot more education with these children.

Signal: Tell us about ACTION.

Quashen: ACTION is a parent and teen support program. It's a place where parents can come and they can be with other parents who have been exactly where they're at now, and get guidance and get through some of these hard times. ... Kids can come and they're in a different room altogether with other children who have also been exactly where they're at now.
    Our goal is, you get somebody who's been using — let's take drugs for a minute. They've been using drugs for the last two years. Chances are, everybody this kid knows is using drugs. And kids have what I would call "herd" mentalities. If they're running around people and everybody's smoking, that's what they're going to do. If they're running around people and everybody is ditching school, that's what they're going to do. If now they're running around everybody who has said, you know what, it's cool to stay sober, let's go (a Narcotics Anonymous) meeting this week, let's go to a sober party this week, let's not use, let's not ditch — if they're now hanging around those kinds of people, they're apt to do that now.

Signal: Does ACTION have religious overtones like AA?

Quashen: No. It's a support group.

Signal: It meets how often?

Quashen: It meets weekly. Once a week at Saugus High School up here in this valley. And we have other components to it — we have intensive outpatient programs and treatment centers, if need be.

Signal: What happens in a typical weekly meeting at Saugus High School?

Quashen: The parents walk in and they're in their room, the kids go to their room, and they fill out what we call "love notes" — half a piece of paper that says what went well this week, what went wrong this week, and what needs to be worked on. Parents fill them out and (they go) to the counselors who are dealing with the kids. And the kids are filling them out and (they go) to the parent group.
    So when we're sitting in a group and we say, "Johnny, how was your week?" and he says it was good, we say, "What went good?" He says, "I fed the dog, I washed the car and I went to school every day." Well, (we say), "We've got the love notes saying you kicked the dog, you stole the car and you've been ditching every day." And the other kids (confront him, saying), "Hey, don't kick the dog, be nice to your mom and go to school today."
    So in small groups we go over those love notes. And we'll stroke the kids — maybe he did have a great week, and he fed the dog, he went to school and he washed the car — and everybody's going to give him applause and make him feel really good. And if not, then they're going to confront him and say, "What are you going to do this week to make your world better? Forget your mom and your dad, what are you going to do?" All right, (he says), "I'll go to school and I won't use drugs." They'll come up with little plans to help him or her do that.
    At the end of the group we all come together, the parents and the kids, and we give out chips for kids who have been clean and sober for anywhere from seven days to a year. In fact in the last three weeks we gave out three cakes for a year — three kids had a year clean.

Signal: There are 40 kids in an average meeting?

Quashen: About 40.

Signal: There are more than 15,000 kids in the local high school district.

Quashen: Yup.

Signal: So even if only 50 percent are using, that's at least 7,000 or 8,000 kids. Do they need intervention?

Quashen: My opinion is, as a parent, if I thought that my kid was using any kind of drugs, I would get into some kind of intervention program, fast. I wouldn't play with it.

Signal: What do you tell parents who say they'd rather their kids experiment at home where they can keep an eye on them?

Quashen: I had a dad at a group the other night and that's exactly what he said. There were about 35 parents in the room and he said, "You know, I have to admit that I told my kid that he's allowed to drink here, and I told my kid that he's allowed to smoke dope here, and I told my kid he can't do it anywhere else," and he said, "The only person I was kidding, was myself. By me saying that to him, I was just giving him permission to go out and use, and it sure backfired on me."

Signal: How so?

Quashen: Because once you start doing it, then, he said, he started doing it at other people's houses and his friends', and then it got a little bit out of hand, and they ended up in group — in crisis.

Signal: Let's say somebody has a kid in 7th-8th-9th grade. What kinds of signs should they be looking for?

