Teens Who Abuse Rx Opioids More Likely to Try Heroin

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

A new study from the University of Southern California finds that teens who abuse prescription opioids are more likely to start using heroin by high school graduation.  

Published in JAMA Pediatrics, the study tracked nearly 3,300 students in ten public high schools in the Los Angeles area from 2013-2017. Nearly 600 of those students reported using prescription opioids to get high.

By the end of high school, a total of 70 students had started using heroin, including about 12% of those who abused opioid medication. Only 1.7% of students who did not misuse prescription opioids tried heroin.

The researchers looked closely at not only the nonmedical use of prescription opioids, but also the use of other substances. A family history of smoking, alcohol and drug problems, and interpersonal factors such as impulsiveness, anxiety, depression and delinquent behavior were also assessed.

Among all the different factors, the best predictor of heroin use was the abuse of prescription opioids. This tendency was significantly stronger than the use of alcohol, cannabis, cigarettes or other non-opioid drugs.

"Prescription opioids and heroin activate the brain's pleasure circuit in similar ways," said senior author Adam Leventhal, PhD, director of the USC Institute for Addiction Science. "Teens who enjoy the 'high' from prescription opioids could be more inclined to seek out other drugs that produce euphoria, including heroin.”


Researchers also found that students who initiated heroin use were more likely to be male, have less parental monitoring, more delinquent behavior, and impulsive personalities.

The USC study adds to previous research on the complex drug use trajectories that culminate with heroin. It has long been known that nonmedical prescription opioid use is associated with later heroin use, with some anti-opioid activists claiming that 80% of heroin addicts begin by abusing prescription opioids. That is a misleading statistic, as I discussed in a previous column.

There clearly is an association between the misuse of prescription opioids and heroin use, but as the USC researchers found, many other factors are also involved and more research is needed. Their study, for example, did not look at how teens who misused prescription opioids obtained them.  Most likely, they were obtained from friends or family members.

The USC study findings not only advance our understanding of heroin initiation, but also signal the importance of developing better policies to prevent nonmedical opioid use.

Roger Chriss.jpg

Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Misuse of Pain Meds by Teens Continues Decline

By Pat Anson, Editor

Two new studies this week paint a somewhat conflicting picture about the abuse of opioids by teens and pregnant women.

A survey of over 45,000 teens by the University of Michigan and the National Institutes of Health found that teenage drug abuse continues to decline, with a significant drop in the misuse of the painkiller Vicodin. A second study at the university found the number of babies born with opioid withdrawal symptoms has grown substantially, especially in rural areas.

The annual Monitoring the Future survey found that 4.8% of high school seniors had misused an opioid pain reliever in the past year, down from a peak of 9.5% in 2004. In the past five years alone, misuse of opioid pain medication by 12th graders has declined by 45 percent.

Only 2.9% of high school seniors reported the misuse of Vicodin in 2016, compared to nearly 10 percent a decade ago. Vicodin and other hydrocodone products were reclassified as Schedule II controlled substances in 2015, making them harder to obtain.

"Clearly our public health prevention efforts, as well as policy changes to reduce availability, are working to reduce teen drug use,”  said Nora Volkow, MD, director of National Institute of Drug Abuse.

The survey found a continued long-term decline in teenage use of many illicit substances, as well as alcohol and tobacco. The use of any illicit drug was the lowest in the survey’s history for eighth graders. One negative sign was an increase in the misuse of over-the-counter cough medicine by eighth graders.

Marijuana use in the past month by eighth graders fell to 5.4%, down from 6.5% in 2015. However, among high school seniors, nearly one in four reported marijuana use in the past month. There also continues to be a higher rate of marijuana use in the past year (38%) among 12th graders in states with medical marijuana laws.

"It is encouraging to see more young people making healthy choices not to use illicit substances," said National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli. "We must continue to do all we can to support young people through evidence-based prevention efforts as well as treatment for those who may develop substance use disorders.”

