At 18 years old, Peter Phan has encountered issues that many young people his age have probably never considered. But these aren’t accomplishments that Phan claims to be proud of.
At age 13, Phan tried marijuana for the first time.
At age 14, he got caught selling marijuana and was kicked out of Franklin High School.
At age 15, Phan was suspended on several occasions from South Lake High School for smoking weed on campus, including on the first day of his transfer.
“I just wanted to experience it for the first time when I was 13,” Phan said.
But after getting suspended multiple times at South Lake High School and realizing the worry and disappointment he saw from his parents, he knew something had to change.
Phan is currently one year and three months sober. He quit marijuana cold turkey. It wasn’t easy, he said, but it was a step in the right direction.
“It’s basically, be mature and don’t let words get to you,” Phan said. “People say harsh things, but you really [have] to be mature and not let it get to you. They put it in your face and you need to smack it out of their hand. You can’t just let them do that to you.”
Now he spends most of his free time playing basketball, working on his car, and putting together a video documenting the consequences of his drug use and his struggle to quit marijuana.
Phan started a video project called, “A Clean UA,” back in May 2011. The idea originated in a film club at the Southeast Asian Young Men’s Group, an after-school program sponsored by the Asian Counseling and Referral Services (ACRS) to help students with homework and job searching.
Joseph Mills, lead counselor and facilitator for the Southeast Asian Young Men’s Group, acts as a mentor for students in the program. He’s known Phan since he joined the group in 2009.
Mills has been walking through the video project with Phan, encouraging him, helping to brainstorm ideas and working on the video editing process.
“He comes across as very genuine and very honest and open about his experiences,” Mills said. “A lot of us are removed from what kids are facing. He kind of offers a human face, a real sense.”
The trailer for the film, which features his struggles to quit cold turkey and interviews with family and friends, helped Phan and members of the Southeast Asian Men’s Group win $3,000 at the 2012 Spring Youth Forum.
“On the film, I’m taking [the camera] while they’re smoking,” he said. “And it’s just hard. You see all the peer pressure.”
Phan said his use of marijuana didn’t become a severe problem until he started attending high school. By then, he had already tried smoking once, but it was so prevalent at school that he couldn’t escape it.
“It became so common. When they say, ‘Let’s smoke,’ you’re just like, ‘OK, let’s go,’ ” Phan said. “And then it progressed. It [led to] skipping class or work to go do it, doing it every day. It became a habit basically.”
At one point, Phan spent up to $20 a day to maintain his habit. It was draining a lot of his money and he couldn’t ask his parents, so he started stealing phones or other electronics and then pawning them off for some quick cash.
“At Franklin, we were always trying to buy weed,” Phan said. “Weed isn’t legalized, so it was hard to find. So I thought I would start selling it, you know, making some money.”
Phan’s greatest struggle when quitting weed was not the physical act of quitting. It was the loss of those he considered to be his friends that hit him the most.
“I thought we were homies for hella long,” he said. “Is that what made us friends? If I was in any trouble, I’d run to you guys, but if I quit weed, I can’t run to you?”
Without his friends, Phan didn’t have very many people left to turn to for support, his days felt longer and uneventful.
“It’d be one of those days, you’re home bored, but you know your homies are just hanging out next door,” Phan said. “They all go over there and it’s hard being in your house when they’re out there partying and having fun.”
Phan stayed on track by working on his video project. He also got a job at the Boys and Girls Club of America.
“You see these little kids having fun and they’re not high or nothing,” he said. “They’re just playing sports. It was just fun to be around them.”
The younger students at the club remind Phan of his freshman and sophomore years. He hopes these students choose not to smoke.
“I mean I wouldn’t tell them not to do it,” Phan said. “You can experience it for yourself because you’re not going to learn from other people. You [have] to learn from your own [experience].”
Phan’s younger sister is currently starting high school. She is reaching the age when Phan’s life took a turn for the worse. He made a note to himself to have a few words with his sister.
“I’ll tell [young people] it’s not where you want to be at. It’s not cool to live that life,” he said.
Entering his last year of high school, Phan is looking forward to attending college after graduation and pursuing a profession in the medical field. His experience has led him to consider becoming a drug counselor.
Mills works with youth like Phan on a daily basis. He sees many of their struggles, as well as the attempts to overcome them. With projects like the video Phan has been working on, Mills thinks the community can see the tough situations from another viewpoint.
“A lot of people might make assumptions or just don’t understand the situation,” Mills said.
“There is a sense of putting yourself out there. It takes a lot of courage to talk about your own personal story and your own struggles and wanting people to hear their voices.”
Phan doesn’t see himself as brave. He doesn’t consider quitting marijuana as an accomplishment, feeling that he should not have been so crazy in the first place. But now, he has found a sense of peace with himself.
“I feel more cleansed,” said Phan, “fresher [and] relieved.”
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