How Many Teens Die of Drug Overdose?

The precise number of teens who die from drug overdoses every year is unknown. However, in 2014, 47,000 people lost their lives to a drug overdose. That number escalated to 52,404 in 2015.2

Excessive drinking is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths among underage youth each year, including overdoses/alcohol poisoning and unintentional injuries (e.g. car crashes, falls, burns and drowning).8

The following are overall overdose deaths for select drugs as released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, followed by age-specific data for 15- to 24-year-olds.2

  • Cocaine: 6,784; 444
  • Heroin: 12,982; 1,649
  • Benzodiazepine (e.g. Valium, Xanax, Klonopin): 8,758; 665
  • Methadone: 3,285; 201

The Good and the Bad of Teenage Drug Use Trends

Every day, teens experiment with illicit drugs and take prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons. There is, however, some positive news:

  • In 2016, past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana continued declining to the lowest level in the 41-year history of the Monitoring the Future Survey among 8th-, 10th- and 12th-grade students.
  • Alcohol use and binge drinking also declined in all age groups.
  • Despite the continued rise in opioid misuse and overdose deaths among adults, past-year misuse of prescription opioids also decreased among high school seniors.
  • During the past five years, misuse dropped from 8.7% to 4.8%.
  • Heroin use also remained low, with past-year use at 0.3% in all three grades.3

Interestingly, the study did note a general decline in perceived risk of harm and disapproval of a number of substances, which is cause for alarm.

  • Fewer 8th-graders thought taking Ecstasy (MDMA) or synthetic cathinones (bath salts) on occasion was harmful and less disapproved of taking Ecstasy or inhalants regularly.
  • Among 10th-graders, there was a decrease in the number of students who perceived a risk of harm from trying inhalants or bath salts once or twice; using crack, Vicodin or bath salts occasionally or using inhalants regularly.
  • As expected, 12th-graders had low levels of perceived risk of using sedatives and amphetamines, likely due to their wide use for legitimate purposes.3

The Face of Teenage Drug Use

Not a day goes by without a media outlet in the U.S. recounting the heartbreaking loss of a teen due to drugs or alcohol. Sixteen-year-old Sam Motsay was one of them. An honors student from Center Grove, Indiana, Sam was also a talented athlete and played the tenor sax in his school band.

One day in May 2014, Sam and a couple of his friends tried what they thought was LSD or acid. Sam went to bed later that evening but never woke up. The drug he took was a dangerous synthetic drug called NBOMe, or N-bomb (also known as “Smiles” or “2-5-1”).1

What Percentage of Teens Use Drugs?

Sam’s story, sadly, is not all that uncommon. The 2016 Monitoring the Future Survey provides one of the most accurate barometers for teen drug use. Alcohol was the most common substance used with annual prevalence rates of 17.6%, 38.3% and 55.6% in 8th grade, 10th grade and 12th grade, respectively.

Despite recent declines, 61% of students consume alcohol (more than just a few sips) by the end of high school, and about 23% have done so by 8th grade. In 2016, 46% of 12th-graders and 9% of 8th-graders reported getting drunk at least once in their life.

The following table includes the annual prevalence rates for each of the three school grades, listed by drug. It is important to note these figures differ from current or past user statistics.3

Drug8th Grade10th Grade12th Grade
Alcohol17.6%38.3%55.6%
Cocaine0.8%1.3%2.3%
GHBN.A.N.A.0.9%
Heroin0.3%0.3%0.3%
KetamineN.A.N.A.1.2%
Marijuana9.4%23.9%35.6%
Marijuana (Synthetic)2.7%3.3%3.5%
OxyContin0.9%2.1%3.4%
Rohypnol0.5%0.5%1.1%
Tranquilizers (e.g. Benzos)1.7%4.1%4.9%
KetamineN.A.N.A.1.2%

 

Another important assessment of adolescent drug use is derived from the annual SAMHSA National Survey on Drug Use and Health. This survey categorizes drug use by age ranges and current or past use. In 2015, an estimated 2.2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 (8.8%) were current users of illicit drugs. The following is the percentage of current users (nonmedical use for prescription drugs) in 2015, aged 12-17, by drug:4

  • Alcohol: 9.6%
  • Cocaine: 0.2%
  • Hallucinogens: 0.5%
  • Heroin: Less than 0.1%
  • Inhalants: 0.7%
  • Marijuana: 7%
  • Methamphetamine: 0.1%
  • Pain relievers: 1.1%
  • Psychotherapeutic drugs: 2%
  • Stimulants: 0.5%
  • Tranquilizers: 0.7%

Additional Facts and Stats

  • Research indicates 50% of teens believe prescription drugs are significantly safer than street drugs. Alarmingly, prescription drugs were responsible for the most overdose deaths in 2015, including among teenagers.5
  • After marijuana and alcohol, prescription drugs are the most commonly misused substances by Americans aged 14 and older.6
  • Boys are more likely to misuse prescription stimulants to get high, while girls tend to misuse them to stay alert or to lose weight.6
  • Overall opioid use among high school seniors increased in the 1980s, declined in the 1990s and increased in the early 2000s, before starting to decline again in 2013.7
  • An analysis of 188,468 prescription opioid exposures in individuals aged 20 and younger between 2000 and 2015 in the National Poison Data System found that teens comprised three out of 10 exposures.7

How Many Teens Are Addicted to Drugs?

Not all teens who use illicit drugs or abuse prescription drugs develop addiction, although statistics indicate 1.2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 had some type of substance use disorder (SUD) in 2015. Only 6.2% of adolescents who needed treatment received it at a facility specializing in drug addictions.

Individuals who begin using drugs in their youth are at greater risk of becoming addicted compared to those who begin drug use as adults. This is due to the immaturity of the teenage brain, particularly the region controlling impulses. Specific past-year SUDs in this age group were as follows in 2015:4

  • Alcohol use disorder: 623,000
  • Cocaine use disorder: 31,000
  • Heroin use disorder: 6,000
  • Marijuana use disorder: 651,000
  • Methamphetamine use disorder: 22,000
  • Pain reliever use disorder: 122,000
  • Stimulant use disorder: 38,000
  • Tranquilizer use disorder: 77,000

If you have experienced such a loss, you know firsthand how tragic it is for a young person to never get the chance to fulfill his or her destiny. Even one young life lost to drugs is too many.

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