September 23, 2023

Staying Substance Free

SAFE in Northern Michigan weighs in on drug and alcohol use among teens of the North
By Jillian Manning | Aug. 27, 2022

Earlier this month, Northern Express spoke with the Grand Traverse County Drug Free Coalition and Addiction Treatment Services to hear about the trends in substance use among adults in northern Michigan. We learned that substance use and overdoses are on the rise—as has been reported throughout the country—but that local groups are working hard to provide community education, access to treatment, and recovery support.

With the school year about to start, we decided to check in on the kids, too.

The National Institutes of Health put out their Monitoring the Future survey each year to measure drug and alcohol use and related attitudes among students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades throughout the country. The good news: The 2021 survey reported decreases in commonly used substances—alcohol, marijuana, and vaping—as compared to 2020.

The bad news: According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, alcohol use disorder still affects over 700,000 youth aged 12-17, and marijuana use disorder affects 1 million youth.

And when it comes to vaping, approximately 2.55 million students reported current (last 30 days) tobacco use in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey, with e-cigarettes as the most commonly currently used product, cited by 11.3 percent of high school students (that’s 1.72 million kids).

The Local Problem
Northern Michigan has not been untouched. “I have quite a few friends who suffer from substance abuse issues, and it’s nice knowing that I’m trying to do something to fight against that,” says Mancelona High School rising senior Emma Moser.

Moser is a member of the Health Department of Northwest Michigan’s Substance Abuse Free Environment (SAFE) in Northern Michigan, a youth coalition serving Antrim, Charlevoix, and Emmet counties, which centers on education and prevention of alcohol, tobacco, and other substance use.

Project Coordinator Nichole Flickema describes the coalition as “youth-led and adult-guided” with roughly 70 students hailing from 9th through 12th grades participating in meetings and initiatives targeted toward their peers to raise awareness of the dangers of substance use. This includes creating prevention PSAs for topics like safe ways to deal with stress, how parents can lock up their alcohol, and the consequences of underage drinking. (The PSAs are available to view at

For one of their annual projects, SAFE conducts focus groups at seven area high schools. Their findings, especially as related to substance use in response to pandemic stressors, are far from encouraging. “Six out of seven high school focus groups in the SAFE region reported youth substance use in their community increased because of COVID,” Flickema says.

SAFE uses data from the The Michigan Profile for Healthy Youth (MiPHY)—collected via an online student health survey offered by the Michigan Departments of Education and Health and Human Services—which provides some indicators regarding which drugs are gaining ground in the community.

The 2021-22 school year data shows that 16.1 percent of students report using alcohol in the past 30 days. In that same time frame, 17.4 students report using marijuana and 16.6 percent report vaping. Flickema says that a drug to watch is marijuna, which is now outstripping alcohol, formerly a consistent No. 1 on the list.

“Every time you see a decrease in the perception of risk or harm, or parental disapproval or peer disapproval, then you see an increase in youth use,” Flickema says. “We see that only 36.5 percent of youth view marijuana use as risky, and that their perception of parental disapproval is at 81.8 percent.”

Flickema compares this to the perception of parental disapproval for alcohol, which clocked in at 90.2 percent. Nearly double the number of students—68.8 percent—said they thought using alcohol was risky.

When asked for her opinion on substances that are prevalent in the teen community, Moser replies, “It really depends on what age group you’re looking at. The older you get, the more marijuana use there is. There’s also a lot of underage drinking happening in multiple places.”

But, she adds, “a really big issue” is vaping.

“Vaping in school bathrooms—that’s definitely huge. I think part of it has to do with the fact that vaping is new enough where kids are like, ‘Oh, I don’t know how terrible this is for me.’ And the punishment [for being caught] isn’t harsh enough for kids to be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I totally won’t ever do that again.’”

The FDA has called vaping an “epidemic” among teens, and local school districts have taken measures like installing vaping detectors in bathrooms to deter use. Traverse City Area Public Schools is currently part of a class-action lawsuit against vaping manufacturers for advertising their products—especially the flavored ones—to teens.

The Local Progress
But the outlook isn’t all bad. Flickema says that even though marijuana use Up North is on the rise per MiPHY data (increasing from 13.8 percent in 2020 to 17.4 percent in 2022), alcohol use decreased from 18.6 percent to 16.1 percent. And prescription drug use—an ongoing problem for adults—remains relatively low: Flickema says only 2.7 percent of students reported they took painkillers without a doctor’s prescription.

Overall, she feels SAFE’s efforts in the community are making headway. “We have 69 percent of students [in the coalition’s three-county region] who have made a commitment to stay drug-free during the past year,” Flickema explains.

She also tells Northern Express about a recent opportunity SAFE participants had to further their drug prevention leadership skills. Seven young people from SAFE attended a national training conference this summer offered through the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA). Moser was one of them.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot more about being a leader,” Moser says. “I have never been super confident in anything like that. But especially after [SAFE] sponsored us to go to CADCA this year, I know how to make a plan and what to do to put that plan into action. … I’m looking to go into education after high school, so that [experience] will definitely be a really helpful tool for me for teaching kids and being able to be confident in what I do.”

Moser says that a few of the ideas she came away with after the conference including changing the lighting in certain areas of town—something she plans to go to Mancelona’s Village Council to discuss—and to create opportunities for high schoolers to talk to middle schoolers about the dangers of substance use instead of leaving those discussions to the grown-ups.

“I’m kind of excited for that, because I think it’ll go over way better than it would if we brought in adults,” she says.

Students in Antrim, Charlevoix, and Emmet counties can get involved with SAFE this year by completing an application (available at and committing to staying substance free.

“A big thing about SAFE is that it’s not just about substance abuse awareness,” says Moser. “It’s also about [community]. We meet kids from other schools and we become a very close group. … So SAFE not only prepares you to be a leader in the future, or prepares you to talk about substance abuse awareness, but it also gives you a nice group of people to belong to, and not everyone has that.”

To learn more about SAFE in Northern Michigan, visit

For the Parents
Flickema says there are several things concerned parents can do to help make sure their kids are staying away from tobacco, drugs, and alcohol. In addition to regular family conversations, she recommends the following:

“One of the big things that we urge parents to do is to lock up any marijuana or prescription drugs in the house. If there’s alcohol in the home, then lock that up. [The Health Department of Northwest Michigan] has alcohol locks for bottles, or we could get parents an alcohol lock for a cabinet. Because we know, whether it’s marijuana or alcohol or prescription drugs, the easiest place for youth to access them is from within the home.”

She notes that the health department also has free drug testing kits, which can screen for alcohol, TCH, and nicotine. Finally, she says parents should stay educated on current trends and new forms of drug delivery, like vaping, so they are aware of the signs that their child could be using.


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