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How Did American Teens End Up Addicted to Heroin?


Just fifteen or twenty years ago, it would have been unheard of for a high school student to use or be addicted to heroin. That was a drug seemingly reserved for those “degraded, marginal characters” – the ones dubbed “junkies.” For middle-class families in cities or suburbs, heroin was a subject that seemed a million miles from their homes and children.


That’s no longer the situation. Now, families across the nation have discovered that their beloved children are addicted to heroin. In some families, this discovery is made only when their teen-aged child fatally overdoses. In schools, educators become frustrated when they do their best to prevent drug use by their students, only to suffer another loss to drug overdose.


See for yourself what is happening to the rate of drug overdoses among our young people. Follow the light green line in the chart below. That’s the death rate of those aged 15 to 24.


chart of drug overdose death rates 1999-2015


In 2015, we lost 3,744 teens and young adults (24 and below) to drug overdoses of any type. Of these, 645 were in their teens. Seventeen were 14 or younger, a statistic that would have seemed impossible in another era and, in fact, still seems beyond belief today.


Every year, more than a quarter-million adolescents misuse pain relievers. Usually, their first use involves a drug they took from a friend or relative or were given for free. In In In 2015, it’s estimated that 122,000 adolescents were addicted to pain relievers and that 21,000 adolescents had used heroin.


Why Do Youth Think it’s Okay to Misuse Pills or Use Heroin?


No matter how much parents try to shelter their kids, pro-drug messages sneak through their defenses. They sail in via television ads for prescription drugs, there are liquor stores on every other corner, pill bottles on the bedside table and unused medications in the medicine cabinet. After thousands of these messages, it’s hard to teach youth that in some instances drugs are necessary and yet most drug use can be very harmful and often leads to addiction. For example, “the drugs you get from the doctors are good but methamphetamine and cocaine are bad.” What is a young person to think when the drugs they are given such as Adderall or Ritalin are chemically so similar to these illicit stimulants? And so many young athletes are prescribed painkillers after injuries – medication that is chemically about the same as the heroin they can find on the street.


They’ve never learned that all drugs are basically poisons. In small, controlled doses, they can help a person through an illness or injury. But without education and monitoring, these doses can turn into the runaway train of addiction and the possibility of overdose.


Overprescribing Has Set the Stage for Overuse


It wasn’t negligent parents or educators or drug-craving teens who started this trend of heroin and painkiller abuse. It was the marketing practices of big pharmaceutical companies in the mid-1990s that kicked it off. Doctors believed pharmaceutical reps when they said that there was little abuse potential to their new painkiller formulas and these new pills were almost never addictive. Doctors were also being taught that pain was not being treated thoroughly enough. Doctors and dentists both began sending patients home with a 30-day supply of pills when a week or less would have sufficed. Soon, medicine chests across the country were filled with unused pills like OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax, Valium, Soma, Percocet and others.


As word of mouth on the “fun” that could be had misusing these pills spread through communities, young people began to use them at parties. Adults used them to get through difficult moods or incidents. They are so strong that addiction can grab a susceptible person quickly, sometimes after just a few uses.


And because painkillers are so similar to heroin, the transition to heroin is frighteningly easy for anyone addicted to pills. Heroin doesn’t require a doctor’s visit and it’s a fraction of the price of pills. It feels much the same when it’s abused but because of its unpredictable potency, it’s so easy to overdose.



The following scenario is all too common among young people who have been experimenting with pain relievers: Along comes the drug dealer who says, “Hey, heroin gives you the same high, it’s a lot cheaper and you can get it anywhere. Here’s a free sample – give it a try.” Pills are expensive so a young person may say yes. For so many people, one use is all it takes to get hooked.

young man being offered heroin

Maybe a young man or woman starts out snorting or smoking it, swearing, “I’ll never use a needle!” But before long, seeking a better high, the needle comes out. The individual is trapped. Now he (or she) is shooting up several times a day and nothing else seems to matter.


What is even more frightening is that in recent years the powerful synthetic painkiller fentanyl and fentanyl analogues (chemically similar drugs) are being imported in volume from Asia into the U.S. or Mexico. Then they’re added to the heroin supplies. The presence of one of these potent chemicals in the drug supply can make a person’s use of that brown or white powder their last.


Teens can be stopped before they start. It requires effective education. In an ideal world, everyone around a teen would be sober and observant – parents, teachers, coaches, ministers, extended family. But this isn’t always possible. Reaching teens in schools is an excellent way to instill an understanding of the dangers of drug use and the potential for addiction and overdose.


The Narconon drug education video curriculum is an evidence-based program that is used in schools across the country.  Our method has been successfully reaching youth with the truth about drugs for five decades.