It was a beautiful clear February day. All of the high school campuses were open. They were conducting SAT tests. My son left for school early. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. He was a junior in high school, 17yrs old and my only child.
He took his English SAT: I know because they mailed the results a few months later. He asked a friend to drive him off campus during lunch break. She drove to Burger King. They ate, met another girl and decided it would be fun to meet Stephen’s best friend at another high school campus.
Stephen’s friend did not take the exams. He had asked a friend if he could sit in his car and listen to music. The friend said “sure”, handed over his keys but said “Don’t drive my car.” Later another boy from the neighborhood, asked Stephen’s friend to give him a ride home; he would pay for gas. Stephen’s friend agreed to drive the boy home. It was at that point everyone’s lives would change forever. That beautiful February day would never be forgotten.
Stephen’s friend had been told to not drive the car. Stephen’s friend did not have a driver’s license. But up until that day, Stephen’s friend had been able to do many things without experiencing any negative consequences for his actions.
He met Stephen and the girls and they all piled into the cute, red, Mitsubishi Eclipse. Stephen’s friend drove to a dirt road and the police report estimated the car reached speeds above 60mph before Stephen’s friend lost control of the car. The car went air born, flipped end over end. Stephen did not have his seat belt on. He was ejected out the rear window and the car landed on top of him, killing him. No one else in the car suffered serious injury.
Stephen’s friend learned of Stephen’s death in a holding cell at the Juvenile Detention Center. When they cleared the crash site marijuana was found under the car. Stephen’s friend tested positive for marijuana. Later, while serving 7 months for Stephen’s death, in a Juvenile Detention Center, Stephen’s friend admitted the drugs were not worth it during a newspaper interview with the Reno Gazette Journal.
In seconds I stopped being a parent and Mother. We were no longer a family. We were a couple. The decisions made by one 17yr old boy on that day, ended the life of his best friend and destroyed a family. It all started with marijuana use.
Stephen began using marijuana at the age of fourteen. He inadvertently left a homemade pipe and the remains of marijuana in a little baggy on his nightstand for me to find. The school called me about missed assignments, behavior in class, cutting class and expected failures. Juvenile Services became a part of our lives. Stephen was randomly drug tested and with every test the consequence increased.
I was determined to reverse the downward spiral of Stephen’s life. We participated in family counseling. Juvenile Services ordered Stephen to attend every program available including; weekend work detail, weeks in juvenile detention, a 6 month stay in a Juvenile boot camp and ending with an admission into a residential drug rehabilitation program.
When Stephen died, he had been drug free for six months. We were seeing a glimmer of hope only to have it all end with his sudden death in a car crash involving marijuana.
My focus in life had been my son and family. I had nowhere to direct that energy, only pain. I needed to find a way to move forward at a time when I felt dead. It came in the form of volunteering. My husband and I started volunteering with Northern Nevada MADD.
We were asked to support other families going through the court process. We learned that Nevada did not have a DUI law pertaining to drug use. Frequently, drug use charges were dropped and drivers were charged with Involuntary Manslaughter and/or Felony Reckless driving, neither offence mandated prison time. Resulting in drivers would walking out of court on probation without any penalties to their driving record.
We supported a single Mother, whose 15yr son was standing outside the disabled car he had been riding in, when he was hit and killed by a marijuana impaired driver. That driver was on probation at the time of the car crash for marijuana use and possession. He was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, his probation extended. He walked out of the courtroom, into his car and drove away.
My son’s birthday was Christmas Day. That Christmas of 1997, instead of sending Christmas Cards to friends and family, I wrote letters to every Nevada State Legislator telling our story, adding a picture of Stephen and asking for a law making it illegal to drive with illegal drugs in your system. I got 13 replies and several phone calls.
A first term Assemblyman met with us. He allowed us full access to his resources. We sat together and wrote a drug, zero tolerance per se bill, AB196. We gathered the support of two other victim families and Northern Nevada MADD. Our bill failed but Nevada State Senator Jon Porter had introduced a similar bill (SB481) and we were encouraged to help lobby it into law.
In 1999, together four Nevada victim families helped pass SB481 into law, establishing a marijuana 2ng THC per se law. It has survived two State Supreme Court Challenges and provided justice for countless victims of marijuana impaired drivers.
Since passage of that legislative bill into law, we have returned to testify in opposition to the many challenges to the law. These include exempting medical marijuana card holders from the law and raising the THC level from 2ng THC to 100ng THC. We have supported changes that strengthened the law by removing urine test and specifying blood levels of THC. We have supported legislation such as 24/7 program, which allows 2nd time DUI offenders to participate in testing twice a day, 7 days a week for alcohol and random drug testing. We support legislation which would allow Nevada Highway Patrol to draw blood. We have also supported the legislative efforts of other DUI victims.
We have volunteered as Victim Impact Panel speakers for Northern Nevada DUI Task Force and have been court observers for MADD. We supported families going through the court process for Stop DUI in Las Vegas. We have actively opposed legalization of recreational marijuana and medical marijuana that does not have FDA approval. We are members of Northern Nevada DUI Task Force, the Nevada State Strategic Safety Plan DUI committee, and attend Join Together Northern Nevada marijuana committee meetings.
I never imagined my life would involve being a victim advocate, a political activist or as active and involved with my community over the almost 25 years since Stephen’s death. I do not like the word “victim”, although I have used it several times in this story, I prefer the word “Survivor”.
We know of many families permanently damaged by the use of marijuana. It has been impossible for us to do nothing to prevent such devastation. I believe if the public sat in our courtrooms and heard how many lives are adversely affected by drug use our country would not be pursuing more liberal marijuana use laws. You cannot bring back a life lost.
Ilona Mager, Stephen’s mom