It’s still Summertime, when your teen may be more likely to try drugs for the first time. Here’s how to prepare–and educate–kids to resist the temptation. 

By Ann Votaw

Many teens may go back to school this fall having tried drugs for the first time, according to a new study. Yet, adults can help children develop street smarts.

“Parents and educators who are concerned about their kids need to educate them year-round about potential risks associated with drug use, but special emphasis appears to be needed before or during summer months when rates of initiation increase,” says Joseph J. Palamar, associate professor at NYU School of Medicine, in a statement. Palamar was the senior investigator of the study that appeared July 23 in Journal of General Internal Medicine

Gleaning data collected from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health between 2011 and 2017, the study focused on 394,415 adolescents between the ages of 12 and college age. 

Researchers found that 34% of recent LSD “initiates,” (first-time users), tried the drug in the summer. Meanwhile, 30% of marijuana, 30% of ecstasy (also known as Molly or MDMA), and 28% of cocaine use started in the summer. But why? 

Reasons for the seasonal spike include more unstructured time and the growing popularity of outdoor music dance festivals where drug use is common. The study’s authors write, “Using a drug for the first time can place individuals at unique risk as new initiates may be unfamiliar with drug effects.”

Teen drug-related deaths, like those that have occurred at Insomniac’s Electric Daisy Carnival and Electric Zoo at New York’s Randall’s Island, often involved combinations of dehydration, exhaustion, heat, improper dosage, and alcohol. 

A recent Australian inquest found the majority of festival-goers use drugs infrequently, attending festivals once or twice a year. While the focus of the inquest was MDMA, which can enhance the communal experience, alcohol was found to be the drug most associated with problematic rates of use.

Music dance events occur throughout the year, not just the summer, says Mitchell Gomez, executive director of DanceSafe, a harm-reduction organization for the electronic music community. The nonprofit, founded in 1998 in San Francisco, targets festival-goers, most of whom are teens and college age, like the ones in the aforementioned NYU study. 

MDMA makes users feel fearless and loving, which is why the drug has been helpful in treating patients with PTSD in combination with therapy. Lasting three to five hours, the drug offers a pleasurable experience that makes kids want to call their parents “way too many times to thank them for giving birth to them,” Gomez says. 

Problems arise with a “black market system” that makes it difficult to trust a product’s true ingredients, Gomez says. Novice users need to be skeptical.

Unlike over-the-counter medications like aspirin, unregulated drugs may be “misrepresented,” Gomez explains. Dealers don’t have to be truthful about their wares that could contain heroin or fentanyl, a dangerously addictive opioid. What’s sold as LSD, for example, may be something less expensive, possibly more benign or more toxic. Cocaine often contains other harmful stimulants.  

DanceSafe provides on-site drug counseling and pill testing, usually in tents near vender areas or medical facilities—if the team is allowed to set up at all. Some venue owners worry such services could be seen as condoning drugs, but Gomez believes his work mitigates tragedy through “basic public health principles.” 

“I care about how many kids die or have to be hospitalized or medically transported,” he says. “We tell them that the only way to be safe with a capital ‘S’ is to completely avoid drugs, but if they are going to use them, we offer safer solutions.”

Because MDMA increases the risk of heat stroke, Gomez recommends patrons take dance breaks and visit the misting tent to cool off. Water is also advised, although some MDMA users drink too much water and may experience “hyponatremia,” low sodium levels characterized by cramping, nausea, or seizures. Drinks with electrolytes can replace salt lost through perspiration and exertion.

Brian Licuanan, primary therapist at A Better Life Recovery in California, wants parents to develop compassionate action plans and avoid “freaking out.” 

“If teenagers don’t feel seen and heard, they can have fear and shame and the need to cope in unhealthy ways,” he says.

Learn about their culture, and help them develop “confident energy” by encouraging strong posture and direct eye contact. Assertiveness doesn’t have to be aggressive.

“Sit down with all the kids and their parents before the event and do some role playing,” he says. “Don’t assume they know what they might be getting into. Ask detailed questions about the event. For example, ‘What would you do if someone offers you weed?’ or ‘What would you do if that person won’t back down?’”  

Licuanan suggests teenagers adhere to a buddy system to create accountability. If they don’t stick to a drug-free pact for sober attendance, at least they can make informed decisions while watching each other’s backs.