Every high school in the United States has a spot where kids go to try out being themselves outside of spaces defined by adult expectations. Grownups call places like this “sketchy,” and avoid them. Kids call them “sketchy,” and flock there. “There” could be anywhere, from the bathroom to the parking lot out back.
When I went to boarding school in 10th grade, it wasn’t long before someone said they were going to go hang out at “The Spool.” Did I want to come?
I played sports and did theater and got good grades. I wasn’t the kid to be seen somewhere sketchy. But classes and extracurriculars and hanging out in the clean, brightly lit student center were all inside the pressure cooker of adolescence.
The school had some woods behind the dorms called the Sanctuary. It was an apt name for acreage set aside for bird watchers, or for teenagers to exercise some agency.
Some students had taken a discarded wooden spool from a power cable and rolled it out there. A ragtag bunch of lawn chairs and milk crates showed up. The path to the Spool, which took a shortcut through the chain-link fence where someone cut a flap, became well-worn by my feet, among many others.
I was welcomed, like everyone. If this were a screenplay about the real, gritty lives of teenagers, I would write in some dialogue about the pressure of figuring out our lives before joining “the real world.”
But I don’t want this to be a movie. It’s not a pretty story. I don’t like seeing kids become drug addicts.
* * *
The Spool was a space we all needed, but what brought kids out there several times a day was tobacco addiction. Some smoked Camels. Some smoked Luckies. Some rolled their own. If vape pens had existed then, some would have vaped. Some used chewing tobacco.
Sometimes, someone would get caught for smoking or cannabis use and would be expelled. Some are now alcoholics. Some of those are in recovery, some not.
Some are dead. But not many, now that I mention it.
Compared to today, not many of us 1990s teens died of drug overdoses. Now, black-market cannabis might come laced with fentanyl, which is 100 times stronger than morphine. Places like the Spool are where kids with nicotine habits get hooked on fentanyl — or worse.
* * *
I’ve thought about the Spool since around the start of the legislative session, when I learned that removing legal penalties to minors for underage tobacco possession, use, and purchase (PUP) is a priority of the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and the American Lung Association.
To learn that these organizations favor decriminalizing youth tobacco use — that got my attention.
To be clear, the “PUP bill,” H.253, which these organizations support (and that I introduced with 54 other representatives) would retain and even strengthen the tough “Tobacco 21” laws against retail sales to minors—including minors selling to minors, a.k.a. drug dealers. This is “decrim” for kids with tobacco addictions, not legalization.
It surprised me for those organizations to support such a policy, but it also spoke to me.
* * *
We all know those out-of-the-way places where kids smoke cigarettes — and that’s the weird thing.
Sometimes I’d look around and wonder why we weren’t getting busted. We were sneaky, but we knew that nothing was hiding the path. Any sensible public safety officer, guidance counselor, and dorm parent knew we were there, especially when we came back. They have noses, after all.
If they had thought that writing dozens of tickets for $25 fines, a court date, and a sure expulsion from school would be in our best interests and in the best interests of society — and a good use of limited resources — they could have been all over it.
But these laws, which have a disproportionate impact on BIPOC folks, aren’t even being enforced in Vermont. They’re just out there, making kids feel scared of getting caught, adults afraid to get involved, and many Vermont high schoolers afraid to go to the bathroom, lest they walk into a vape cloud or a drug deal.
These laws are doing nothing but putting a wedge between kids and their mentors.
* * *
For mental health counseling in high school I went to Cilla Bonney-Smith, the associate dean of students.
Cilla had long gray hair and striking cloud-colored eyes and a lot of wisdom. I loved how well she listened to me while I enjoyed an hour of respite in her cushy chair in her quiet office, looking at a painting on the wall. I loved her because her words brought me calm when I would feel in crisis in the evening and come over to her house. There, we would speak outside as the trees made shadows in fresh snow.
But one thing we never spoke about, and one place Cilla never went, was the Spool.
When a death by suicide or overdose or something else alarming occurs around a youth, and some of the people around that person say, “We had no idea they were feeling that bad,” these outdated laws are part of the reason.
Our society pushes youth tobacco use underground, and kids go out of view.
* * *
To this day, I’ve never smoked tobacco, even once. I’ve never put a cigarette to my lips.
The reason I didn’t smoke is that my mom and dad considered smokers stupid and filthy, and I was terrified to do anything they disapproved of. It’s spooky how little I did wrong as a kid, compared to everyone else around me.
I’m not a War-on-Drugs success story. It was just my luck that I coped with adverse childhood experiences by becoming a perfectionist. It was just my lot in life to feel relaxed hanging out with smokers who got my depression and angst (I love smokers — a humble lot), but not to break a law.
But as much as I trusted Cilla, I shared only a fraction of what was going on with me. There was too much crossover with sketchy stuff and other kids I didn’t want to implicate.
It’s not OK anymore to tolerate intergenerational secrets and distances. They’re harmful, and too-often fatal.
* * *
H.253 — “An act relating to eliminating prohibitions and penalties on the purchase, use, and possession of tobacco products” — would replace a law that we’re not enforcing with more potential for a conversation.
If enacted, tobacco sold to kids would still be considered contraband. A conversation with a guidance counselor or a public safety officer might still include “Where did you get that?”
But without the PUP laws that create a wedge between mentors and kids, that conversation could also include, “How are you doing?” and “Do you need help?”
I hope my colleagues in the Legislature will consider this bill. While we’re working to prevent kids from getting hooked, let’s also pass H.204, to ban the retail sale of flavored tobacco products.
A third bill takes us back to Mexico, over 7,000 years ago. That’s where tobacco was first cultivated, long before Native Americans gave some to Christopher Columbus.
Tobacco has been a part of the cultural practices of the Indigenous people of Vermont for centuries and remains a sacred plant to Abenaki here.
H.212 would recognize the traditional use of tobacco for ceremonial purposes as a protected religious practice, distinct from commercial and recreational usages. The Abenaki people I have spoken with about this bill indicate that this is simply a matter of religious freedom.
I don’t know, but I imagine there’s more to it than that. To save our kids from substance-use issues, we may find that the most effective laws are those that hold space for support and connection within our communities.