"Just Say No" has not actually protected students from drugs. Here's what can.

Elias Myers, a sophomore at a college, believes that his friends were lucky to survive a recent incident where they got hold of drugs that, as drug test strips showed, contained fentanyl, a highly potent and often deadly synthetic opioid.

"It was then that I realized that caution is not the best practice but a method of survival," says the California University, Berkeley student.

However, these survival methods were never discussed in Myers' drug education classes in middle and high school. In fact, Myers says they didn't even mention fentanyl. He believes that these classes failed to prepare him and his peers for an increasingly dangerous drug situation where a single drug can have deadly consequences.

He says that everything he learned about fentanyl, he learned from friends and older siblings.

"But it shouldn't have been this way. We could have learned about safety in advance," he says.

As more and more teenagers are overdosing on fentanyl, schools are facing a drug crisis unlike any other. SCHOOLS AND THE FENTANYL CRISIS As more and more teenagers are overdosing on fentanyl, schools are facing a drug crisis unlike any other. For decades, students like Myers were told to simply say "no" to drugs. This message was repeated in advertisements and in classroom presentations. But research shows that this approach alone doesn't work. Now, the number of teen overdose deaths has sharply increased, mainly due to fentanyl. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the synthetic opioid was the cause of the vast majority of teen overdose deaths in 2021. Many of these deaths were linked to counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl that were not acquired from a pharmacy. And this problem has followed teenagers onto college campuses.

Some experts say that drug education focused on harm reduction, aimed at ensuring people's safety when they decide to use drugs, can help save lives. Here's what it looks like.

Teaching safety measures for when students decide to use drugs "The most important principle of drug education is to be honest," says Professor Bonnie Halpern-Felsher. "And to have a balanced perspective. We can't lie, we can't exaggerate to teenagers."

Halpern-Felsher leads the REACH lab at Stanford University, which focuses on understanding, preventing, and reducing substance use among teenagers and young adults, as well as other risky behaviors.

In her lab, they support an educational program for high school seniors called "Safety First" (originally developed by the Drug Policy Alliance), which encourages young people to abstain from drug use and provides them with information to reduce the risk of addiction and death if they or their friends choose to use. This concept is called harm reduction.

First and foremost, says Halpern-Felsher, students need to know the facts about drugs, including their benefits and risks.

For example, opioids like fentanyl have been safely used in medical settings for decades to relieve patient pain. But for recreational use, intentional or unintentional, it is extremely dangerous because even very small amounts can lead to overdose.

For the demonstration of the lesson, interactive activities should be used, not just lectures, explains Halpern-Felsher. The "Safety First" program includes an activity where students are asked to add sugar to one pitcher of water and salt to another.

"You can't see the difference. But one of them can potentially harm you. And that's why it's so important for you to understand that you can't just take a drug and start using it," she says.

The educational program also describes safety measures in case students or their friends decide to use drugs. Messages like:

  • If you use drugs, the healthiest choice is to stop or at least reduce the amount and frequency of use.
  • Ideally, you should use medications only as recommended by a doctor or pharmaceutical label. But if not, don't take too many medications. Wait and see how it affects you before taking more.
  • Before using drugs, think about your state of mind. What you think and feel before and during the use of psychoactive substances can affect your experience.
  • Consider the setting. Where and with whom you use drugs can reduce the likelihood of injury or death.
  • Test the substance before using it. Testing the drug for substances like fentanyl can reduce the risk of harm. But even test strips are not always 100% accurate.
  • Don't mix drugs. The effects of combining drugs can be stronger and unpredictable, even deadly.
  • Know how to respond in an emergency: Recognize signs of overdose. Call 911. Place someone on their side to prevent choking. Administer the opioid reversal drug naloxone, often sold under the brand name "Narcan."