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U.S. Overdose Deaths Total Record 107,000 Last Year

Overdose deaths continue to rise in America due to the tainted supply of drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Wednesday’s estimate that they had reached 107,000 by 2021. Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in a statement that the most recent overdose numbers are “truly staggering.”

This estimate by the CDC surpasses the 2020 record by 15% for overdose deaths. It is equivalent to a drug overdose death in America approximately every five minutes. This new record is part of a long-standing trend of increasing overdose deaths in the United States, which has been fueled in large part by the opioid epidemic.

There are also deaths involving synthetic opioids

The number of deaths from overdoses with fentanyl or other synthetic opioids reached 71,000 last year. This is a 23% rise over 2020. Also, deaths due to cocaine increased 23% and those involving methamphetamines and other stimulants jumped 34%.

Fentanyl is often used by illicit manufacturers in counterfeit prescription opioids, making the drugs’ dosage and risk of overdose uncertain. CDC officials pointed out that fentanyl can be used to make other drugs, and this is often done by unscrupulous dealers. These sellers often fail their customers.

“The net effect is that we have many more people, including those who use drugs occasionally and even adolescents, exposed to these potent substances that can cause someone to overdose even with a relatively small exposure,” Volkow said, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times.

The nation’s epidemic of overdose deaths continued to rise last year as the coronavirus pandemic isolated those with drug problems and made effective substance misuse treatment and mental health services more difficult to access. Keith Humphreys is a Stanford University researcher on addiction and drug policy who believes this deadly trend will continue.

“2022 will probably be as horrible as 2021 was, quite possibly worse,” Humphreys told the Washington Post.

Geographically, the increase in deaths from overdoses last year was different. Alaska had the largest increase in overdose deaths, with a 75% jump. Hawaii experienced a 2 percent decrease in drug-related deaths.

Humphreys stated that America is unlikely to experience more than one million deaths from overdoses in a decade, if there are no substantive changes in public policy. Humphreys also pointed out that synthetic opioids like fentanyl are likely to continue growing because they can easily be made in the lab than other plant-based medications. We are still waiting to see the effects of these readily available drugs which can be purchased via social media and other online channels.

“There may not be much heroin around in 10 years because everything is fentanyl,” Humphreys said. “What do you do in a world where no one needs a farm anymore to make drugs?”

The Harm Reduction Program Saves Lives

Humphreys said that a single solution will not be the answer to the nation’s epidemic of drug overdoses. The death rate can be reduced by harm reduction measures, such as increasing availability of the drug naloxone. This can reverse the overdose’s effects.

“I think of naloxone like I do fire extinguishers,” he said. “Generally, they sit on a wall and they’re not needed. But when there’s a fire, there’s nothing like a fire extinguisher.”

Drug policy advocates including Sheila Vakharia, deputy director of research and academic engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance, expressed dismay at Wednesday’s news from the CDC.

“It’s absolutely devastating and heartbreaking that we continue to remain in this position,” Vakharia told NPR. “We are over 20 years in this overdose crisis and there’s no sign of any kind of slowing down of deaths. If anything, things have only seemed to have gotten more dire.”

The Biden administration unveiled a plan last month to reduce overdose deaths. It includes increased access to Naloxone and support for harm reduction. Vakharia stated that this funding represents a positive signal from the federal government.

“Harm reduction has historically been incredibly underfunded and has been relegated to state and local funding or private funding to sustain itself,” she said.

Vakharia said that more could be done to enhance harm reduction programs. He also suggested that support can be given for overdose prevention centers, such as the one in New York City that was opened late last year. Despite the success of the centers internationally, there are only “two legally operating above-the-ground harm reduction overdose prevention centers in the country,” when they could be saving lives across the nation with more support.

“And so I think that all of our efforts moving forward can definitely be further enhanced, can be further amplified and further ramped up,” Vakharia added.