Out of the shadows: Park City, seemingly idyllic, confronts drug problem
September 30, 2016
There were dozens of reasons W. chose to make his home in Park City. To him, it was the quintessential American dream, an idyllic existence nestled 7,000 feet above sea level in the Wasatch Mountains.
In many ways, what W. saw in Park City were the same things that drive scores of others to move to the community. Homes are beautiful and the lifestyles often lavish. The crisp air at the top of a ski run is invigorating. Neighbors are friendly and invested in the community.
And raising a family? W. could have hardly imagined anywhere better. He would picture his two children growing up and going to schools such as Yale or Stanford or Harvard, like so many other students who come of age here. He pondered the wonderful lives they were destined to lead.
But that was then. These days, he no longer dreams of afternoons spent on the slopes or of Saturday mornings with a warm beverage, soaking in the picturesque landscape. Those things seem trivial now. The future has narrowed. He now spends his final waking moments in bed each night asking himself how everything fell apart so fast.
He is staring down a problem not unique to Park City, but one whose danger has become uncloaked in recent weeks, after the sudden deaths of two 13-year-old boys police say may have overdosed on drugs.
"I almost feel like I've thrown all that completely away," W. said of the life he once envisioned.
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The Park Record does not typically grant anonymity, but made an exception due to the sensitive nature of the topic.
It all began in the middle of his son's ninth-grade year at Treasure Mountain Junior High. W.'s son had always been a model student. Great grades with a personality to match. There had never been anything portending the trouble that would come, no indication that something was amiss.
W. recalled the day everything changed, when he and his wife found paraphernalia his son had been using to smoke marijuana. They were stunned, but determined to take a steady approach. Their boy had always been open with them, so they believed they could get through to him by showering him with love and support and guidance.
They showed him research depicting the damage THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, can cause in a teenager's developing brain. They asked him to think about his future, and whether the high was worth putting it in jeopardy.
Their son reacted well, and they were confident their message had sunk in.
"Our reaction was, 'Oh, we'll help you get through this,'" W. said. "We put our arms around him and thought we could fix it together. In hindsight, I don't think we took it far enough."
Nine months later, their son became severely depressed. At first, they were confounded but they soon discovered the reason: He had never stopped using marijuana. Now, they say the months of use — which W. described as heavy for a child — had damaged his brain's still-forming pleasure receptors, maybe irrevocably.
The dreams W. had of a bright future for his son were replaced by a terrifying reality. The only time his son, who is now a student at Park City High School, wasn't depressed was when he was high. At one point, the boy became so despondent that he contemplated suicide.
W. began drug testing his son to stop him from getting high, but he worries the depression will linger. Eventually, he fears, it will force his son to seek out harder drugs. He worries the affliction will leave a permanent scar.
"It gets pretty intense in a pretty short amount of time," he said. "It's very, very difficult to watch as a parent."
In the wake of his son's depression, everything about W.'s existence has changed. His family life had always been perfect, like something out of a 1960s sitcom. They ate together at the dinner table seven nights a week, and they'd talk about the next family vacation to Costa Rica or sports or where they were going to ski next year.
Those light-hearted conversations have been replaced by discussions about therapy and anxiety. W. and his wife wonder constantly how they are going to keep their son from becoming a hardcore drug addict. The emotions lead to arguments. And the stress, as much as they try to keep it to themselves, is palpable, which in turn raises their son's anxiety.
Park City once held such promise for his family. But now, W. desires nothing more than to escape it.
"I want to live on an island," he said. "I don't want to be here. That's short-term thinking and just wanting to put my head in the sand, but it's really difficult. It's a life-changing event for everybody."
A dangerous subculture
The foundations of the Park City community shook three weeks ago.
Two 13-year-old students at Treasure Mountain Junior High, best friends, were found dead in their homes. Police are still awaiting toxicology reports from the state medical examiner to determine the causes of death, but they maintain the boys, Grant Seaver and Ryan Ainsworth, might have overdosed.
Residents were stunned. Police said the boys had been talking with their friends on social media about dangerous drugs, a revelation that caused parents to fear that other children were also in danger. In a matter of days, the issue had been dragged into the light, and officials were saying it as clearly as they could: Drugs are a larger problem in Park City schools than many parents realize.
