2014 may very well be the most tumultuous year for drug and alcohol research and policy in recent history. The CDC has declared the rise in opioid (heroin and prescription painkiller) abuse a national epidemic, and more people are now dying from prescription drug overdoses than automobile accidents. States are legalizing and decriminalizing marijuana -- legislation that, just a few years ago, could never have gained any traction. New advancements in drug and alcohol prevention, intervention and treatment programs occur nearly every day.
So what does all this mean for teens and college students today? Here's what you need to know.
1. The opioid epidemic is big news.
If you get nothing else from this article, get this: opioids, including prescription painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone as well as heroin, are among the most serious drugs out there. Most people know heroin is a serious drug, but many don't see the peril in prescription painkillers. Because painkillers have a legitimate pharmacological purpose, many teens, college students and adults alike start taking these pills without fully understanding their danger. How bad could a drug be if your dentist gave it to you when you had your wisdom teeth removed? The answer? Pretty darn bad. In fact, more people now die from prescription painkillers than from heroin and cocaine. Combined.
It didn't used to be this way. Ask your parents. Opioids (mainly heroin) were "dirty" drugs, used only by the most serious drug users. Prescription painkiller use has tripled in the last two decades, and it's affecting the inner cities, middle class suburbs and everywhere in between. Because opioids are new to so many communities, people need to realize how deadly and addictive they are.
2. Even if recreational marijuana is legal in some states, it can still affect your performance and damage your health.
Whether or not you agree with recent legislative changes regarding marijuana, research proves that marijuana use prevents you from performing at your peak. Ask yourself: what are your short and long-term goals? Do you want to do well in school? Are you passionate about something you want to change in the world?
Marijuana seems harmless enough. (True, marijuana overdose is unlikely.) But marijuana can interfere with your motivation and cause you to fall behind on your goals. Most of the young people I know who have stopped using marijuana are happier and better off for it. Further, even if overdose is unlikely, marijuana use is associated with addiction and other long-term health consequences.
Just because marijuana is legal in some places doesn't mean it's the right decision for you.
3. In a potential overdose situation, call for help.
Overdose is a real danger. It's one of the leading causes of death among teens, and a big part of the problem is under-reporting. We've all been in that situation. We're at a party, and some kids are binge drinking or using drugs. A few kids are throwing up in the bathroom, and you find a guy passed out on the couch. Great party, huh? But does this guy on the couch need help? He'll be fine, right?
Please don't make that decision on your own. Trust me, calling the authorities is worth it -- worth embarrassing yourself, worth stopping the party and even worth getting in trouble. Just log on to International Overdose Day's website to see how "worth it" calling 911 is.
NOTE: Many states and college campuses have a "good samaritan" rule that will prevent you from getting in trouble for reporting a potential overdose.
4. Overdose isn't the only thing we're worried about.
High schools and colleges are focused on overdose, but that view may be myopic. Of course, overdose is the most visible issue for teens and college students, but in America alone, 23.5 million people struggle every day with addiction (approximately 7.5 percent of the American population).
Out of those 23.5 million people, I am guessing that none of them woke up one morning with the plan to get addicted to drugs. Addiction is sneaky. It starts with a series of seemingly benign mistakes. Once a person is addicted, however, it's an uphill, lifelong battle. Treatment for addiction works -- but you can never be "cured." If you become addicted to a substance, you'll spend the rest of your life with the threat of relapse.
Don't think it could happen to you? Neither did 23.5 million Americans.
5. Treatment is available, and you should use it if necessary.
Just over 10 percent of Americans struggling with addiction actually get help, and 90 percent of Americans struggling with addiction started using drugs before they turned 18-years-old. Put two and two together: there are probably a lot of teens and college students who need help but aren't getting it.
Fortunately, help is on the way. Addiction treatment is certifiably effective. And it's available to you. Under the Affordable Care Act, substance use care is now considered an essential health benefit (EHB), meaning all individual and small group health care plans are required to provide substance use care. Further, teens and college students are now eligible to stay on their parents' plan until they turn 26-years-old. If you feel like you have a problem with addiction, if you find yourself using drugs or alcohol alone, or if you feel like your day isn't complete without a fix, it may be time to seek professional help.
Follow Theodore Caputi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TheodoreCaputi