VALPARAISO | Tom Moeller said the growing acceptance of marijuana use across the country is making it tougher for him and others working to help young people with substance abuse problems.

As marijuana gains legitimacy and becomes legal in more states, young people find it easier to justify their use of the drug, Moeller said, who works as a counselor at the Family & Youth Services Bureau of Porter County.

This cultural shift is having a similar effect on adult users, he said, but is of particular concern for young people, because marijuana and alcohol are a couple of the most abused substances among that age group.

Area counselors report a number of challenges when attempting to address substance abuse problems among young people.

Gwendolyn Horton, who counsels adults and youth at Franciscan Alliance in Dyer, said among the key differences she notices between the two groups is that young people wind up using drugs and alcohol as part of a desire to fit in and address their lack of identity.

"They make poor choices," she said.

They then surround themselves with others using drugs and/or drinking alcohol, which further blinds them to healthier alternatives, said Brenda Comer, a therapist at the Crisis Center Alternative House in Gary.

"They only know the kids they are hanging around," she said. "We do have kids who don't use drugs, who don't drink."

Moeller said statistics show less than half of all high school seniors have used marijuana. Alcohol use is somewhat higher, he said.

Young people also fail to see the consequences of their drug or alcohol use, which is part of the developmental issues associated with this age group, Comer said.

"They think that it's OK," Horton said.

Yet when young people start drinking alcohol or using drugs as early as the age of 8, which Horton has seen, it alters their brains during a sensitive period of development.

A big part of the response must involve creating a healthier support system, Moeller said. For young people, this means involving their family in the treatment, he said.

Comer said she sees a lot of families with such basic problems as a lack of adequate transportation to get the young people back for follow-up care after their initial treatment. Some children also see their parents smoking marijuana at home, which further complicates their own recovery, she said.

A lot of substance abuse problems are discovered with young people through the schools, which often results in their being excluded in response, Moeller said. While understanding the desire to keep everyone safe, he said just kicking a child out of school fuels their problems.

"You really complicate their lives," he said.

Moeller said he does not know that the drug problem is getting worse among young people.

"It's not going away, either," he said.

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