March 26, 2014 - Everyday there are critical life choices to be made whether good or bad, but Judge Julie Nicholson of the 52-3 District Court hopes Oxford High School students will make the "right choice," as it relates to alcohol, drugs and texting and driving.
52-3 District Judge Julie Nicholson explains the consequences of substance abuse. Photo by Trevor Keiser. (click for larger version)
Nicholson spoke to OHS sophomores at the annual "Have to Choose" program held at the high school on March 20.
"Unfortunately, I get a lot of kids that come in front of me and by the time they see me it may be too late," she said. "A lot of them say 'I didn't know this was illegal' or 'I didn't know this could happen.' Believe it or not, everybody who lives in a community is responsible for knowing the laws and following the laws."
The program combined the lecture from Nicholson and actual TV footage of teenagers whose lives were forever changed by the influence of alcohol, drugs or texting while driving.
"When I have kids showing up in front of me for court, one of the things I tell them is 'you can choose the behavior, but you can't always choose the consequence,' she added. "It's better you know what the consequences could be before choosing the behaviors, so you make an educated guess."
When Nicholson was elected 18 years ago, not everybody had a cell phone like they do today, nor were they as technologically advanced, so "texting and driving" was not an issue.
"This is a really important subject for you," she said looking at the group of newly or soon-to-be licensed drivers. "A lot of people think because they are good multi-taskers or that they can text very well that they'll be good at texting and driving. I don't care how many years of experience you have behind the wheel this is very distracting and very, very dangerous."
"If you absolutely positively have to communicate with somebody, pull over and do what you have to do and then get on the road," she added. "That one decision could save a life – either yours or somebody else's."
Nicholson also warned against the dangers of drinking alcohol and driving.
"(This) continues to be a big issue," she said. "Most of my cases in the District Court are drunk-driving related cases, so I do see a lot and I see a lot of different scenarios of what happens and how it happens."
Nicholson also said she is seeing an increase in the use and abuse of prescription drugs, as well as opiates such as methamphetamine (crystal meth).
"A lot of people are using prescription drugs that don't have a prescription. They may be getting it from their own medicine cabinets at home or maybe from their friends and using a drug that hasn't been prescribed to them," she explained. "What they don't understand or realize is that drug can be very dangerous, even though it's an 'authorized FDA (Food and Drug Administration) drug.' Because a lot of the opiates have become very addictive and people start using them and all of sudden they don't realize their body has become addicted to the drug."
Another drug that is becoming more wide-spread in Oakland County and just as dangerous as some of the other opiates is heroin. "When I first took the bench in 1997, I did not have any heroin cases on my docket," she said. "Now, I have way too many."
Nicholson said she has been to seven funerals in seven years of kids that she knew personally because they overdosed on heroin, which is why it's a drug that hits her close to home. To emphasize the reality of the drug, Nicholson shared a video of Noah Johnston, a Rochester Adams Graduate, who died from an overdose of heroin as a first-time user July 29, 2008.
"Noah was a friend of my sons and they grew up together in grade school. (He had) been to my house many times for play dates, sports activities and birthday parties," she added. "When I first heard about this I was shocked and believe me I see a lot."
So as a part of her presentation, she not only shares the video about Noah, but his father, Peter Johnston, also speaks to hopefully inspire students to not make the same mistake his son did.
"I am giving you Noah's second chance. Noah made a mistake and I can't fix it. I used to tell my son that I can fix any problem in the world," Peter said. "In 2008 the economy went to crap and my business went to crap, but eventually I pulled out and I pulled through, but unfortunately in 2008 my son made a mistake. That's been six years ago this summer. It's been six years since I've heard my son's voice, smelled his old hockey bag or whatever."
Peter wants students to know their choices not only affect them personally, but affect the lives of those closest to them.
"Of course you're going to have a few mistakes, I am good with that. The one thing you don't have a right to do is to die and leave parents, your friends, your family, your younger brother and your younger sister behind because that doesn't end for us," he said. "Life is so much more than living in a box six feet down in the ground and leaving us behind. I can't tell you if you've lost somebody maybe you can understand, but when it's your child, I can tell you the pain never goes away."
"It took us two years to put a stone on his grave because neither one of us (his mother or I) accepted the fact that he's dead. We said 'this is a mistake. He's coming back. He did something stupid, they're going to bring him back,' Peter continued. "Six years ago and he hasn't come back. That one mistake will end your life. Think about it. Here is your second chance."
Nicholson asked the question "if knowing that drugs, alcohol or any other substance could be harmful to a person, why would they choose to use them? The answer she explained, are many. Whether it be curiosity of wanting "to see how or what the drug feels like" or the misconception of wanting "control."
"A lot of young people believe that when they make decisions that could be harmful to them that they are in control of those decisions because they're doing something that somebody else doesn't want them to do," she noted.
Nicholson talked about how certain drugs emit certain chemicals into the body such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, which can cause "feelings of pleasure, excitement or means of escape."
Problems Nicholson sees everyday as to why people use drugs or alcohol is due to problems in relationships, legal issues, physical or emotional issues, financial issues or even mental or physical issues. Eventually she said the drug or substance becomes an obsession and the person "becomes captive to that drug or substance."
"They have now lost control. The chemical or the drug is now controlling that person and the chemical or the drug is making the choices," she noted. (Due to) psychological irritability, depression, anxiety, they now need that chemical to physically function. They have to have in order to get up in the morning and face their day."
The result of such uses is sometimes incarceration or even institutionalization.
"Eighty percent of the people in our prison system are there because they have a drug or alcohol problem, she said. "Certain drugs can affect the brain to the extent that it can result in certain mental health issues."
But the ultimate price is death.
"Unfortunately, that happens way too much," she said.
Nicholson hopes her presentation will help save a few lives and that students will think the next time they're faced with a critical life choice.
"Every single person in this room has something to offer this world. You may not know what it is for a very long time but everybody in this room has something positive to contribute to this world," she said. "We need you to do that. We need you to be around. We need you to be active and good productive members of society. You all have such worth and we want you to succeed."
Trevor graduated with degrees in English and communications from Rochester College. He wrote for his college and LA View newspapers before joining The Clarkston News in May 2007.