Patti Bacchus: What kids need to learn about drugs

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      The grad and beach-party season has always been a risky time for teens, but with our contaminated drug supply, it’s never been more dangerous.

      There’s no vaccination to make kids immune to dying from drug overdoses or fentanyl poisoning, but giving them up-to-date, factual information and harm-reduction strategies can reduce the risks, and maybe save some lives.

      We’re in the midst of an overdose crisis—or, if you prefer, a drug-poisoning epidemic—and it's leaving a heartbreaking number of families grieving for loved ones. The numbers are staggeringly tragic, and they get worse each year.

      As a parent, former school trustee, and long-time public-education advocate, I’m a believer that the solution to much of what ails us is education. Kids and young adults have never been more at risk of dying from the wrong pill or powder, and we need to do everything we can to make them aware of the risks and how to avoid—or at least minimize—them.

      It’s inevitable that some teens and young adults will take risks by drinking too much, experimenting with drugs, or both. It was ever thus. That’s always been dangerous, and sometimes deadly, but the stakes are higher than ever today with our contaminated supply of easily obtainable illicit drugs.

      The good news is that overdose deaths among youth aged 10 to 18 are still relatively rare, but the bad news is they’re on the increase and young adults over 19 are dying at record levels from drug-related deaths.

      What the school system needs to do

      School districts run some excellent programs, like the Vancouver School Board’s (VSB) SACY (Supporting and Connecting Youth) substance-use program, but they don’t reach enough kids and they don’t always give students information they need to stay safe. Programs like SACY are chronically underfunded and understaffed, and school-board budgets can’t absorb the costs of additional programming.

      Health authorities do a lot of good work too, and they work in collaboration with school boards on programs. But we need to get solid harm-reduction information out to all kids—in all schools—and we aren’t doing enough of that.

      School counsellors do good work but have large caseloads and may lack up-to-date knowledge about the risks kids face when someone offers them a pill at a party and how to minimize harm beyond just saying “no”. They may not know how to teach kids to recognize signs of an overdose in a friend or family member and what to do.

      Emily Jenkins is an assistant professor at UBC’s School of Nursing who studies mental health and substance use. She told me by phone this week that research shows that young people need and want evidence-based, factual information and that abstinence-based approaches are ineffective and harmful.

      She says scare tactics don’t reflect what kids are seeing and that the abstinence approach (say “no” to drugs, etcetera) creates harmful divisions between young people and their caregivers and erodes trust. She says schools, parents, and others who interact with youth need to open up dialogue and not shut down kids who are curious about drugs or who are using substances inappropriately.

      Advice from the front lines

      What do kids need to know about those “Molly” or “Xanax” (I’m using quotation marks because despite what they’re called, they could contain any number of ingredients) tablets someone offers them at a party? What about the coke or ketamine on the table that could be something else, including highly addictive fentanyl? What should they do if a friend is unconscious at a party? Should they believe their friend’s older brother whose been dabbling in drugs for years, and claims to know what’s safe and what isn’t?

      These days, pills and powders are often contaminated with fentanyl—or the even-deadlier carfentanil—and Johnny’s older brother isn’t the drug expert he makes himself out to be.

      My kids, who are now in their early twenties, say they didn’t learn much about drugs at all in school, aside from being told not to use them.

      Expert advice from the front lines

      I met Sarah Blyth when we were both first running for office in the 2008 elections. Blyth was vying for a spot on Vancouver's park board while I was running for the VSB. We became fast friends and she remains one of my favourite people. Sarah wanted to improve opportunities for youth in our city's parks and recreation facilities. She wanted to build more skate parks and make youth feel welcome and valued in our public spaces.

      We both got elected and served as chairs on our boards, and we kept in close contact and supported each other through our ups and downs in public office. Sarah was always the real deal: passionate about making life better for others, especially for those on the margins.

      When Sarah left public office, she went on to work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, managing homeless shelters and a street market. When people started overdosing in the lane by the market, she set up a tent staffed by volunteers who were trained and equipped with naloxone, and she didn’t wait for anyone to give her permission.

      She’s never looked back and now runs a larger-scale safe-consumption site that’s become an internationally recognized model for saving lives during the deadly opiod epidemic. Blyth and her crew have treated more than 1,000 overdoses without a single death. She’s doing everything she can to prevent more families from losing loved ones. She’s also a mother to a teen son and knows firsthand how hard it is to be a parent in these complicated times.

      I figured Blyth and her team at what is now the bustling Vancouver Overdose Prevention Society (OPS) on East Hastings Street, a consumption site where drug users can inject or smoke drugs in a safe setting, would know better than most about the real risks of today’s illicit drug supply and what teens and parents need to know.

      What Sarah Blyth wants kids and teens to learn about drugs

      Blyth told me too many kids learn about drugs from unsavoury people instead of getting factual information from credible sources. “Don’t let drug sellers and pushers or gangs educate your kids,” she advises. “It’s so easy for kids to get drugs, so they need to be educated about what is going on with the fentanyl and carfentanil contamination of the drug supply.”

