Oct. 18, 2022
Drug use among adolescents has stayed steady or even decreased in recent years, but overdoses among teenagers are increasing, largely because of the contamination of the drug supply with fentanyl.
There’s little danger this Halloween of young trick-or-treaters consuming “rainbow fentanyl” — brightly colored pills laced with the dangerous synthetic opioid.
But it is important for parents to have honest conversations with kids about the real dangers of fentanyl.
Drug use among adolescents has stayed steady or even decreased in recent years, but overdoses among teenagers are increasing, largely because of the contamination of the drug supply with fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid that’s much stronger than heroin.
In Philadelphia, fentanyl has replaced most of the heroin supply and is also turning up in counterfeit pills made to look like legitimate pharmaceutical painkillers.
That’s a more present danger than pills that look like candy, according to Sheila Vakharia, the deputy director of the Department of Research and Academic Engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a national nonprofit that advocates against punitive drug policy. Teenagers have likely already heard warnings about powdered heroin and fentanyl and might take a pill that looks like a medication believing it’s safer, she said.
“At this moment, parents are doing a great job — kids aren’t doing drugs at rates higher than kids even a few years older than them,” Vakharia said. “If we want to keep those rates low, and keep kids who are using drugs alive, we need to arm them with facts and skepticism.”
With that in mind, parents should also warn adolescents that a pill they buy on the street or encounter at a party may also contain fentanyl or other dangerous adulterants.
The Drug Policy Alliance publishes a number of tips for parents and educators looking to help young people stay safe in situations where they might encounter drugs. Among them:
- Help kids come up with other ways to refuse an offer of drugs or alcohol — beyond simply saying “no.” “Sometimes ‘just saying no’ doesn’t feel like an option, even to kids who don’t want to try alcohol or other drugs,” the DPA writes in a tip sheet for parents. Instead, the organization says, help your children figure out a few alternate excuses, like “I have to get up early tomorrow,” or “I don’t like the taste of alcohol.”
- Make sure your teenagers understand how different drugs have different effects, and discourage them from mixing different substances.
- Tell teenagers never to drive after drinking or using drugs. “Make this a nonnegotiable rule,” the DPA advises, “and be prepared to offer your teen a nonjudgmental ride home if needed.”
- Tell teenagers they shouldn’t leave friends alone if they’ve been drinking or taking drugs, and help them plan for an emergency like alcohol poisoning or overdoses. Parents and teens can research good Samaritan laws, which exist in many states and “can protect people from legal repercussions of drug possession when they call 911 to report an overdose,” the DPA notes.
Some colleges and high schools are now making accessible naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug, along with first aid kits, said Vakharia, the advocate for national policies to reduce the harm from drugs.
Parents can also stress that it is important to test all pills obtained illicitly for fentanyl, said Jen Shinefeld, a field epidemiologist for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.
She tells clients to test “any pill you bought off the street — even if someone sells it to you in a pharmacy bottle.”