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The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated a record-breaking 100,000 US residents died of drug overdoses from May 2020 to April 2021, the Associated Press reported this week. That’s a 30 percent jump from the previous year, and it means more people died from substance misuse than from car accidents or guns, two categories that also hit record high numbers in 2020.
Though overdose deaths dramatically spiked in recent years, the figures have been steadily increasing over the past two decades. Overdoses have cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars, and have even reduced overall life expectancy in the United States. The states that saw the highest jump in deaths this year were Vermont at 70 percent, West Virginia at 62 percent, and Kentucky at 55 percent.
Causes of the skyrocketing drug use-associated fatalities, at first glance, can be boiled down to the COVID-19 pandemic and fentanyl adulterants in illicit drugs. Isolation necessitated by the pandemic put some drug users at heightened risk, leaving many to consume on their own, with no one to help in the case of overdose. More and more dealers are cutting the low-cost, high-potency synthetic opioid fentanyl into heroin and even methamphetamines and cocaine (jury’s still out on whether weed is getting the same treatment) to up the kick users get from their wares.
However, the CDC's distressing numbers are not exact. The estimate is based on death certificates, which have various classification issues and were filled out by varying officials depending on the state — and not always by a health professional. In Texas, a justice of the peace can fill one out.
Regardless of exact statistics, views on the appropriate response to this epidemic vary. Some, including Columbia University psychologist and neuroscientist Carl Hart, hold that the issue is not fentanyl nor really any drug itself — but, rather, the issue is lack of education and lack of access to quality drugs caused by prohibition. Hart suggests plentiful, anonymous substance testing services as a possible solution to the so-called opioid epidemic.
“It is certainly possible to die from an overdose of an opioid alone, but such overdoses account for a minority of the thousands of opioid-related deaths,” Hart wrote in his book Drug Use For Grown Ups. “Most are caused when people combine an opioid with alcohol, an anticonvulsant, an antihistamine, a benzodiazepine, or another sedative. People are not dying because of opioids; they are dying because of ignorance” [emphasis ours].
Hitting the tragic 100,000-death mark will likely cause many authorities to beat the drums to ramp up the costly and ineffective War on Drugs. But decades of such prohibitionist politics have yet to decrease drug consumption, which has been a constant in human society. Such tactics have proven costly in the financial sense, as well — the Open Society Foundation reported that anti-drug law enforcement costs the world about $100 billion every year.
Thankfully, other strategies are being employed to combat the overdose crisis. Several cities are planning to open health professional-supervised safe injection sites that they hope will protect drug-using residents — programs that already exist in places like Europe, Australia, and Canada. San Francisco, which suffered twice as many deaths due to overdose than from COVID-19 in 2020, plans to open the United States’ first such facility this spring.
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