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California debates whether teens can get drug treatment without parental consent

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Fentanyl is behind 1 in 5 deaths among youths in California. There are many barriers to treatment for opioid addiction, but some kids can't get help because they need parental consent. A bill making its way through the state legislature could change that. It's passed the assembly and is now before the state Senate. Here's Lesley McClurg from member station KQED.

CHARLOTTE BLUE: All right. Come on stage. Hey, guys.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: Most afternoons, Charlotte Blue (ph) teaches preschool in San Jose.

BLUE: I won't peek. I promise.

MCCLURG: She's grateful to have her life back on track. A few years ago, when she was 18 years old...

BLUE: I had a plan one day to try to commit suicide, and my plan was to use fentanyl to do it.

MCCLURG: Her home life was in shambles. She was addicted to heroin and crystal meth. That night, she smoked fentanyl for the first time. She overdosed. Her friends had to use three doses of Narcan to revive her. And that was just the beginning of her spiral into fentanyl addiction. Every time she tried to quit...

BLUE: I was itching. I had cold sweats. I was throwing up constantly. Every few days I would just give up and smoke again because I couldn't handle the feeling of the withdrawals.

MCCLURG: Eventually, she had enough.

BLUE: I lost my car. I lost my friends. I kind of lost touch with myself.

MCCLURG: A county drug counselor helped Blue enroll in a new treatment program for youth.

BLUE: They were there for me when no one else was. They helped me get on Suboxone to get off of the drugs and help with the withdrawals.

MCCLURG: Suboxone is the brand name of buprenorphine. It comes as a pill or a film that dissolves under your tongue, and it binds to the opioid receptors in your brain, but it doesn't activate them all the way. So it doesn't get you high, but it does prevent withdrawal symptoms. Dr. Lee Trope is a pediatrician in San Jose.

LEE TROPE: We've been shocked by how many teens and young adults in the community have come to us sort of desperate for help. Some of them are using every two to three hours, like, 10 fentanyl pills a day.

MCCLURG: Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin. Suboxone is approved for addiction treatment for youth over 16, but Trope says she often can't prescribe it to many of the adolescents who need it.

TROPE: It's not uncommon that they're living on the street. Many of them are living with grandparents or aunts or uncles because their guardians are in the grips of addiction themselves.

MCCLURG: California requires youth to be 18 to take Suboxone without parental consent. A new state bill could change that, but it's facing some opposition because it would allow minors to access Suboxone at 16 without Mom or Dad.

BILL ESSAYLI: I'm not personally comfortable just letting minors on their own at 16 years go to a doctor and get this type of medication.

MCCLURG: Bill Essayli is a Republican state legislator. He worries the proposed bill will encourage kids to hide their addiction from parents.

ESSAYLI: It's too sweeping. It's too broad, and it covers a bigger class of people and minors than the bill is intended to target.

MCCLURG: He would rather see much narrower legislation limited to kids who are estranged from their parents and focused on social services. Back in San Jose at Charlotte Blue's preschool...

UNIDENTIFIED PRESCHOOLER #1: I like Ms. Charlotte.

UNIDENTIFIED PRESCHOOLER #2: She's a good teacher.

MCCLURG: She's not sure she would be here today if she had needed her parents' permission when she started Suboxone at 18.

BLUE: My parents were very against it, actually. They thought that it was an easy way out. They still believed that it was a drug to make me high.

MCCLURG: She tried to explain that Suboxone doesn't make you feel euphoric, but they didn't believe her.

BLUE: No, that's my leg.

MCCLURG: She's grateful she didn't need their buy-in.

BLUE: Aw, you guys are so sweet.

MCCLURG: When she's not with the kids, Blue is in community college studying dental hygiene. For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in San Jose.

MARTÍNEZ: If you or someone you know needs help, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leslie McClurg