Ember Conley, superintendent of the Park City School District, had long known that there were students using drugs. But the deaths, whether the toxicology reports prove the boys died of overdoses or not, were jarring. She kept her emotions in check during televised press conferences during the week of the tragedies, but she welled up in an interview two weeks later, as she described how drugs have become a scourge in the schools she leads.
On the surface, she said, Park City is functional. Families are strong and students are smart. They score well on tests and win athletic championships. But lurking underneath is something different.
Buried below is a dangerous subculture wholly removed from what parents and visitors see every day. Students here, Conley said, are not afraid of drugs. They don't see marijuana as a pathway to experimenting with harder drugs, and they don't see those substances, such as synthetic opioids, as particularly dangerous, anyway.
Instead, students see illegal substances as something that can actually help them, Conley said. They swallow a pill or take a hit of pot to relax after football practice or to stay awake during an Advanced Placement class test. Or to self-medicate when they feel depressed. To students in Park City, drugs are a way to become their best selves.
And perhaps most troubling is this, Conley said: Gone are the days when only those kids experimented with drugs. In the past, it was easy to point the finger. That student is heading down the wrong path because their parents weren't around, or maybe because they were abused.
Those shades of black and white have turned into many shades of gray. Conley, who said the worst thing she and her friends ever did as students was ditch class, lamented how things have changed.
A recent study supports the anecdotal evidence that drug use is common in Park City schools. In 2015, the Utah Department of Human Services surveyed sophomores and seniors at Park City High School as part of its biennial statewide Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) report. The findings were illuminating.
According to the report, nearly 58 percent of students said they had consumed alcohol at some point in their lives, and 29.3 percent had done so in the previous 30 days. Just more than 37 percent of students had tried marijuana, 21.3 percent in the past month, and 13.3 percent had used prescription drugs without a doctor's permission (4.3 percent in the prior 30 days). Nearly all of those marks were well above state averages.
But numbers like those don't shock W.
After finding out about his son's marijuana use, he figured the behavior was isolated to a small group of friends. But in talking further to his son, he discovered that the problem was more significant. It was clear to him that pot use had spread through the halls of Park City schools.
The students, W. said, have watched marijuana become legal in a handful of states, including neighboring Colorado. He said they search the internet for articles and evidence that support their belief that the drug is safe. They wonder how a natural plant that is used to treat medical conditions can possibly harm them.
What they may not be seeing is the mounting evidence that smoking pot may come with consequences. While questions remain about the long-term effects of marijuana use, some researchers have found that THC can permanently damage adolescent brains. A Duke University study published in 2012 that tracked subjects' marijuana use over a period of many years, for instance, found that heavy users experienced a significant decline in neuropsychological functioning.
Another study, conducted in 2014 by researchers at Harvard University and Northwestern University, found that young adults who smoke marijuana even casually display major abnormalities in regions of the brain that control emotion and motivation. The study indicates that regular pot use may make natural rewards less stimulating.
And that — the thought that his son may spend the rest of his life unable to find pleasure naturally — is what most terrifies W.
"The kids just want to have fun," he said. "You can't blame them. They want to have fun, is the reason they're doing this. But it's dangerous."
W. is hopeful his story will shock other parents into action. One of the most alarming elements of his son's decline into drug use, then depression, is that W. and his wife believed they had done everything right, including frequently talking to their son about the dangers of drugs, even when he was young. In hindsight, it baffles W. how he could have been blind to his boy's behavior.
Now, W., shaken from his naiveté, drug tests his son regularly. He admits that it might seem like an extreme measure, but it's one he takes because he no longer believes it's enough to teach kids about drugs and to love them unconditionally.
"The influence from their peers and from their phone is just much greater than from their parents," he said.
Beyond school halls
Greg Winterton, a Summit County Sheriff's Office lieutenant, will carry the memory the rest of his life.
It was two years ago, but his recollection remains vivid. Winterton had dealt with the woman, a typical drug addict, off and on for years. Like many other addicts, one day she eventually went too far. She was arrested and booked.
Facing years in prison, she signed away her parental rights to her 14-year-old son. The boy had always wondered why his mother loved drugs more than she loved him, and to him, that was the final proof. Winterton, who had witnessed the effect of drugs before and has seen it since, had no answers.
