It's a chilly evening in May, and a 17-year-old Kensington girl in a long, silver gown lies on the sidewalk along Rockville Pike, sobbing.
“I just want to go to my senior prom,” she wails.
She’s a senior in Richard Montgomery High School’s much-touted International Baccalaureate program, and her tuxedo-clad date attends Our Lady of Good Counsel in Olney. The prom is just two blocks away, at the Hilton. So close, and yet so far away.
A police car has pulled them over for a minor traffic violation after watching the driver, a girl suspected of being underage, make a purchase at a liquor store. The boy blows into the small white tube of a Breathalyzer held by Montgomery County Police Officer Jeffrey Innocenti. A 12-pack of Smirnoff Ice that was found in the car—with several bottles empty—lies in the grass.
The boy, the driver and a fourth person in the car, a girl who turns out to be the prom girl’s cousin, don’t register on the Breathalyzer, but the prom girl blows .02—“about what you’d expect from one or two recent drinks,” another officer says. It’s below the legal limit for blood alcohol content (BAC)—the weight of ethanol measured in grams—of .08. Police hand out citations for underage possession of alcohol to all four teens, and the driver receives additional citations for possessing a fake ID and for the underage purchase.
Then, in an unexpected twist, police find what appears to be a 23-ounce can of Arizona Grapeade inside the car. In fact, it’s a “safe can.” When they unscrew the top, they find several small baggies of assorted substances hidden inside, one of which tests positive for crystal methamphetamine. Police determine the can belongs to the prom girl’s cousin. After calling the prom girl’s mother for permission, police allow her and her date to walk the two blocks to the Hilton to find a ride home. The driver and the prom girl’s cousin, however, won’t be leaving anytime soon.
“Pre-gaming,” the kids call it: trying to get blasted before they’ve even gotten the party started. It’s partying with a purpose, and just one of the ratcheted-up teen behaviors that worry parents, police, school officials and medical experts.
The evidence is everywhere: in the number of emergency room visits by intoxicated teens; in the higher tolerance kids seem to have for alcohol; in the pictures of discarded bottles and passed-out partygoers on teens’ Facebook pages after a weekend of partying; in the number of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings dedicated to young people, with eight weekly groups in the Bethesda-Chevy-Chase-Kensington area alone.
Local teens—more than 50 of whom were interviewed for this article with the guarantee of anonymity—say they’re not partying more often, they’re just partying harder, consuming more alcohol and smoking more “weed” with a singular purpose: getting wasted fast.
Ask parents how often their teenagers drink and most say once or twice a month. Teens say it’s more like once or twice a weekend.
“There are parties every weekend if you look for them,” says a Walter Johnson High School junior. “Between [Winston Churchill, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Walter Johnson] and the private schools, we can always find something.”
And “something” always includes alcohol and/or marijuana. “Everyone drinks now,” a Walt Whitman High School senior says.
Area students who were informally surveyed estimate that 80 percent of their junior and senior classmates drink and/or smoke weed. “Even the smart kids,” one Walter Johnson senior says. “Especially the smart kids,” another adds.
Boys generally prefer beer, and girls vodka (not as many calories or carbs), though “whatever’s there all gets consumed,” says a senior from St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac. Most of his friends prefer marijuana. “You don’t get hung over,” he says. “And if the cops come, you blow a .00 because you haven’t been drinking.” It’s also “unbelievably easy” to get at most local high schools.
“You can just go up and ask someone. It’s only $15 or $20 a gram,” a Whitman senior says. Or less. “Some of my friends just take it from their parents,” the St. Andrew’s teen says.
In the past, boys tended to outdrink girls. But the gender gap is closing, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMSHA) 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
“If I’m sleeping over, it’ll easily be 10 or 12 drinks,” the St. Andrew’s senior says. His friend adds that if the drinking starts earlier in the day, it could add up to 20 or 30 drinks.
Meanwhile, a group of senior Whitman girls say they “pre-game” before parties, typically getting a “handle,” about a half gallon of alcohol, to share. “Four or five of us together can finish a handle of vodka,” one says. “We’ll drink half before and bring the rest of the bottle to the party.” They do that for a couple of reasons: There might not be enough alcohol at the party; or they might drink too quickly in order to catch up to other partygoers and get “too drunk, too fast.”
But for many high school partygoers, getting drunk or high fast is the point. “You get to a party and you think, ‘We’re here to get wasted,’? ” one 2012 Whitman graduate says. That’s a change from a few years ago.
“My high school friends and I were definitely partiers,” says a 2010 Bethesda high school graduate whose sibling graduated this year, “but I think high school kids drink more now than when I was there. Each class tries to outdo the one before it. Especially for the guys, it’s a big deal to feel that you were the wildest senior class yet.”
A 2009 Whitman graduate says most people she knew waited until senior year to party, when the college pressure was off. Her younger sister and her sister’s friends at that school started much earlier. “They’re out of control,” the graduate says. “They drink way more than we did and go way too far, especially the girls. They’re so much more risqué and scandalous.”
“Students are drinking more,” says Bethesda-Chevy Chase Principal Karen Lockard, who has worked in Montgomery County Public Schools for more than 30 years. “They’re drinking stronger drinks and doing shots to get drunk in a short period of time.”
One way teens do that is by playing drinking games, which aren’t designed to have clear winners or losers, but rather “to get you drunker faster,” a 2012 B-CC graduate says. The most popular is beer pong, which consists of bouncing a pingpong ball into a series of beer-filled cups at the far end of a pingpong table. The hits and misses determine who drinks.
“The guys take a lot of pride in their beer pong skills,” a B-CC senior says. “Everyone loves games. No one thinks just sitting on the sofa drinking beer is fun.”