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Experts say many teen users aren’t aware of the additional substances being added to illegal drugs. Taya Iv/500px/Getty Images
  • Researchers say the number of teen drug overdoses in the United States rose significantly in the past two years despite overall drug use remaining stable.
  • They say the main reason for the hike is the increasing practice of lacing illegal drugs with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.
  • Experts say most teen users aren’t aware they are consuming a drug that contains additives such as fentanyl.

America’s mean streets are getting deadlier for many adolescents.

In the past two years, deaths of people ages 14 to 18 caused by drug overdoses have risen dramatically, according to new research.

Researchers report that drug use among this age group in the United States has remained relatively stable since 2010. However, they say the number of drug overdose deaths among adolescents jumped from 518 in 2010 to 954 in 2020 and 1,146 in 2021.

A study from Ontario, Canada, found results along similar lines. It reported that as opioid mortality there increased five-fold from 2003 to 2020, the age demographic shifted downward. The rates now peak at people in their mid-30s.

Contrary to what one might think, though, the recent hike in the United States is not really a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers say the deaths are actually happening because illicit street drugs are increasingly and clandestinely laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid typically used to treat people with chronic severe pain or severe pain following surgery.

Fentanyl is similar to morphine, but it can be 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

Most of the time, the young users don’t even know they are consuming this drug. Most of them think they are purchasing legitimate prescription medications, researchers reported.

Since 2015, black-market fentanyl has been increasingly added to these counterfeit pills that resemble opioids, benzodiazepines, and other prescription drugs, said Joseph Friedman, Ph.D., an author of the new study and a medical student at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California Los Angeles.

“We have seen an unprecedented increase in deaths in this age group,” Friedman told Healthline. “By and large, teens just don’t know that these are fake pills.”

Friedman keeps a close eye on the traffic of illegal drugs and how it affects adolescents in the United States.

Beginning in 2020, he says, adolescents experienced a greater relative increase in overdose mortality than the overall population, attributable in large part to fatalities involving fentanyl.

The new study from UCLA Health shows that the illegal drug supply has become increasingly contaminated with illicitly manufactured fentanyl and other synthetic opioid and benzodiazepine analogs.

“These pills, which look like the real thing, include Oxycontin, Xanax, other benzodiazepines, and more,” Friedman explained.

“Those are medications that, taken by themselves, are relatively safe. This is not an example of more teens using drugs They are actually at historic lows, but the supply is more toxic,” he added.

The first thing that needs to be done, Friedman said, is to get the word out.

“We need to let this age group know, anyway we can, that a pill on the street now very likely includes fentanyl,” he said.

Several physicians tell Healthline that despite the dangers of illicit fentanyl, under the supervision of a licensed medical professional, this drug and other opioids still play a legitimate and important role in pain management.

Dr. Jane N. Winter, the president of the American Society of Hematology (ASH), said that while there are dangers from illegal drugs, some of these pain medications serve a positive purpose.

This includes cancer patients and many others who are in severe and chronic pain.

“ASH recognizes the challenges with the opioid epidemic in the United States that requires significant attention. Just as the opioid misuse has reached epidemic proportions so does the suffering caused by blood disorders, like Sickle Cell Disease and various cancers of the blood,” Winter told Healthline.

“As our nation continues to address this crisis, ASH continues to promote cautious, thoughtful consideration of opioid use in order to avoid unintended consequences for patients with chronic diseases who are treated by hematologists,” she added.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 2 milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal depending on a person’s body size, tolerance, and past usage.

The agency reports that 42 percent of pills tested for fentanyl contained at least 2 mg of fentanyl.

Drug trafficking organizations typically distribute fentanyl by kilograms, according to the agency. Unless a drug is prescribed by a licensed medical professional and dispensed by a legitimate pharmacy, you don’t know if it’s fake or legitimate.

And without laboratory testing, there’s no way to know the amount of fentanyl in an individual pill or how much may have been added to another drug.

This is especially dangerous because of fentanyl’s potency.

This illegal fentanyl trade is a problem in virtually every region of the United States, both urban and rural.

Federal law enforcement in many states, including Kansas, are partnering with the DEA to stop the spread of illicit fentanyl.

Daniel Neill, the executive director of the Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, summed it up in an interview with a Kansas television station last week.

“I hope this shocks you, but in a three-month period of time, the state of Kansas has had over 2,500 overdoses,” he explained.