The boy eventually killed himself.
"It's one of those things that put things into perspective," Winterton said.
For Winterton, it remains one of the most heart-rending reminders of the devastating nature of drugs. They destroy families and communities, and all who are touched are swept up in the despair. But the story also illustrates that in Summit County, and in Park City, drug users are everywhere, he said, not just in the classrooms of schools.
According to Frank Smith, deputy chief of the Summit County Sheriff's Office, drugs are most prevalent during ski season, as outsiders flock to town to party, but they are always present. Between July 2015 and July 2016, officers arrested 77 people in the county on charges of distributing drugs. Extending the timeframe through September, 12 died from suspected overdoses.
Despite those figures, overall drug use in the area has flatlined or is trending slightly down, Smith said. Where officers have seen a troubling increase is in the use of opioids, such as prescription pills and heroin, drugs that sow catastrophic damage.
Smith, who has encountered hundreds of addicts throughout a 35-year career, regularly sees the carnage firsthand. On Sept. 26, for instance, he arrived on the scene of a car break-in. What he found was the shell of a man he once knew. Smith described him as well-spoken at one point, and he'd once been a "stellar" part of the community. But now he was addicted to opioids, and he had been crushed under their weight.
"As a human and a member of the Summit County community, it's heartbreaking," Smith said.
For many Summit County residents who become addicted to opioids, it starts innocently; they take pills such as OxyContin or Percocet prescribed by doctors for legitimate medical reasons. The line between pain relief and addiction, though, is thin. A person can end up on the wrong side of it before they even realize it, said Brian Besser, Utah's regional agent in charge with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
That risk is exacerbated by a perception in Utah and in Park City that prescription drugs are "fair game" because they are available from doctors, Besser said. People who have become addicted that way are everywhere, and their numbers are increasing.
Kris Kemp, medical director of the Park City Hospital's emergency department, understands how gripping opioid addictions can be. Every week, addicts come to the emergency room and spin elaborate yarns about why they need prescriptions for more pills, he said, in an attempt to fool the doctors. But their colorful stories are quick giveaways. Regardless, it is standard practice for emergency-room doctors to refer patients with claims of chronic pain to physicians, who make the final determinations about when it's appropriate to pen prescriptions.
"You quickly get a sense for who are the real ones, who are not the real ones," he said.
Addicts whose attempts to dupe doctors fail are often left with two options to find a high: pay $30 per 30-milligram pill on the street — which are often knock-offs — or turn to drugs like heroin, which can be had for a third of the price, Besser said.
"It could be your neighbor next door," he said. "Bill and Mary seem like great folks, and they probably are, but you have no idea that they are quietly struggling with an addiction. Now, maybe Bill tonight is going to go on the street and buy heroin because he can't get his pills."
A different kind of struggle
Others in Park City become addicted, to opioids or other drugs, for another reason: mental illness. Nationally, researchers have found a strong link between drug abuse and mental disorders, and it's common for people afflicted with illnesses, diagnosed or not, to self-medicate. There is little indication that Park City is insulated from that reality. Robert Hilder, Summit County attorney, said his office encounters people suffering from mental illness on a near-daily basis.
Lynne and Ed Rutan know as well as anyone how someone with a mental illness can slip into drug abuse. They have felt the pain it can cause. For nearly two decades, they experienced torment as their son battled addiction throughout his teens and 20s. It wasn't until he was 31 that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In the two years since, he has received treatment for his illness and stopped using drugs. His life is flourishing, and the Rutans are proud of his progress.
The Rutans only wish they would have known to get their son diagnosed years before. It could have saved him a troubled past and themselves years of anguish.
On a warm late-summer day in Park City, they remembered what it was like. They saw their son spend much of his senior year of high school living on the streets of their hometown. Years later, they watched as he chose to be estranged from them, making contact only about once a year. At times, the fear that they would never see him again ate at their minds.
One Sunday evening during a period of estrangement, Ed Rutan heard a report on the radio that two skiers had been killed in a backcountry avalanche. Police were not releasing their names, and the worry that his son, an avid backcountry skier, had been swept up in the slide gnawed at his gut as he lay awake in bed.
