Drug overdose deaths among high school-aged teens have more than doubled since 2019, driven by a rise in the deadly opioid fentanyl, a study found. Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles who analyzed mortality rates among 14- to 18-year-olds over the past decade found that while drug use among this age group is actually falling, fatalities are on the rise, jumping from 492 in 2019 to 954 in 2020, then climbing to 1,146 in 2021, The Guardian reports. Researchers blame a flood of counterfeit pills that look exactly like real oxycodone or Xanax tablets, but actually contain fentanyl, a synthetic opioid so potent that one counterfeit pill can prove fatal. Vast quantities of these fake pills are being smuggled into the U.S. and are circulating in the illicit drug market, meaning that teens often ingest the deadly drug unknowingly.
“We’re seeing really young kids start to die, because the illicit drug supply has become extremely toxic,” said Joseph Friedman, who led the study, published in Jama. The study found that the rates of drug deaths are highest among Indigenous and Hispanic teens, but that young people of all races are affected. The UCLA study cited survey data showing that the number of 10th graders reporting having used drugs in the past year held steady at about thirty percent between 2010 and 2020 and then dropped to only eighteen percent during 2021, as the pandemic stretched on. “A really important fact here is that more kids are not doing drugs,” said Morgan Godvin, a Portland, Or.-based drug addiction researcher and co-author of the study. “The drugs they are doing are just incredibly more lethal.”