Quashen: For drug abuse? I would say there are a lot of things that you can look for. The first thing is mood swings. They'll have a lot of emotional highs and lows. Then they'll isolate. They won't want to be part of the family. They'll avoid dinners and outings and that kind of stuff. The school grades will start declining — either really rapidly or slowly. Hygiene — they'll stop taking care of themselves, food, eating habits —

Signal: Mom goes into Johnny's room and looks for what?

Quashen: A lot of these kids will actually leave stuff around. If you go through their stuff you'll find little home-made bongs and pipes that they're smoking. You'll find rolling papers, you'll find Visene for their eyes, and a lot of times you'll even find little notes that they're writing. On their tennis shoes you'll see little writing, and pot plants, and kids are now wearing little mushrooms, which is a little sign of drugs.

Signal: At what point does it become an invasion of a 15-year-old's privacy for a parent to search a bedroom?

Quashen: I don't think I ever met a parent who woke up one day and decided they're going to walk into their kid's room and search it for no reason at all. If their kids are good kids and they're going to school, and if they're real level-headed and there are no problems, you shouldn't be in there. If you're suspecting that there's something wrong and there's a reason for you to suspect it, and the trust is gone, then I would suggest that you do go through his stuff and make sure that the kid is safe. It's our job as parents to make sure our kids are safe.

Signal: When did your parents first find out that you were using?

Quashen: I think they knew all along. But it was to a point where I was — in those days, there weren't programs that there are today, and there really weren't things that could have been done.

Signal: What were you using, and at what age?

Quashen: I started my drugs when I was about 13, just like everybody else, with a little bit of marijuana, a little bit of alcohol. Then it escalated and I ended up hitting my bottom at age 25. And I've been clean and sober — this Christmas Eve will be 23 years.

Signal: After you bottomed out, what made you want to come back?

Quashen: I kind of woke up one day and — lots of things were going on, but I got sick and tired of being sick and tired. I didn't like who I became, where I was going in life, and I knew that I had to get away from what I was doing.

Signal: Did you have help?

Quashen: Yes. I actually checked myself into a program 23 years ago.

Signal: Voluntarily.

Quashen: Voluntarily. And stayed there for six months.

Signal: How did you get into this line of work? You are schooled in what you do, right?

Quashen: Correct. I am a certified addiction specialist.

Signal: Why did you decide to devote your life to this?

Quashen: When I had a year clean and sober, I decided that I really wanted ... to make an impact on kids so that they didn't have to feel the way that I felt and go through some of the stuff that I've been through. So I decided that that was going to be my career and I went to work — (my) first job (was with) a recovery house with kids who were just out of youth authorities. I worked there for a year and I knew that that's what I was going to do forever. And for the last 20 years I've been working with kids.

Signal: You started the nonprofit ACTION in 1989. What was the need that wasn't being met by other programs?

Quashen: I was working in treatment centers where we were in hospitals and we were running acute programs, psychiatric and chemical dependency, and then we ... were running groups in the daytime in the schools. What was missing was the parent component. What we wanted to create was a place where parents and kids can come together, and get some kind of support and help. It's been incredible.

Signal: How long have you been doing ACTION programs in Santa Clarita?

Quashen: Almost 7 years now.

Signal: What other intervention programs are there to help kids in our valley?

Quashen: There are quite a few programs. The Child & Family Center has a good program, Valencia Recovery Center for adults has a good program, the SCV Youth Project has a good program, so there are a lot of things popping up right now that are really good for kids.

Signal: You do this as a career; how is ACTION funded?

Quashen: We get grants and donations, and then we have some other (things) that help generate some money. We have an intensive outpatient program over at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial hospital and in seven other locations, and we have a residential treatment center, now, that we own and operate, that we opened about a year and a half ago in Santa Paula, and we're going to be opening up a ranch here in Santa Clarita in about six months with 20 beds, hopefully, for adolescents.

Signal: Are there costs to participate in your programs?

