Pills found circulating in Terrace, B.C., last year. Nanaimo school district is considering measures to help with substance misuse after a spike in students using Xanax or a Xanax-like drug earlier this year. BLACK PRESS file photo

Nanaimo proposes groundbreaking new position to deal with student drug abuse

Move coincides with spike in use of a Xanax-like drug in schools earlier this year

In what may be a groundbreaking move, Nanaimo school district is prepared to hire a mental health and addictions coordinator to help address substance abuse in schools.

Members of the school district’s business committee have recommended the board write the province to fundthe position, a role they think could be tested locally and expanded to other school districts.

It would be a coup if it works, said assistant superintendent Bob Esliger at a business committee meeting earlier this month, adding he doesn’t know of such a position at any other districts. The person would connect Nanaimo-Ladysmith Public Schools with other agencies like the RCMP, Discovery Youth and Family Addictions and the hospital’s emergency department.

It’s also considered one measure to help with substance misuse in a school district that saw a spike in students using “Xanax” earlier this year.

An Island Health information bulletin says over the last 12 months an increasing number of education, police and health care professionals on Vancouver Island have expressed concern about the use of Alprazolam (Xanax) in their communities, including Nanaimo, Parksville and Cowichan Valley. Incidents have been reported of “acute intoxications of teens at school, suspected overdose incidents involving emergency response and seizures by local police,” it states.

The prescription tranquilizer is used to treat anxiety, panic orders and insomnia and repeated use can lead to dependence. Tolerance to the drug can cause someone to take higher doses, increasing the risk of harm, the health authority says, although Esliger believes the drug used in Nanaimo is homemade.

He said incidents of kids from Nanaimo-Ladysmith Public Schools taking the drug happened at the end of January and early February.

“It was new and it was alarming because we would have two or three students in a secondary school show up in the office kind of quite intoxicated,” said Esliger, who told the News Bulletin it was happening in schools, at lunch time, not in the wee hours of the morning with kids on the street.

He also said spike the district saw around “Xanax” was that it was part of a concoction in a vaping pipe, “so it would go directly into your lungs, directly into your blood stream so it was an immediate scare for kids.”

Students sought help daily at the school office, either for themselves or friends. Esliger said students were not unconscious, but were watched over by first aid attendants until paramedics arrived. He is sure Xanax is still out there but not where it was in January and February.

Gordon Nowicki, Nanaimo RCMP youth liaison officer, also doesn’t believe the drug use is as widespread as it was, but said it remains a concern. He also told the News Bulletin he’s also heard of teens using substances like “lean,” a combination of pop and medicated cough syrup, and “poppers,” a blend of tobacco and marijuana in bongs, but said it’s the minority of students.

The district held a training session for counsellors and child, youth and family support workers to talk about Xanax and other drugs and has created information sheets for parents, teachers and students.

Asked if anything further is being done, Esliger said more child, youth and family support workers are in the budget for next year so they have more time in each school and he hopes to hire a mental health and addictions coordinator “to work with our staff in schools to really dig into this issue of substance misuse.”


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