Robert Gebelhoff: Where is the outrage over teen overdose deaths?
April 19, 2022 Updated Tue., April 19, 2022 at 8:52 a.m.
Teens now make up the fastest-growing age cohort for overdose deaths in the United States.
Take a moment and think about what that says about this country. And consider that, without a fundamental rethinking of drug policies, this problem will only get worse.
From January to June 2021, about 1,150 adolescents aged 14 to 18 died of drug overdoses, a research letter published recently in JAMA found. That’s a 20% increase from 2020 – and more than double the 2019 death toll. This is a small portion of the more than 100,000 Americans who died of overdoses in the first half of last year, but the surge is horrifying nonetheless.
It is also happening even though teen drug use has remained essentially constant. (In fact, teen drug use might even be falling.) The reason is clear: Drugs are becoming more and more dangerous. As fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be up to 50 times more potent than heroin, has contaminated America’s illicit drug supply, drug experimentation has become exponentially riskier.
That means teenagers – like older drug users – don’t need to become addicted to opioids to suffer an overdose. The biggest problem is kids trying to get their hands on prescription opioids such as oxycodone and ending up with fake pills laced with fentanyl. There are also cases of marijuana and counterfeit Xanax and Adderall pills poisoned with the substance.
Parents should be screaming from the rooftops about this. Since the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 has killed around 900 children in the United States, prodding many parents to insist that schools remain closed or impose strict safety measures. Imagine if they expended the same energy into demanding solutions to drug overdoses among children.
If they had, perhaps 14-year-old Paris Serrano, who died of an overdose in March 2021 after smoking what might have been fentanyl-laced marijuana, might still be alive. Same goes for 12-year-old Dalilah Julianna Mederos Guerrero, who died in November 2020 after taking what she thought was Percocet. And 14-year-old Alexander Neville, who died in June 2020 after taking a counterfeit painkiller.
Confronting this scourge requires policymakers to acknowledge some uncomfortable truths. The first is that disrupting the supply of these drugs, while it must be a top priority for law enforcement, will not happen anytime soon. Because a tiny amount of fentanyl goes a long way, it is cheap to produce and easy to transport. It is being smuggled into the United States primarily by cartels in Mexico, and there is little appetite in either country for initiating the sort of bloody war on drugs that proved ineffective in combating cocaine. So waiting for better drug control is not an option.
Second, there will always be kids who seek drugs. Educators and parents should continue to argue against drug use, period. But it’s time to consider going beyond that, including showing kids the dangers of buying drugs when they don’t know what is in them and even how to use Narcan, an overdose reversal drug. This might make parents uncomfortable, but the alternative should make them even more so.
Finally, while it’s true that most teens who have overdosed typically have not sought out fentanyl, the only reason the drug has infiltrated black markets so thoroughly is because there is so much demand for powerful opioids among committed drug users. That means the best way to address the problem is to reduce demand more broadly.
Congress can reduce the need for more powerful opioids by dramatically scaling up addiction treatment. The vast majority of Americans with opioid use disorder still lack access to medication-assisted therapies, such as methadone or buprenorphine. Changing that will take funding and reforms in federal regulations to make it easier for physicians to dispense the treatments. This should have been done years ago.
Congress can also help by making it easier for drug users to spot dangerous drugs. That means making fentanyl test strips widely available. It also requires lawmakers – especially Republicans – to stop disparaging harm reduction facilities, such as needle exchange sites, which are essential to distributing test strips. If drug users discover that certain dealers are selling contaminated drugs, they might just stop buying from them.
All of these proposals may not be enough. The crushing swell of death among Americans battling serious drug addictions is now spilling over into a much broader swath of the population: casual drug users and experimenting teens. And there are signs that other countries might be on the verge of experiencing similar problems.
But inaction is unacceptable. No parent should have to go to their child’s room in the morning to discover a blue-lipped corpse.
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