"I just remember saying, 'That could be (my son),'" he said.
For nearly two decades, through everything, the Rutans assumed their son had an addiction problem. If only they could get him to stop using, they thought, everything would be fine. When they discovered that schizophrenia, instead, was the root cause of the trouble, it was illuminating.
The Rutans feel fortunate they were eventually able to get their son the help he needed. Far too many people in Park City with mental illnesses, they said, are seeing their lives consumed by drug use because their disorders have not been diagnosed. They implored parents of other drug addicts to dig deeper, to question why their children are abusing drugs and to seek mental health evaluations for them.
"Don't hide it. Don't look away," Lynne Rutan said. "It's a disease like cancer or diabetes or any other chronic disease. If you address it, you can manage it."
To the Rutans, sharing their story is not enough. Last year, they started Connect, an organization that raises awareness in Summit County about mental illness and advocates that more resources be poured into supporting people who are afflicted. They are encouraged by the work of organizations such as Valley Behavioral Health, which provides treatment to residents struggling with addiction or mental health conditions, but they insist much more must be done.
A place like Summit County, they said, can overcome the challenges preventing every person who needs treatment from getting it.
"There are so many people in this community that have been touched by this kind of situation," Lynne Rutan said. "And those people, a lot of them are just not even able to talk about it."
It's unlikely the problem will be solved quickly. Hilder said local governments are becoming more knowledgeable about mental illnesses, but they have limited resources to address them. Summit County, for instance, has a drug court, in which drug users are sentenced to treatment instead of incarceration, but it does not have the means to replicate the mental health courts that have been successful in places such as Salt Lake County and Weber County.
"I would like to see us do more of that here," he said, "but that's a resource issue."
The situation is so dire, in fact, that the Park City Hospital's emergency room is the de-facto treatment center for mentally ill residents who get in trouble with the police. And they are coming through the doors in great numbers. Kemp said emergency-room doctors expected to treat an average of one mentally ill patient a week when the hospital opened in 2009. Instead, they are caring for one nearly every three days, and many have substance abuse problems.
Doctors treat the patients for any immediate health concerns, then evaluate whether they should be sent to a dedicated psychiatric facility, often involuntarily. For the doctors, it takes a toll. When Kemp sees a patient who has compounded their mental disorder with drug abuse, he thinks about his teenage children and how he hopes they never know such pain.
"We would love it if we were all the machines we try to be but we're not," he said. "We're people, too, and we always feel that."
A larger problem
Sue Thomas, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, lives in Park City and has three children who attend local schools. Naturally, the drug problem distresses her. But her experience with the DEA has given her perspective.
She recalled a conversation with another mother fed up with drugs in the schools. The woman was thinking of moving. Thomas issued a word of caution.
"I said, 'When you find the Land of Oz where there are no drugs in the school, call me because I'd like to send my children there,'" Thomas said. "But it doesn't exist."
Nationally, and throughout Utah, drug addictions are leaving scorched Earth in their wakes. Besser, the DEA regional agent in charge, described it as a uniquely American problem. In the United States, which uses 80 percent of the world's oxycodone and 99 percent of its hydrocodone, opioid addictions cost the public nearly $80 billion a year in lost productivity and increased costs of health care and criminal justice.
Officials say there is nothing that makes Park City immune from the destruction. In all the ways that matter, it is no different than anywhere else. So the DEA is not surprised to see synthetic opioids, which have wrought disaster in other parts of the country, beginning to appear in Park City.
After the deaths of the two Treasure Mountain Junior High students, police warned about the dangers of one synthetic opioid in particular: U-47700, sometimes known as pink. Besser said the drug, which is twice as potent as heroin, was first developed by a pharmaceutical company in the 1970s. It didn't start appearing on the streets until 2015.
In Utah, there have been two confirmed deaths from the drug, in Iron and Salt Lake counties. Other parts of the country, though, have seen much larger death tolls from U-47700 or similar drugs. In the Cleveland area, for instance, there were seven confirmed opioid deaths in one recent weekend alone, Besser said.