The majority of teens continue to say they get most of their opioid pain relievers from friends or relatives, either stolen, bought or given. The only prescription drugs seen as easier to get in 2016 than last year are tranquilizers, with 11.4 percent of eighth graders reporting they would be “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get.

More Babies Suffering from Opioid Withdrawal

The number of babies born with drug withdrawal symptoms from opioids grew substantially faster in rural communities than in cities, according to the University of Michigan study. The study did not distinguish between opioid pain medication and illegal opioids such as heroin.

Newborns exposed to opioids in the womb and who experience withdrawal symptoms after birth (neonatal abstinence syndrome) are more likely to have seizures, low birthweight, breathing, sleeping and feeding problems.

Researchers found that in rural areas, the rate of newborns diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome increased from nearly one case per 1,000 births from 2003-2004 to 7.5 cases from 2012-2013. That's a surge nearly 80% higher than the growth rate of such cases in urban communities.

"The opioid epidemic has hit rural communities especially hard and we found that these geographical disparities also affect pregnant women and infants," says lead author and pediatrician Nicole Villapiano, MD, whose study was published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Using national data, researchers found that rural infants accounted for over 21 percent of all infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. In 2003, rural infants made up only 13 percent of the neonatal abstinence syndrome cases in the U.S.  

Maternal use of opioids in rural counties was nearly 70 percent higher than in urban counties. Rural infants and mothers with opioid-related diagnoses were more likely to be from lower-income families, have public insurance and be transferred to another hospital following delivery.

Villapiano says families in urban areas typically have better access to addiction treatment programs.

"We need to consider what kind of support moms with opioid disorders have in rural communities," she said.

Villapiano suggests that increasing the number of rural doctors authorized to prescribe the addiction treatment drug buprenorphine (Suboxone), as well as expanding rural mental health and substance abuse services, would be good first steps in reversing the trend in neonatal abstinence syndrome.

Teenage Marijuana Problems Declining

By Pat Anson, Editor

A large survey of nearly a quarter of a million adolescents indicates the number of American teenagers with marijuana related problems is declining – despite the fact that nearly half the states have legalized medical marijuana or decriminalized it.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis studied a national database on drug use by over 216,000 young people, ages 12 to 17, and found that the number dependent on marijuana or having trouble in school and in relationships declined by 24 percent from 2002 to 2013.

During the same period, the number of kids who said they used marijuana in the previous 12 months fell by 10 percent. The drops were accompanied by reductions in behavioral problems, such as fighting, shoplifting and selling drugs.

Researchers believe the two trends are connected -- as kids became less likely to engage in problem behavior, they are also less likely to have problems with marijuana.

"We were surprised to see substantial declines in marijuana use and abuse," said lead author Richard Grucza, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine

"We don't know how legalization is affecting young marijuana users, but it could be that many kids with behavioral problems are more likely to get treatment earlier in childhood, making them less likely to turn to pot during adolescence. But whatever is happening with these behavioral issues, it seems to be outweighing any effects of marijuana decriminalization."

The new study is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The data was gathered as part on ongoing study called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which surveys young people in all 50 states about their drug use, abuse and dependence.

In 2002, just over 16% reported using marijuana during the previous year. That number fell to below 14% by 2013. Meanwhile, the percentage of young people with marijuana-use disorders declined from around 4% to about 3%.

"Other research shows that psychiatric disorders earlier in childhood are strong predictors of marijuana use later on," Grucza said. "So it's likely that if these disruptive behaviors are recognized earlier in life, we may be able to deliver therapies that will help prevent marijuana problems -- and possibly problems with alcohol and other drugs, too."

A similar survey, the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future Study, found that marijuana use by teens has leveled off since 2010, but was still at stubbornly high rates. In 2015, about 35% of 12th­ graders reported using marijuana at least once in the past year.

The same survey found that teenage abuse of prescription opioids declined for the fifth year in a row. Only about 5% of 12th graders reported using an opioid pain medication in the last year, and the number reporting that prescription opioids were “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get also continues to drop.

