HOUSTON – Is your teen using drugs? Would you spot the warning signs? More parents are signing up their children for random drug testing, which one Houston mother is pushing for after she lost her son to drugs.
Houston-born actor and writer Harris Wittels always knew how to make people laugh.
"Harris was literally born a comedian," his mother, Maureen Wittels, said. "He was like a walking encyclopedia of comedy."
Maureen said she remembers when Harris, at age 4, insisted on being the birthday clown at his own party. At 6 years old, Harris was dressing up and acting out skits, and at 8 years old he was onstage at a fashion show at his school. By 18, Harris had won third place for Houston's Funniest Person at the popular LAFF Stop in Houston.
"Anything to do with comedy, he did it," Maureen said. "Sarah Silverman heard him one night in a club. She got in touch with him. He sent her some writing and he was hired to write for her show at 22, for two years."
Harris went on to write for the NBC hit show "Parks and Rec" and later became executive producer for the show. In 2015, Harris was planning on moving to New York City to work on the Netflix show "Master of None."
"He was just funny, funny all the time, (but) not so funny inside," Maureen said.
After suffering a back injury, Harris started taking OxyContin.
"That first pill for him was deadly," she said. "That was the beginning of the end. Because of his personality, he just went off. At one point, he was spending about $4,000 a month on Oxy. It's real easy to move into heroin because it's cheaper and much easier to get on the street."
After three stints in rehab and countless family interventions, Harris died from a heroin drug overdose in 2015. His parents were surprised to later discover that Harris first tried drugs in junior high school.
"In his rehab journals we got after he died, he mentioned that he had been trying drugs since he was 12, but it was for recreation," Maureen said. "We simply didn't know what was happening to him."
The National Institute on Drug Abuse research shows teens who use drugs are more likely to get hooked later in life.
Should you test your teens for drugs?
"It's pretty common here to see a parent come in with a teenager," said Doug Conquest, owner of Any Lab Test Now in Sugar Land. "They say they have some suspicions about their kids using drugs and they ask what kind of tests we have."
Conquest said in the last two years, he has seen a 20 to 30 percent increase in the number of parents testing their teens for drugs.
"They test for commonly taking illegal street drugs like marijuana, some of the opioids, cocaine ...," Conquest said. "We also have other tests, which are specifically for synthetic marijuana, Spice or K2, common names for that."
The tests are simple. They usually involve a hair or urine sample, and the price ranges from $20 to $70.
Catching drug use early is key. That's why Crime Stoppers of Houston works in 200 schools in the Houston area.
"Our goal in the schools is to do whatever we can to keep them safe, and that means to tackle any issue that they are dealing with," Rania Mankarious, the executive director of Crime Stoppers Houston, said. "We could not do that and ignore drugs, alcohol, synthetic drugs. We really developed a method of talking to our kids in a way that they trust us, they rely on us and they're willing to share information with us."
She encouraged parents to have a plan and consider drug testing.
"It's going to help you identify if there a problem, and potentially save your child, save you and your family from great, great, great problems down the road," Mankarious said.
Maureen Wittels said she is sharing her story to help save other parents from her pain.
"In retrospect, I wish I had been more in tune to that," she said. "If I knew Harris was having that problem, I would absolutely be drug testing him. You have got to drug test them and you've got to talk about it."
Pharmacies sell over-the-counter drug tests that you can do at home, but they are limited in the types of drugs they detect. For the most thorough tests, taking your child to a lab setting is the best option.
"We urge parents to really stop and learn everything they can about this topic," Mankarious said. "It can save lives. It's a very important story. A lot of parents are thinking, 'This would never be my family. This would never be my child,' but yet, they have no idea what is out there, so it's really important that the message is shared and heard."
"I don't want Harris to die in vain," Maureen said. "I don't want anybody to go through what we went through. Unless you have lost a child, you have no idea what kind of pain that is."
You can hear more about Harris in an interview with the Wittels family.
Additional help for parents, caretakers and teachers of teens: