According to federal data released Wednesday, more Americans died of drug overdoses in 2021 than in any previous year, a grim milestone in an epidemic that has now claimed 1 million lives in the twenty-first century.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, over 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2021, a 15% increase from the previous year. The sobering tally reflects difficulties exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, including lost access to treatment, social isolation, and a more potent drug supply.
More than 80,000 people died as a result of opioids, which included prescription pain relievers and fentanyl, a lethal drug 100 times stronger than morphine that is increasingly being found in other drugs. Methamphetamine and cocaine-related deaths have also increased.
According to preliminary data, an overdose epidemic fueled by prescription pain relievers and followed by waves of heroin, fentanyl, and meth has killed more than 1 million people, or roughly the population of San Jose, since the turn of the century.
Overdose deaths reached previously uncharted heights in the first half of the pandemic, increasing by 30% from 2019 to 2020. The pandemic strained many people’s finances, mental health, housing, and other aspects, all while overshadowing the drug crisis. There is concern that a predicted increase in coronavirus cases this fall will restrict access to treatment and medication once more.
Covid-19 has claimed as many lives in two years as the opioid epidemic has in two decades. However, the victims of the drug epidemic are overwhelmingly young. According to a January study published in JAMA Pediatrics, young Americans lost an estimated 1.2 million years of life due to drug overdoses between 2015 and 2019.
Rural areas have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic’s overdose crisis, as residents struggle to reach remote, limited treatment options. According to federal data, Alaska experienced a 75 percent increase in overdose deaths in 2021. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes the National Center for Health Statistics.
The uneven nature of this modern plague may be due, in part, to the way fentanyl has infiltrated the drug supply. It began in the Midwest and New England but has spread across the country, according to Humphreys, implying that it and other synthetic drugs could drive out less potent drugs over the next decade. Fentanyl, which is increasingly being laced in counterfeit pills purchased online and manufactured in labs, is easier to produce than plant-based drugs, he claims.
Humphreys, who has estimated that another million overdose deaths could occur in the next decade if policy is not changed, has stated that there is no silver bullet for addressing the multifaceted crisis. However, he believes that increasing access to naloxone, the medication used to reverse opioid overdoses, is one of the most effective ways to reduce overdoses.
While the plan takes the necessary steps to mitigate the crisis’s impact, the damage has already been done, according to Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of global drug policy at Open Society Foundations. The trend of increasing deaths will continue until the ideas become actual policy in the hardest-hit communities.
Last year, the DEA issued a rare public warning about the alarming number of fake pills purchased online and laced with potentially lethal amounts of fentanyl.
Another challenge for the administration is ensuring that resources reach those who need them the most, given that the stigma associated with drugs has alienated some users.
While treatment has been expanded, it is still inaccessible to the majority of those who could benefit from it. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, nearly 15% of people aged 12 and up required substance-use treatment in 2020, with only 1.4 percent receiving it.
Furthermore, according to Malinowska-Sempruch, Biden’s plan falls short of recommending some solutions that could help meet drug users where they are, such as decriminalizing personal possession and establishing supervised injection sites, where trained monitors watch users to intervene and prevent overdoses.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has launched “a new era of drug policy,” according to Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who cited actions to prevent overdoses, such as the distribution of naloxone.