The DEA fears a similar flood of fatalities may be headed this way. According to Besser, drug cartels, seeing an opportunity to make tens of millions of dollars, are churning out synthetic opioids by the hundreds of thousands. Recently, the DEA busted a "mom-and-pop" operation in Sandy capable of producing 7,000 pills per hour.
There's little reason to believe pills from that setup, or others like it, aren't making their way east, up Interstate 80, into Park City, Besser said.
"That just sweeps across the Salt Lake Valley and people start dying," he said. "That's exactly what's happening."
Because U-47700 is so new, the DEA is scrambling to address it. The administration invoked an emergency measure to classify it as a Schedule I substance, making it illegal to buy over the internet or to possess. That measure is set to take effect Oct. 7. But even as officials begin cracking down on the substance, there is a bitter reality: The next drug, whatever it may be, is already on the way.
That's America and that's Utah and that's Park City: The cycle of abuse will continue. U-47700 is going to be forgotten, Besser said, and when another drug replaces it, people will use it to get high, no matter what it is or how frequently it kills.
"People will abuse anything," he said. "After you've worked for 20 or 25 years, you've listened to hundreds of wiretaps, you've dealt with hundreds of arrests and seen thousands of cases. Nothing really surprises you anymore."
A search for solutions
For Smith, the deputy chief at the Sheriff's Office, it's become a ritual. Nearly every morning, he walks into Park City Coffee Roaster in Kimball Junction and places the same order, a medium coffee with room for cream and sugar. The drink provides a warm wake-up, but the habit also allows him to take the pulse of the community.
Smith has watched as drugs have infiltrated Park City's school halls and have continued to appear on its streets. In the aftermath of the deaths of the 13-year-old boys, he was hopeful that the community had at last been shaken into action. Police, he said, have done their best to stem the tide, but they can't solve the problem alone.
Often after a tragedy, a community mobilizes for a month, maybe two, before the moment passes and people begin to forget. This time, though, it feels different to Smith.
He's taken it as an encouraging sign that, in recent weeks, more people than ever have approached him at the coffee shop to ask him about drugs. A combined effort among every sector of the community, he said, is the only way Park City can keep the danger at a distance.
"When kids start dying," he said, "I think there's not too many people in this community that won't be interested and want to move forward and pay closer attention."
To Thomas, the DEA agent, the change in Park City feels palpable. Drugs are everywhere in the country, she said, but she's grateful she lives someplace willing to stare down the issue.
"I think it's a community looking for solutions," she said.
In Besser's view, any answer must begin with parents. He is fond of saying that the cure for drugs, like most crime, can be found in the high chair, not the electric chair. Kemp, too, said that's the right approach. His biggest fear is that parents in Park City are sending the wrong messages to their kids and failing to have the right conversations.
Children must be told from a young age that drugs and alcohol, in any amounts, are dangerous, he said. Even teenagers, who in many ways act like adults, aren't able to process shades of gray. It's not enough, Kemp said, for parents to tell their children that "This will be OK when you're 21 or when you're an adult and can make decisions for yourself."
"There are a lot of parents in an amazing amount of denial," he said. "And it's unfortunate. The denial is enabling this to be a bigger problem."
Conley, Park City School District's superintendent, was exhausted after handling the fallout from the deaths of the 13-year-old boys, and from ensuring the safety of the rest of the children in her classrooms. Two weeks removed from the tragedy, she was also hopeful. The deaths made clear communication and resource pipelines between local entities were missing. They have now begun to be built, she said, in preparation for the next crisis.
To Conley, the deaths, whether caused by drugs or not, were a tipping point. So far, the school district is helping spearhead the fight. It recently partnered with the DEA, FBI and local law enforcement agencies to screen a film, "Chasing the Dragon," that depicts how addiction can ravage families, followed by a panel discussion about drugs. She said the district has planned nearly a dozen other similar events through mid-November.
And like the lawman Smith, Conley hopes the desire for true, lasting change doesn't fade. She anticipates that some people who are motivated now will lose interest — but that's OK. It won't necessarily mean the end of the fight.
"We have really smart people, we have very motivated people with resources," she said. "But this is going to take years to turn around the culture that we have right now. … We've got to have some champions in the community that keep pushing forward."
As long as there are always people willing to continue the battle, Conley said, Park City stands a fighting chance.