Announced last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and reported by NBC News (among a multitude of other news outlets), America’s drug epidemic has taken the deadliest turn in our nation’s history. Overdose deaths have nearly doubled over the past five years. In a 12-month period alone that ended in April, the number of overdose deaths in this country rose 29%, from 78,056 to 100,306. According to the CDC data, opioids, mostly the synthetic variety and including fentanyl, is attributed to more than 75% of the lives lost.
The combination of a nearly unabated drug overdose epidemic, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, has now left a worrisome new marker to the annals of U.S. history. As reported by NBC, a separate CDC report issued in July concluded that “the combination of Covid and overdose deaths was the reason life expectancy in 2020 plunged by the largest one-year drop since World War II.”
This tragic announcement cannot be relegated to last week’s news. It is a problem that is going to get much more catastrophic in the days, months and possibly even years that lie ahead. As Dr. Andrew Kolodny, medical director of opioid policy research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University explains to NBC’s Kaitlin Sullivan and Reynolds Lewis, “the pandemic shouldn’t be a scapegoat for an epidemic that was a major concern long before Covid.”
Bob Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics points out that, “while there was a slight decline in the number of people dying of drug overdoses late last year, rates in recent months are once again accelerating.” NBC reports that the startling 12-month period of overdose deaths exceeds the number of traffic and gun fatalities in the U.S. combined.
Reported by CNN and covered by several local Fox stations, Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Anne Milgram pointed out in a White House press briefing that the U.S. government has seized enough fentanyl this year to give every American a lethal dose, calling the overdose epidemic in the U.S. “a national crisis” that “knows no geographical boundaries, and it continues to get worse.”
“Even if Covid went away tomorrow, we’d still have a problem,” Kolodny tells CNN. “These are deaths in people with a preventable, treatable condition. The United States continues to fail on both fronts, both on preventing opioid addiction and treating addiction… If we really want to turn the corner, we have to get to a point where treatment for opioid addiction is easier to access than fentanyl, heroin or prescription opioids are.”
Former Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Quinones, who chronicled the evolution of the overdose epidemic and drug trade in two celebrated books on the subject, including 2015 National Book Circle Award-winning “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” was recently interviewed by Times reporter Emily Baumgaertner as to his opinion on what has led us to this point. “These overdose figures are unprecedented because the situation on the street is as well,” he says.
He believes attention to the drug crisis was on the upswing until February 2020, when our focus shifted by necessity to the pandemic. “It was at this very moment that the Mexican trafficking world had achieved something that no other traffickers had achieved in the history of our country: covering the country with the most deadly and mind-mangling drugs we’ve ever seen,” he says. “It had been building for years towards that. It just so happened that we went into isolation at the very moment when these drugs hit their apex.” At the same time, traffickers had built up vast distribution networks across every corner of the county, which was also unprecedented, funneling their product through border crossings as part of “the millions of cars and trucks that cross back and forth to the United States every year.”
The CDC data reflects the scope of the drug trafficking reach. No part of the country is exempt. According to the report, the largest increases in overdose deaths were seen in Vermont, West Virginia and Kentucky, with Vermont seeing the largest rise in fatalities with a nearly 70% increase.
Drug dealers “were beginning to figure out that if you added fentanyl to whatever you’re selling, you get a far, far more faithful customer,” says Quinones.
Synthetic drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine don’t need seasons. They are easily mass-produced and available year-round. With fentanyl, “the amount that you need to make a huge, huge profit is actually relatively small … for the trafficking world to make the lottery-winning type of profits it expects to make, it has to mix that stuff,” Quinones adds.
They are now mixing it with meth. They are mixing it with cocaine. There are even reports that they are mixing it with marijuana. Ingest their product and, before you know it, you end up with “a fentanyl addict.” Quinones is quite clear where that could quickly, even instantly, lead. “The drugs have changed, but our thinking hasn’t. Philosophies that were born of another drug era have to be reassessed,” he says. “Eventually, fentanyl will kill everybody who uses it.”
The proliferation of deadly drugs on the street is only half of the problem. As reported by the New York Times, Dr. Kolodny estimates that most of those who have died likely already suffered from addiction or were in recovery and relapsed. Many were driven to the street because they could no longer obtain, afford nor get refills for opioids they had been prescribed, nor access treatment.
Accountability for major pharmaceutical companies, prescription practices within the health care system and just plain out-and-out profiteering also must be considered for their significant role in the nation’s current opioid epidemic. It will be addressed in a subsequent post.