Illegal drugs' overdose kills 22 American teens every week — What's US doing about it?

Number of US teenage overdoses in Arizona, Colorado, Washington State is double than national average

By Web Desk
February 19, 2024
An image of drugs kept on the table. — Britannica/File

Twenty-two teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 lost their lives in the United States each week as a result of drug overdoses in 2022; this group's mortality rate rose to 5.2 per 100,000.

Recent research has linked this spike to the widespread use of fake medications laced with fentanyl, according to SciTech Daily.


Between 2019 and 2020, the number of overdose deaths among adolescents more than doubled. Since then, the number of deaths has increased to the equivalent of a high school classroom every week, making it the third leading cause of paediatric deaths, behind gun-related injuries and auto accidents.

However, the rise is not the result of increased use of illegal drugs, which has actually decreased over time. For instance, in the 20 years since 2002, the percentage of 12th graders who use illegal drugs has decreased from roughly 21% to 8%, excluding cannabis.

Rather, the rise is the outcome of medicines becoming more lethal because of fentanyl, which is increasingly present in benzodiazepines, counterfeit oxycodone, and other prescription medications that end up in the hands of teenagers.

The researchers write in a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine that schools, doctors, and mental health professionals may play a crucial role in helping to stem this flood by providing targeted inquiries and information regarding drug use and the risks that counterfeit medicines provide.

Furthermore, authorities can concentrate on "hotspot" counties with exceptionally high overdose deaths, the majority of which are in western states.

“Teenagers are likely to be unaware of just how high-risk experimenting with pills has become, given the recent rise in counterfeit tablets,” said study co-author Joseph Friedman, a researcher at UCLA.

“It’s often impossible to tell the difference with the naked eye between a real prescription medication obtained from a doctor and a counterfeit version with a potentially deadly dose of fentanyl. It’s urgent that teenagers be given accurate information about the real risks, and strategies to keep themselves and their friends safe,” she added.

Between 2020 and 2022, the researchers discovered that the number of adolescent overdoses in Arizona, Colorado, and Washington State was double the national average.

Maricopa County in Arizona and Los Angeles County had the highest number of fatal overdoses over this period, with 117 and 111, respectively. They identified 19 hotspot counties, or those with at least 20 overdose deaths and death rates greater than the national average.