The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reports that deaths from drug overdoses continue to increase, from 16.7 per 100,000 in the third quarter of 2015 to 19.9 in the third quarter of 2016. Roughly 60 percent of these deaths are from opioids (mostly fentanyl and heroin).
The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which contains the NCHS, estimates a total of 52,404 fatal overdoses in 2015. Data obtained from state agencies by the New York Times indicates there will be over 59,000 overdose deaths reported for 2016.
The death rate from overdoses had already increased from 12.3 per 100,000 in 2010 to 16.3 per 100,000 in 2015. The Washington Post reported on a study from a University of Virginia professor, suggesting that death rates for 2014 may be 24 percent greater than reported totals, indicating a far worse opioid problem than presented by the CDC data.
A commission launched by the Trump administration has recommended that this trend be declared a national emergency.
The CDC reports that the 10 states with the greatest increase in drug overdose deaths from 2010 to 2015 are West Virginia, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Ohio, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Utah and Tennessee.
In their 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment, the DEA reported that opiates, such as heroin and fentanyl, present the most significant drug-related threat to the United States. According to the DEA:
“Over the past 10 years, the drug landscape in the United States has shifted, with the tripartite opioid threat (controlled prescription drugs, fentanyl, and heroin) having risen to epidemic levels, impacting significant portions of the United States. While the current opioid crisis has deservedly garnered significant attention, the methamphetamine threat has remained prevalent; the cocaine threat was in a state of steady decline, but appears to be rebounding; and due in part to the national discussion surrounding legalization efforts, the focus of marijuana enforcement efforts continues to evolve.”
The DEA frames the significance of this threat in stark terms: “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 52 people in the United States die every day from overdosing on prescription painkillers.”
The DEA is still concerned about marijuana, explaining that it “is the most widely available and commonly used illicit drug in the United States.” The DEA believes that because of the passage of state legalization laws and media attention about “possible” medical benefits “the general public has been introduced to contradictory and often inaccurate information regarding the legality and benefits of marijuana use.”
Nonetheless, there is no reporting by the DEA of deaths from marijuana use.
While marijuana enforcement efforts evolve, the DEA is shifting its attention to the current opioid crises and the focusing more sharply on Trans-National Criminal Organizations (TCOs).
As opioid deaths continue to increase, the inherent flaws in national drug policy become more evident. Criminal penalties for users are becoming less and less a priority. As reported by the Washington Post, the current Presidential Commission’s first report includes such recommendations as:
- Expanding capacity for drug treatment under Medicaid;
- Increasing the use of medication-assisted treatments, like buprenorphine and suboxone, for opioid disorders;
- Encouraging the development of non-opioid pain relievers;
- Mandating that every local law enforcement officer in the nation carry naloxone, the drug that rapidly reverses opiate overdose;
- Broadening “good Samaritan” laws that shield individuals from prosecution when they report a drug overdose to first responders or law enforcement officials.
In other words, this is a health problem.
The worse it gets, the more the public understands the inadequacies of the War on Drugs. Harm reduction, not prohibition, is able to respond effectively to the continuing increase in opioid deaths.