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What to tell your kids about drugs

If you want your children to come to you with their questions about drugs, you need to educate yourself about drugs and drug policy or you will lose credibility quickly. An excellent book to learn more about drugs and drug policy is “Drugs Without the Hot Air, Minimising the Harms of Legal and Illegal Drugs” by David Nutt. He suggests that parents start to talk to their children about drugs as early as six or seven, because they are exposed to persons using tobacco or alcohol either in their lives or in the media.

Our children are being offered and exposed to drugs at earlier ages. It is important to have more detailed talks with your children before any experimentation begins; to be safe this likely means in middle school (Grade 6 or 7).

Here are some suggested points to discuss:

Alcohol and the nicotine in tobacco are drugs. Alcohol is the most harmful drug of all when harm to self and harm to others is considered. Fifty percent of people who smoke tobacco will die from a smoking related illness. Both alcohol and tobacco cause cancer. These drugs are legal, but using them can cause significant harm.

The Canadian government has decided to legalize and regulate marijuana – not because using marijuana is harmless, but because some people choose to use marijuana even though it is illegal and the best way to minimize the harms of using marijuana is for the government to regulate its production, distribution and sale. If the government does not regulate these things, they have no control over them.

Experts in drug policy believe many drugs that are currently illegal should be legalized and regulated for the same reason. Some people will use these illegal drugs even though they are illegal and unsafe. The fact that they are illegal makes them even more dangerous to use. Illegal drugs are often laced with other substances that are toxic and can be fatal, like fentanyl.

Drugs are not safe just because they are prescribed

Drugs that are available only by prescription are generally safe when used by the person to whom they are prescribed, as directed by the prescribing physician and under the continued supervision of that physician. You should not take a drug that has been prescribed to someone else. For example, the strength of a prescribed drug is often based on a person’s weight, or on that person’s tolerance level for that drug which may have built up over time.

Painkillers like morphine, oxycodone (Oxyneo or Percocet) and hydromorphone are essentially the same drug as heroin. They are highly addictive and only appropriate for short term acute pain, like after surgery, or where someone is terminally ill with cancer.

Using drugs purchased on the street is playing Russian roulette

North America is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic. Drugs purchased on the street often contain other drugs that can be more harmful or even fatal, like fentanyl or carfentanil. Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate that is 50 – 100 times more powerful than heroin. Carfentanil is a synthetic opiate that is used as an elephant tranquilizer and a single tablet that contains it can be fatal. These drugs are being mixed in to other street drugs such as heroin or cocaine but also added to fake prescription drugs that closely resemble the original. There is no guarantee that the drug you are purchasing is the drug that the dealer claims it to be. Some of the drugs being sold on the street are made to look like prescription drugs, like Xanax or Oxycodone, but they are fakes.

Even occasional users of drugs are dying from drug overdoses. They think they are using one drug, like cocaine, but it turns out that they are using another drug, like fentanyl. Sometimes they do purchase the drug that they thought they were buying, but it turns out to be so potent that it is fatal. Anytime you take a drug that you purchased on the street or were given by a friend, you are taking a risk that you could overdose and die, whether you are an occasional user or whether you are struggling with addiction.

Don’t use drugs; but if you do…

Delay use

Just like Alzheimer’s and other dementias are brain disorders generally developed by the elderly, addiction is a brain disorder the usually develops during adolescence. It is estimated that up to 90% of addictions develop during adolescence. This means that the longer that you delay drug use, the less likely you are to develop an addiction. Wait as long as you can before you start to experiment with alcohol or other drugs.

“A child who gets through age 21 without smoking, abusing alcohol, or using drugs is virtually certain never to do so.”

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse: National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens, August 2012

Know your family history

The vast majority of people who use drugs (legal, illegal or prescribed) will not become addicted to them or develop other mental health disorders because of their drug use.

People with a family history of substance use disorder or other mental health disorders are at a greater risk of developing these disorders if they use drugs. Know whether your family history puts you at greater risk.

Know why you are using

People use drugs for many different reasons and often just to have fun. If you are using drugs because you are bored or anxious, or to dull emotional pain, then you are at a greater risk of developing an addiction. Check in with yourself from time to time and ask yourself why you are using drugs. If you are using for these reasons then the next point is all the more important.

Monitor your usage and get help right away for problematic use

No one ever starts using drugs with the intention of becoming addicted to them. It just happens over time and often before the person realizes it. Keep track of how often and how much you are using and know that most people underestimate how much they use. While no one recommends that adolescents use drugs, Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines for adults and Canada’s Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines (LRCUG) can give you some context. Watch for cravings and continuing to use even when you think you should stop. These are danger signs.

If you want to give up activities you previously enjoyed, if your schoolwork is slipping, if you find yourself thinking about drugs often, these are signs that you should reach out for help. There is no shame in asking for help any more than if you were sick with any other illness.  The worst thing that you can do is ignore the problem because substance use disorder is a progressive disease. This means that it gets worse over time unless you take steps to stop its progression.

