Death of 14 Year-Old Pot Smoker Shines Spotlight on Drug Education

In late October, a 14 year-old boy living in Pennsylvania suffered severe chemical burns in his lungs and died of a failed lung transplant after smoking synthetic pot out of a PEZ dispenser. The story has been making the rounds on the AP newswire and social networks with headlines like "Teen dies after smoking synthetic pot."

Yet, despite the Pennsylvania government’s response of imposing a ban on the substance, the headline is sadly misleading. As the doctor briefly quoted in this article explains, the plastic, not the drug, should be considered a significant factor in his death. This is a clear example of why we need proper drug education; no one should be smoking anything out of cheap plastic. We teach teens about safe sex and safe drinking even though we don't want them to do those things; we should be treating drug education the same way.

In a world with new “legal” highs appearing on shelves faster than legislation can be passed to ban them, and in a country where more and more people favor the legalization of marijuana, simple anti-drug programs like D.A.R.E. and Above the Influence are not enough. If buying these new “drugs," like “bath salts” or “synthetic pot blends” like K2 and Spice is as easy as buying a pack of cigarettes, teaching that they’re evil and should be avoided is going to send a mixed message at best.

The current mainstream approach to drug education also ignores that it can be easier for a teen to get illegal drugs than it is to get alcohol, and no one is pretending teens don’t drink.

High school health classes and college welcome weeks will go over the finer points of binge drinking even though at that age it’s still illegal for anyone listening to drink. Most teenagers know to turn their passed out friend over on their side in case they throw up and that it takes your body an hour to process a drink, and the finer points of identifying alcohol poisoning. But how many potential ravers know about why you shouldn’t mix ecstasy with alcohol? Or that potency is mixed so you should wait a while before taking more than one pill? And why shouldn’t everyone in the world know that plastic is a very dangerous material to smoke anything out of?

Abstinence-only drug education is as ineffective at preventing drug use as abstinence only sex education is at preventing hormone-fueled teenagers from giving in to their natural urges. If you need a reminder of how inefficient abstinence only education is at preventing anything, just ask the Palin family. Effective sex education teaches that you should consider waiting, and then how to practice safe sex for when you decide to ignore the first part of the lecture. Effective drug education should be similar. We shouldn’t start teaching kids pot brownie recipes, but we should teach them that edibles will hit them later and harder. We should teach them to be smart if they’re going to do something stupid; to research effects, doses, dangers, what they should avoid mixing it with, how much they should take and how they should take it. All of that and more is already available online and if your child knows where to find that information that also means they are probably being as smart and safe as they can with their experimenting. 

Every shocking headline about a teenager dying from one of these new “legal” highs ultimately has the same story underneath it. It is never a natural effect of the drug that kills them; rather, it is always misuse, mixing it with something, or doing something dangerous with it. These kinds of tragedies can be avoided with education. This isn’t about legality, it’s about dealing with reality. It’s about arming children with knowledge instead of fear, it’s about keeping them alive.

Photo Credit: Aberdeen Proving Ground

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Yevgeniy Levich

Born in the former USSR, raised in Philadelphia, graduated New York University's Arthur L. Carter Institute of Journalism in May, 2011. Bill Clinton spoke and I got front seats at Yankee stadium, it was all very exciting. Currently experiencing the impacts of the recession first hand as he figures out where to go next and how to pay off his college loans.

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