Teen overdose rates more than doubled in the last two years, but the pandemic is not to blame – instead it’s the increased presence of highly potent substances in street drugs that’s proven deadly.

J. Craig Allen, MD, vice president of addiction services for Hartford HealthCare and medical director of Rushford, said rates of adolescent substance use have been stable and even decreased during the pandemic. Research recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), however, highlighted a new trend.

“This increase in poisonings reflects a dangerous change in the drug environment where the drug supply is laced with fentanyl,” Dr. Allen said.

The JAMA publication showed 954 adolescent deaths from overdose in 2020, compared to 492 in 2019, and an additional 20 percent increase in 2021. Dr. Allen referenced the winter death of a 13-year-old Hartford student from fentanyl poisoning as a tragic example. In fact, 77 percent of all teen overdose deaths in 2021 involved fentanyl.

“The focus has been on adults and people who are seeking heroin and heroin fentanyl mixtures, but less attention has been paid to the economics which lure in the next generation of user, teens,” Dr. Allen said.

Teens, he said, aren’t looking for street drugs, they instead seek prescription medications which they perceive as less risky. That demand drives drug dealers to create products that look like legitimate prescription drugs, including pills that look like benzodiazepines (Xanax or Klonopin), prescription opioids (Vicodin, Oxycontin, hydrocodone) or stimulants (Adderal).

Youth, parents, teachers and others in the community, he continued, need to understand the cunning ways fentanyl is being marketed to teens, such as through social media, on the internet or dark net websites and in faux prescription pills.

“This is a drug that is 50 times more potent than heroin so minute amounts create big effects, and it can easily be blended into cocaine or into pills made with illegal pill presses,” he said. “We need to teach kids the facts about drugs and alcohol. All drugs pose dangers but some are more dangerous than others.”

Dr. Allen also suggested youth and those closest to them be trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of opioid overdose and have access to naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal medication.