Research drugs and drug policy to better understand the risks

If you plan on using drugs it is important to research their effects from reliable sources like the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Researching drug policy will give you a better idea of the additional risks of using drugs that are not regulated by the government.

Synthetic Cannabinoids (Spice, K2) are far more dangerous than marijuana

People tend to use synthetic cannabinoids instead of marijuana because they believe that they are legal and that there is no risk of a criminal record, or to avoid a positive drug test. However, synthetic cannabinoids are illegal in Canada. The risks associated with synthetic cannabinoids are significantly greater than the risks associated with marijuana use and include seizures, irregular heartbeat, panic attacks, agitation, hallucinations and, in a few cases, death. If you are going to use one or the other, use marijuana. For more information on synthetic cannabinoids click here.

Never inject

The faster a drug gets into your brain, the higher the risk of addiction. The fastest way for a drug to get in to your brain is if you inject it, then if you smoke, snort or swallow it, in that order. Aside from the risk of addiction, injecting drugs puts you at risk for:

  • contracting communicable diseases like Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and HIV/Aids (never share needles);
  • infections at the site where the drug was injected;
  • damage to your heart and other organs because drugs are mixed with other substances that are dangerous to have in your veins.

Don’t use solvents

Solvents are legal, everyday liquids or gases like glue, “white-out”, paint, butane, gas and aerosols. Young people may be tempted to inhale or huff these substances to get high because they are easier to get than regulated substances like alcohol. The dangers of use are summarized by David Nutt in Drugs Without the Hot Air:

“Solvent users can asphyxiate if they pass out while sedated and choke on their own vomit or if they don’t remove the cloth or bag from their face and continue to inhale the drug while they’re unconscious. Long-term use can also cause brain damage, harm the liver and kidneys, and lead to hearing loss and convulsions or limb spasms. But the main danger is sudden sniffing death syndrome (SSDS), when a single session results in irregular heartbeat, heart failure and death. Over half of all deaths from solvents are from SSDS, and a fifth of those who died had no history of abusing inhalants. This makes it an extremely dangerous sort of drug to experiment with, even once or twice.” (p. 315-316)

Don’t mix drugs

Only use one drug at a time and remember that alcohol is a drug. The average overdose involves 2.7 drugs. It is particularly dangerous to mix drugs that depress the central nervous system like alcohol, benzodiazepines (like Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Klonopin) and opiates (like OxyContin, Percocet). These drugs slow down breathing. People suffering an overdose stop breathing altogether.

Don’t use alone

Never use alcohol or other drugs alone. If you use too much of a substance you can lose consciousness. While unconscious you may vomit and choke on your vomit. You may also stop breathing. If you are alone, no one can save you.

Have a designated observer

Making sure that you use drugs with others will not help if everyone present uses the same drug. If the drug is more potent than expected or laced with other drugs, everyone may overdose at the same time and no one will be able to call 911. Someone at the party should be a sober designated observer, just like having a designated driver.

Test a small amount before you use

When you use illegal drugs, you can never be sure that you are getting the drug that you think you are getting. Even if you do get the drug you expect, you cannot be sure of the strength. Take a small amount to see how you react before consuming the entire dose.

Know the signs of an overdose and what to do

Everyone should know the signs of a drug overdose. It is a sad truth that one of the most common mistakes that people make is that they assume someone is just sleeping off their drug use when in fact they are overdosing.

Click here for the signs of an opioid overdose and here for how to respond. Always call 911. Sometimes people are afraid to call 911 because they think they will be charged. Police departments are increasingly adopting policies not to respond in overdose situations unless there is an issue of safety.  Further, Canada has passed the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act to protect persons from being charged for drug possession for personal use and certain related offences in these situations.

The Naloxone Saves Lives video under Participant Training on the Toward the Heart Website of the BC Centre for Disease Control is also a good resource and explains what you need to know about overdose and administering naloxone (also known as Narcan).

Alcohol poisoning (an overdose of alcohol) has similar symptoms and is also life threatening. While naloxone will not help for alcohol poisoning, if there is any chance the unconscious person has taken an opiate, knowingly or not, Naloxone should be given.

In every overdose situation, if the unconscious person is still breathing, they should be put in the recovery position to ensure they won’t choke if they vomit and their situation should be monitored (don’t leave them alone).

Don’t Drive Impaired (or with someone who is)

Your ability to drive can be affected by legal, illegal or prescription drugs. If you are going to use substances, don’t drive. Also don’t drive with someone else who has been using substances. It is a myth that marijuana does not adversely affect a person’s ability to drive. Driving within a couple of hours of using marijuana nearly doubles your crash risk. Make sure your kids know they can call you at any time to get home safely.

The Canadian Government has released draft legislation that will allow the police to use oral fluid devices (saliva tests) to charge persons who are driving after using marijuana. The laws will also be changed to allow for random breath testing for alcohol. Previously the police had to have reasonable grounds to believe that a person’s ability to drive was impaired before they could request a breath sample.

FAR would like to thank Dr. David Juurlink for reviewing the Drug Section of our website for accuracy.


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