Medical marijuana is legal or decriminalized in 24 states and the District of Columbia, and several states are considering legalization. Opponents have long maintained that legalization would have harmful effects on young people.

“Perhaps the biggest public health concern around medical marijuana liberalization and legalization concerns the potential impact on teenagers, who could have greater access to it as a drug of abuse and who may increasingly see marijuana as a ‘safe, natural’ medicine rather than a harmful intoxicant,” wrote Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly.

“Although there is still much to learn about marijuana’s impact on the developing brain, the existing science paints a picture of lasting adverse consequences when the drug is used heavily prior to the completion of brain maturation in young adulthood. In teens, marijuana appears to impair cognitive development, may lower IQ and may precipitate psychosis in individuals with a genetic vulnerability.”

According to a recent report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety, where marijuana has been fully legalized since 2013, nearly a third (31%) of young adults, ages 18 to 25, have used in marijuana in the last 30 days, up from 21% in 2006. The number of juveniles on probation testing positive for THC has also increased since legalization.  

Decline in Teen Opioid Abuse Continues

By Pat Anson, Editor

An annual survey that tracks teenage drug abuse continues to show a decline in the misuse of prescription opioid pain relievers, as well as heroin, alcohol, cigarettes, amphetamines and other substances.

The University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future Study (MTF) has tracked drug abuse among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders since 1975. This year’s survey included nearly 45,000 students at 382 public and private schools in the United States.

The MTF survey tracked the steady rise in teenage abuse of prescription opioids in the 1990's, before the trend reversed itself in the last decade. For the fifth year in a row, the survey found there was a significant decline in the misuse of opioids by teens (reported in the survey as “Narcotics Other Than Heroin”).

About 5% of 12th graders reported using an opioid pain medication in the last year, including 4.4% who used Vicodin and 3.7% who used OxyContin.

The number of teens reporting that prescription opioids were “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get also continues to drop.

Most teens abusing prescription opioids reported getting them from friends or family members. About one-third reported getting them from their own prescriptions.

"The recent declines in the abuse of prescription pain medicines among teens are encouraging. The Partnership has been working for quite some time through both our Above the Influence program and the Medicine Abuse Project to help educate teens, parents and communities about the risks of medicine abuse and we are glad to see continued progress," said Marcia Lee Taylor, President and CEO of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

“While today's news about substance use among teens is mostly positive, we cannot let that take our focus off of the prescription drug and heroin crisis among other age groups.”

Despite widespread media reports about the so-called heroin “epidemic” in adults – heroin use among teens is at its lowest level since the MTF survey began. Past year use of heroin fell to 0.5% of 12th graders, an all-time low.

Use of several other illicit drugs – including MDMA (known as Ecstasy or Molly), amphetamines and synthetic marijuana – also showed a noted decline in this year's data. Use of alcohol and cigarettes reached their lowest points since the study began.

Marijuana, the most widely used illicit drug, did not show any significant change. After rising for several years, teenage marijuana use has leveled out since 2010, but still remains stubbornly high. In 2015, 12% of 8th ­graders, 25% of 10th­ graders and 35% of 12th­ graders reported using marijuana at least once in the past year. For the first time ever, daily marijuana use exceeds daily tobacco use among 12th graders.

"We are heartened to see that most illicit drug use is not increasing, non-medical use of prescription opioids is decreasing, and there is improvement in alcohol and cigarette use rates," said Nora D. Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which funded the MTF survey.

"However, continued areas of concern are the high rate of daily marijuana smoking seen among high school students, because of marijuana’s potential deleterious effects on the developing brains of teenagers, and the high rates of overall tobacco products and nicotine containing e-cigarettes usage."

One growing area of concern is the abuse of Adderall and other prescription amphetamines, which are typically used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) but are widely perceived as a study aid.  About 7.5% of 12th graders used those drugs in the past year.