Quashen: At the ACTION Parent-Teen Support Programs at Saugus High School, it's free. Completely no charge at all. And we got a grant through the city (of Santa Clarita) to do that. The intensive outpatient programs we have, we are contracting with every managed care insurance there is, just about, and same with our treatment centers.

Signal: Do you have plans to tackle adult drug abuse?

Quashen: Yes we do.

Signal: How?

Quashen: What seems to be working really well are intensive outpatient programs where they can come three or four times a week in the evenings, also go to their jobs and take care of their families, and be drug-tested and go to counseling three to four times a week — which seems to be very successful. It has been successful with adolescents, and we're going to definitely start doing this with adults. There is a good program and (Newhall Memorial) hospital right now called Valencia Recovery (Center), that we're helping out with.

Signal: Can you cite a success story?

Quashen: Fourteen years ago, 16 years ago now, I walked up to a group and there was a girl in a headlock. I'll never forget, it was pouring rain, and I went, "Oh God, here we go." I get out of the car and I have an umbrella and a briefcase. And I walked up and said, "Hi, I'm Cary," and this girl snarled at me. She's with mom and dad and stepmom and stepdad. And I said, "It's time to go to group, but you can't bring her in in a headlock." And he (says), "Well, I can't let her go; she has been on the streets for four months and she's been using speed" and blah blah blah. And I said, "You can't bring her in in a headlock," and he let her go and she ran, and the counselors started the group and I drove around the block and she was sitting on these steps, trying not to get wet, and I said, "Get in the car," and she snarled at me and I said, "Get in," and she did.
    The next day she checked into a hospital that we were working at, and they came to the ACTION group for two years after that — mom and dad, stepmom and stepdad, and I've been in contact with her ever since. But she called me about six months ago and said, "Remember me?" And I (said) yes; she said, "I'm in a psych hospital in Indiana." And I (said), "Jennifer!" She said, "I'm the head psychologist."
    There have been so many successes walking through these doors — half my staff ... were actually kids in the group; now they work for us.

Signal: What are some of the scariest things you've seen here in Santa Clarita?

Quashen: To put my finger on one is pretty hard. We actually had to send a girl away the other day, at 11 at night. We had sent people over to her house, and she had to go into a boarding school in Florida because it was speed that she was smoking. We've had a girl who has overdosed on alcohol three times at 16 years old, and she's alive now and in a treatment center. We had a girl, two weeks ago, took 26 hits of Coricidin, ended up in an intensive care unit and lived, fortunately. There are other stories — I mean, I've been doing this for literally over 20 years now, and we've lost some kids.

Signal: How are the sheriff's deputies in the Santa Clarita Valley in terms of getting involved?

Quashen: I think we've got one of the greatest sheriff's departments there are. We have other groups in other cities, but they are so pro-teen here and so involved in helping the children that it's really a good place to be.

Signal: What would you like to see the city of Santa Clarita do?

Quashen: Just keep doing what (they're) doing. Stay involved, do more education, just keep doing it.

Signal: Do you think there's a collective effort to address the problem, or contrarily, are people here generally in denial?

Quashen: I think there are always going to be people in denial, but this city is really doing a lot of stuff with the Blue Ribbon Task Force and the ... parent nights and everything else that they're doing. I think that we're quickly coming out of denial here.

Signal: Who should people call?

Quashen: 1-800-FOR-TEENS. That's 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Signal: What is Red Ribbon Week?

Quashen: It's a national drug awareness week, from (Oct.) 23 to 31. Different schools do different (things) to give awareness to kids about alcohol and drug abuse.

Signal: Any closing thoughts?

Quashen: I just want to say that there really aren't any bad kids; there are kids who make lots of bad choices. Hopefully we can help these kids make better choices.
    For the parents, if you think your kids are using drugs, they probably are. If you think it's one of those recreational-use deals, I don't buy it. I think recreational use is somebody who uses once or twice, not every day. I highly suggest that parents should get between their kids and any negative behavior that they're doing, any way they can.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m. and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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