      Along with learning how to handle pressure to take or buy drugs, Blyth said teens need to know what they’re experimenting with and the risks that go along with it. They also need to know what to do if they think a friend, relative, or someone at a party might be overdosing (call 911, clear airways, start mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, administer naloxone, if its available).

      She repeatedly stressed the importance of never using drugs alone and to not be afraid to call 911 immediately if someone appears to have overdosed. She adds that combining opiods and alcohol can be especially lethal.

      She’d love to see more teachers, parents, and students trained to use naloxone and to carry it with them. She’d also love to see a kiosk on the Granville strip where people could have their drugs tested to see what’s in them. They do testing at her Downtown Eastside OPS site, but she believes that taking the service to where people are out partying could help save lives and increase awareness of drug contamination.

      Blyth doesn’t drink or use drugs herself, and she is also concerned about kids who are vaping and abusing alcohol. “Some things kill you right away and some things kill you over time,” she says. She stresses that she does not want to sound like she’s promoting any kind of substance use at all but wants to stop people from dying if they choose to use drugs.

      At the overdose site, Blyth said they see a lot of “down”, which comes in a crystallized form, usually in a flap of paper, and in a range of colours. When tested, it can contain everything from rat poison, cement, pig dewormer, and worse, along with deadly fentanyl. “It gets altered as it works its way down through the system, and God only knows what you’re getting when you buy it.”

      Sarah Blyth and Trey Helton look at a sample of contaminated street drugs in their Downtown Eastside OPS offices.
      Patti Bacchus

      Fentanyl, and the even deadlier carfentanil, can end up in pills that are sold as “Molly” (also known as ecstasy and MDMA), fake Xanax, and other pills made using pill presses, as well as in powder sold as cocaine or ketamine. “It’s important to know that the people who make those pills don’t care about you,” Blyth said.

      She said it’s critical that kids learn how to recognize the signs of an overdose and what to do.

      Blyth said that if she could design an education program for youth, she would teach kids about what drugs are out on the streets and what to do in an emergency. She’d like to give them the knowledge that would enable them to be confident about second-guessing what others might be telling them. She says there’s gang activity in high schools, which goes hand in hand with the drug trade.

      She warned that it’s also easy for kids to order drugs online, which isn’t any safer than buying them on the street.

      Blyth has lost count of the number of parents she’s met who have lost kids to overdoses and fentanyl poisoning. She said they all support better education for children and youth and say they didn’t get enough support to save their kids.

      “We can be supportive by not judging parents or kids. We need to understand why kids are using, and educate and support kids who are vulnerable,” Blyth said, adding that many drug users suffer from anxiety and stress that’s rooted in unsupported learning disabilities. She wants us to help kids when they’re young so they don’t end up feeling hopeless and in pain, which makes them vulnerable to drug use and addiction.

      Blyth’s colleague at the OPS, Trey Helton, told me this week that “drugs are contaminated and they are everywhere”. He said that "people who use drugs think they’re experts, but they’re often street dealers who don’t have any background in chemistry".

      Helton is one of the lucky ones. Growing up in Richmond, he had a hard time fitting in and started drinking and smoking marijuana in his teens. He smoked crack at 16 and says he tried cocaine at 16 or 17. His life went downhill from there, as he become addicted to methamphetamine and heroin. He says he “lost everything and was living on the streets, pushing a shopping cart”.

      Eventually, he hit what he calls rock bottom and got involved in Narcotics Anonymous. He’s now 36 and has been clean and sober since January 2016. He spends his days as a peer-support volunteer at OPS and credits safe injection sites for keeping him alive long enough to get into recovery.

      Helton says education and awareness are the keys to saving lives right now

      Organizations like Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH) agree and are calling for an end to the “failed war on drugs” and for a harm-reduction approach. MSTH is a network of families who have lost loved ones to drugs and suicide following struggles with mental health and substance use. They say the best protection is education. 

      The grieving moms want a “new approach that provides honest, accurate and timely drug information so that young people can make the safest choice possible”.

      Time for action

      Our schools and communities need to do everything they can to support children who struggle with learning disabilities or other issues that make them feel like they don’t fit in and make them feel hopeless. We may not be able to stop kids from experimenting or using drugs, or even from becoming addicted. What we can do is to equip them with the knowledge to make safer choices so that the substances they use don’t kill them. For those who become addicted, we need to keep them alive so they can get into recovery when they’re ready, like Helton did.

      We need to find better ways to deliver that information through our schools, and we need to find ways to support those in the school system who are already doing that work with neither enough time nor enough staff.

      If you’re a teacher or parent who’d like to have Blyth or Helton come and speak to kids or parents at your school and answer their questions in a factual, judgement- free way, you can email them at

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.