As fatal drug overdoses among teens rise, is drug education working in America?

Teen overdose deaths increased in 2020 and 2021, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The deaths are not the result of increased drug experimentation: Federal data shows that overall drug use among teens is down.

Instead, they are fueled by a rise in synthetic opioids like fentanyl, illicit drugs more powerful and deadly than heroin. Synthetic opioids are becoming more common in pills bought on the street, and teens are feeling the pinch.

Joseph Friedmana public health researcher at the University of California and lead author of the JAMA study, says U.S. drug education programs that focus on abstinence don’t prepare kids to stay alive in the face of a changing supply of drugs. drugs.

Parents and teachers need to tell kids that abstinence, or at least delaying drug use until their 20s, is the best option, he says. But they should present that along with other realistic information about how to safely experiment with substances.

Looking for resources on drug education? Try the Drug Policy Alliance’s Safety First Curriculum.

Interview Highlights

On the role of synthetic opioids in the increase in overdose deaths

“Synthetic opioids like fentanyls have been driving spikes in the US overdose crisis for more than a decade. What is changing now is that synthetic opioids are packaged as counterfeit pills, which teens are more likely to report experimenting with. For decades, teens have reported experimenting with prescription pills, and overdose deaths haven’t increased because those pills are actually much safer, relatively speaking. But now that those pills are being replaced by illicit fentanyls, we see deaths rising.”

On the racial and geographic disparities her study found

“West Coast teens have been hit the hardest by this. And Native American and Latino teens also bear a disproportionate burden. Some of that has to do with the geographic distribution of these pills. There are also very significant inequalities in access to the services, advice and medical care that people need to stay safe from such a dangerous supply of drugs.”

On whether US drug education is ready to handle the crisis

“I would say that we are sadly ill-equipped to handle this situation. As a country, we’ve really focused on abstinence-only drug education for decades, and even now, with teen drug use rates at record lows, still 40% of 12th graders report experimenting with an illicit drug. … Unfortunately, teenagers are just going to experiment with drugs. It’s just part of American culture. What we really need to do is equip them with the skills and understanding to stay safe. That means understanding that pills and powders are the highest risk. It also means knowing how to encourage your friends to never use alone, making sure someone is there to call 911 if things go wrong. And make sure you have naloxone available, because opioid overdoses are 100% preventable and reversible if naloxone is readily available.”

Francesca Paris produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Paris adapted it for the web.

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