Administration and Leadership, Cardiac & Resuscitation, Operations

EMS’ Role in Keeping Kids Away from Street Drugs

Issue 12 and Volume 37.

Sometimes we say things that make people angry. Sometimes we say things that make them laugh. And sometimes, in their most fragile, most vulnerable moments, we look deeply into their eyes and tell them the very things they need to hear—and remember for the rest of their lives.

I know that because they’ve told me so. And if you’ve been doing this a few years, I’m guessing they’ve told you as well—in cards and letters, and with Christmas cookies that arrive at your station years after you’ve forgotten the people who bake them.
Pay attention to this—it’s the most important thing that’s appeared in this column in 30 years: There are many ways to save a life. I don’t call you Life-Saver because you’re a red-hot resuscitator. I call you that because I have a feel for how often you reach past people’s plain brown wrappers and touch something broken, hidden deep within them.

We see a face of evil in this business that most people don’t recognize. Evil doesn’t always have the dimensions of an atrocity, or the scope of a war. I think it thrives wherever beautiful things can be made to seem mundane. As caregivers, we see it daily when we least expect to. In ordinary people who can find no source of joy in their lives. In families who’ve lost their income and their homes. In the debris of shattered marriages, and in the faces of kids who believe their lives are unimportant. You may think there’s nothing you can do about some of the things you see happening to people. You’re just an EMT. You’ll only see them for a few minutes.

But if your office is an ambulance, you have tools nobody else has. Time alone with them, for one thing. The perceptiveness you’ve gained from your years in the field. And private, personal, timely information about them and the predicaments that overwhelm them.

Think about kids, specifically. You probably know this, but maybe you haven’t thought about it: There’s a global industry today based on the belief that kids are dispensable and disposable. Its chemists mimic powerful benzodiazepines and stimulants with synthetics that are just unique enough to distinguish them legally from known controlled drugs, then market them as “dietary supplements.” They brew “sports drinks” that contain as much as 12% alcohol.

They know there’s a recession, and that during a recession people struggle harder to be happy. They know that busy parents are having a hard time being home. They know that some of their products are powerfully addictive, or that combined with alcohol they can easily kill people, especially kids. They know that kids are more vulnerable than ever. And they also know that because of the recession, busy regulatory agencies like the FDA can’t afford to keep up with them.
But they don’t think like you. They’re nothing like you. They don’t care.

A friend of mine walked into a smoke shop in our little town three days prior to this writing, and spent five bucks on a packet containing two “relaxation bars” that look identical to Xanax tablets. There are no active ingredients listed on the label, but one of the “inactive” ingredients named there is “phenazepam.” (Phen? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it. Azepam? Hmm. That, too.)
According to the iPhone app Urban Dictionary, phenazepam is a Russian thienobenzodiazepine with a 60-hour duration. Like all of the sports drinks and every one of the other dietary supplements we found—including some at local convenience stores—this one was packaged in glowing colors and labeled with a dreamy, kid-friendly typeface. 

There are dozens of similar products. Another one is a powerful form of cannabis called Chronic. Its packaging describes it as “aromatic incense, not for human consumption.” There’s a whole series of substances called 2C, or Tootsie, a blend of MDMA and LSD that has been implicated in numerous recent deaths.

You have great credibility with kids, Life-Saver, because you care about them; what’s more, they know you care about them. Next time you find yourself with one who’s made their first mistake with one of these drugs, tell them what they really need to know: that their minds and hearts are valuable, important and fragile. That street chemicals are dangerous and unpredictable. That the people who sell street drugs don’t care whether they live or die. And tell them one more thing: There is a dark place very near this life from whence we can never return.

Acknowledgment: Thank you to Lynn Riemer of Act On Drugs (, for providing information for this article.