by Gary Nelson
This is the story of a young man, not yet 19 years old, who went to sleep one night and never woke up.
It is the story of his mom, who has dedicated her life to trying to prevent more parents from finding a cop at their front door, as she did one night in 2003.
And it is the story of the tiny organization where she works, DrugFreeAz.org, and its statewide educational campaign to give parents a fighting chance to save their kids from the sometimes-deadly embrace of drugs. It is one of many social-service organizations supported by The Arizona Republic and 12 News' Season for Sharing campaign.
One might think, two generations removed from the acid-dropping, pot-rolling days of Woodstock, that today's parents and grandparents would be tuned in to the danger of drugs.
But Kim Obert wasn't.
The Phoenix woman, 55, was one of those moms who tried to do all the right things. Church. Scouting. A strong family. All the stuff she thought would keep her son, Kent Edwards, away from drugs.
When he was about 15, the wheels began to come off anyway.
"He was out for the evening with friends and called and said, 'Mom, I'm calling you because I don't want you to worry. I'm going to go to a party this evening. I don't want you to worry. I'm safe. I'll be home in the morning. Goodbye. I love you.' "
The party, Kim learned later, was a rave.
"I knew right then that something was wrong. ... So I waited up for him, and when he got home very early in the morning, I just told him, 'OK, life as you know it has just changed because of this.'
"We found a different school for him, took him to his pediatrician, had a discussion with him, took him to the school counselor. Did just about everything I thought of to make sure this kid was going to be OK."
A son's descent
Two years later, Kent had graduated from high school early. He had a job. He was in college. And he needed to have his wisdom teeth removed.
Kim, per doctor's orders, picked up his painkillers in advance.
"A couple days before his surgery, I happened to notice the bottle looked different and took them out and counted them, and there were several missing, and (I) confronted him.
"He admitted it and said, 'Mom, I'm sorry, I took them.' We sat down and just had a very blunt and open conversation because I don't really understand abuse or people's desire to take drugs. He told me to close my eyes and to think of a time when I had felt better than anything. ... And he said, 'Now, the first time you get high, it's better than that.' "
And, he said, after that first time, it's impossible ever to get that feeling back. So the drugs become stronger, the use more frequent.
"Sadly ... I still didn't understand my son was in peril. If I knew then what I know now, I would have put my child in treatment, in full-time live-in treatment to try to help him.
"We went through a lot of monitoring again and keeping very close watch on him, and again he did very, very well. So well that at 18 he wanted to move out.
"And there were a couple of kids that came over. ... They brought the OxyContin with them. I saw that as a text message on his phone. They crushed them up and they drank beer and my son went to sleep and just simply never woke up. He was discovered by his roommates the next day. I had that knock on the door."
Pressing the message
After more than nine years, Kim tells this story with a dry eye. She will tell it over and over again during innumerable seminars she conducts with parents and others around the Valley.
Kim got involved with DrugFreeAz.org as a volunteer about three years after Kent died and went to work for them full time three years later.
The Arizona group's CEO, Leslie Bloom, said it is an affiliate of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which grew from the brainstorming of a group of advertising executives during an epidemic of cocaine abuse in the 1980s. Shocked by the 1986 cocaine death of a budding basketball star named Len Bias, the ad executives reasoned that if they could sell soap and cereals, maybe they could "unsell" drugs.
The result: the famous ad likening a fried egg to "your brain on drugs."
Eventually, Bloom said, the organization moved from public-service ads to a research-based advocacy role.
The local group has a staff of only six, Bloom said -- and that means keeping its focus very narrow. "We are pure prevention," Bloom said. "We want to keep people from going down that road."
The group offers no treatment services but provides references.
Besides, Bloom said, treatment isn't the best option, because the best option is never to start.
"Hollywood glamorizes treatment," Bloom said. "Well, you're in recovery, most times, for the rest of your life. It's not an easy fix. It's not successful for everybody."
Start talking early
DrugFreeAz.org focuses on the parents of grade-school and junior-high kids, Bloom said, because by the time kids get to high school, the game could be lost.
"Ninety percent of addiction in this country starts in the teen years," she said.
In addition to seminars, the group is pushing heavily into online education. This year's allocation from Season for Sharing will help DrugFreeAz.org beef up its video learning center, which offers an expanding array of online videos aimed at parents, teens, health-care providers and military families.
The information is essential, DrugFreeAz.org program director Shelly Mowrey said, because the drug world never stays the same.
Take marijuana, for example. "Marijuana has changed a lot since the 1960s and 1970s. Not only is it a lot stronger, the age of first use is now just 13 years old," Mowrey said. "Back in the '70s, the average age for first drug use was 19."
The group also has focused in recent years on prescription drugs. Kids are more likely to abuse them, Kim Obert said, because they have an air of legitimacy and, because they're legal, they're assumed to be safe.
Another new target is a class of drugs sold in head shops, smoke shops and convenience stores under generic terms such as "bath salts" and "window cleaner." The drugs, Obert said, are synthetic chemical combinations that constantly change in an effort to stay one step ahead of the law.
"We will always be one step behind," Obert said, "because somebody out there, their sole purpose in life is to create the next drug that kids will use, because it's all about money."
Still, Mowrey said, the "big three" threats to young people are alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs.
"We are losing more kids to prescription drugs than were ever lost in the cocaine and heroin days," Mowrey said.
According to the Arizona Youth Survey, those efforts may be paying off. The survey, conducted by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, is a comprehensive look at the attitudes and actions of Arizona's young people. Because it is anonymous, experts believe it is reliable. The latest survey indicated unauthorized prescription drug use on a steady decline among Arizona's eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders since 2008. Still, one in six kids had tried them.
That impels Obert to press on with her work.
She takes pictures of her son and her family with her to the schools and workplaces where she gives presentations. "I say, 'Look at that family. Look at me. Do I look like the mother of someone who would die of a drug overdose? I look just like your next-door neighbor.'
"It kind of takes people aback a little bit, and they pay attention a little bit more. I think it scares them a little bit."