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Americans overdosing on drugs at new record high

The CDC estimates roughly 108,000 people died from overdose in 2021 in the United States.

One person died from a drug overdose every five minutes in the United States in 2021, according to data released Wednesday by federal regulators tracking the nation’s escalating opioid epidemic. 

Based on mortality data in the National Vital Statistics System, the provisional overdose death counts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate nearly 108,000 Americans dead of drug overdoses last year — a record level that is up 15% from those counted in 2020. Notably, the 2020 count was 30% higher than pre-pandemic estimates in 2019.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in an email Wednesday that the data “surpass another devastating milestone in the history of the overdose epidemic in America.” 

“Behind each of these numbers, there is a person’s life that has been lost, a family devastated, a community impacted,” Volkow said.

In the agency’s data-collection process, CDC officials review death certificates and then adjust the estimate to account for any delayed or incomplete reporting.

A graph published alongside the report shows that Alaska saw the highest jump in deaths among all 50 states, marking a 75% increase from 146 in 2020 and 256 in 2021. The next highest jump was in Kansas, which saw a 42% increase from 476 cases in 2020 to 680 in 2021. Meanwhile in Hawaii, overdose deaths dropped by 2% from 276 to 271.

While U.S. overdose deaths have risen fairly consistently for the last 20 years, in the last six the numbers have more than doubled. A graph released in the CDC report shows data from January 2015 when the estimated deaths from overdoses numbered around 48,000.

America’s opioid-related overdose deaths began to climb in the 1990s with the rise of prescription painkillers. Purdue Pharma, one of the largest opioid sellers in the country, has faced numerous lawsuits in recent years over its role in inventing, manufacturing and marketing Oxycontin, with parties arguing that the company was principally responsible for the opioid epidemic. Pharmacies like Walmart and Walgreens have also been sued for their roles in distributing the drugs as well as other drugmakers like Johnson & Johnson’s subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals.

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Following the widespread prescription of opioids came waves of deaths caused by other opiates, such as heroin and fentanyl. 

Dr. Rahul Gupta, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, released a statement on the rise Wednesday, pushing President Joe Biden’s National Drug Control Strategy, which he said is “focusing specifically on the actions we must take right now to reduce overdoses and save lives.” 

The Biden administration has called on lawmakers to pass his $41 billion plan to tackle the overdose epidemic, sent to Congress in April. 

“Those actions include expanding access to high impact harm reduction tools like naloxone, quickly connecting more people to treatment, disrupting and dismantling drug trafficking operations, and improving data to systems that drive the Nation’s drug policy,” Gupta continued.

Biden has also issued two executive orders during his presidency to counter the trafficking of fentanyl.

In 2021, roughly 71,000 Americans overdosed on fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. The report also accounts for overdose deaths from cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs. Overdose deaths for cocaine and meth, respectively, went up by 23% and 34% from the previous year in 2021.

“Drug overdose deaths may involve multiple drugs; therefore, a single death might be included in more than one category when describing the number of drug overdose deaths involving specific drugs,” the report explains. “For example, a death that involved both heroin and fentanyl would be included in both the number of drug overdose deaths involving heroin and the number of drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone.”

According to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, America’s opioid epidemic has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic — which made it more difficult for drug addicts to get access to treatment during lockdowns.

Volkow noted Wednesday that the country has underused treatments that could help many people. 

“We must meet people where they are to prevent overdoses, reduce harm, and connect people to proven treatments to reduce drug use,” she said.

Notably, the Justice Department said this winter that it is evaluating the legalization of so-called safe-injection sites — facilities that give addicts a medically supervised space to use their own heroin and other narcotics. At such sites, medical professionals trained in overdose revivals via naloxone are on hand, and the facilities also give out clean needles and counsel users about addiction-treatment options.

There are currently two supervised injection sites in the country — both which opened in November 2021 in New York City, in East Harlem and Washington Heights. Similar groups have been blocked in cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle from opening their own operations amid legal suits and public controversy. After the Third Circuit blew out the Philadelphia effort in January 2021, the Supreme Court declined to weigh in. 

The federal government had fought safe injection sites under former President Donald Trump, but the commission pointed a finger at lawmakers blocking treatment expansions Tuesday, pressing the expansion of overdose treatment methods.

The pandemic also limited international travel and made synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which are easier to make, easier to smuggle into the United States.

Earlier this year, a report released in February from the Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking found that America’s opioid crisis is now claiming more lives every year than firearms, suicide, homicide or car crashes.

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