Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. have topped 100,000 for the first time

Nov 17, 2021
Originally published on November 17, 2021 2:24 pm

Updated November 17, 2021 at 12:05 PM ET

More than 100,000 people died over a 12-month period from fatal drug overdoses for the first time in U.S. history, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

"To all those families who have mourned a loved one and to all those people who are facing addiction or are in recovery: you are in our hearts," President Biden said in a statement issued by the White House. "Together, we will turn the tide on this epidemic."

"This tragic milestone represents an increase of 28.5%" over the same period just a year earlier, said Dr. Deb Houry with the CDC in a call with reporters Wednesday.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, who heads the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, called the surge in drug fatalities "unacceptable."

"An overdose is a cry for help," Gupta said during the press conference. "For far too many people that cry goes unanswered. This requires a whole lot of government response and evidence-based strategies."

Experts blame the continuing surge on the spread of more dangerous street drugs and on disruptions to drug treatment programs caused by the pandemic.

"[Overdoses] are driven both by fentanyl and also by methamphetamines," said Dr. Nora Volkov, who heads the National Institute On Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.

She predicted the surge of fatalities would continue because of the spread of more dangerous street drugs.

"They are among the most addictive drugs that we know of and the most lethal," Volkov said.

In recent years, Mexican drug cartels have pivoted to manufacturing and distributing fentanyl and methamphetamines, which are cheaper to produce and can be shipped in small quantities that are difficult to detect.

Anne Milgram, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, acknowledged Wednesday that efforts to slow trafficking of these drugs haven't worked.

"This year alone DEA has seized enough fentanyl to provide every member of the U.S. population with a lethal dose," Milgram said. "We are still seizing more fentanyl each and every day."

The Biden administration is calling on Congress to approve more than $10 billion in funding for drug treatment and interdiction programs. The White House also asked states to relax rules that complicate access to Naloxone, a medication that can reverse overdoses caused by fentanyl and other opioids.

But the Biden administration has sent mixed signals on how committed it is to following science-based "harm reduction" strategies proven to help keep people with addiction alive.

In an interview last month with NPR, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra initially signaled that the federal government would drop opposition to safe drug injection and consumption sites.

"We're not going to say, 'But you can't do these other type of supervised consumption programs that you think work or that evidence shows work,' " Becerra said.

But HHS officials quickly walked back that statement and say the question of whether people with substance use disorder should be allowed to use drugs under medical supervision will be decided by the courts.

The DEA has also drawn fire in recent weeks for taking a tough stance with pharmacies that distribute buprenorphine, another medication with a strong track record of helping people with addiction avoid relapse and overdose.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Now we turn to another deadly epidemic in this country. For the first time in U.S. history, more than 100,000 people have died from drug overdoses in a 12-month period. These new numbers were released a short time ago by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the Biden administration is scrambling to respond to this, another crisis that's affecting Americans from coast to coast.

NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann joins us. Brian, the CDC numbers paint a pretty devastating picture. How big is this increase? And do we know why it's happening?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah, A, it's a shattering new number - over 100,000 deaths. That's nearly a third of an increase over the previous year's 12-month period. And one thing that's terrifying here is that this is sort of a lagging indicator. Drug death data sort of lags a few months behind. And so this is information up through April. And so it could be even worse out there now.

And what is driving this, experts say, are really three things. One is the spread of fentanyl, this deadly opioid synthetic that's out on the streets now. Also, methamphetamines have come roaring back - really potent. And then the third thing is the pandemic. It's disrupted health care programs, drug treatment programs. And so a lot of Americans who struggle with addiction - you know, many of them find themselves on their own. Their lives are under enormous stress. And those risk factors have all combined to just cause just an explosion of these opioid fatalities and other drug deaths.

MARTINEZ: Let's talk more about fentanyl and methamphetamines. How are these drugs reaching American streets in such huge quantities right now?

MANN: Yeah, this part is really tough. What's happened is that Mexican drug cartels have really stepped in and taken over fentanyl and methamphetamine production. These are synthetic drugs, unlike others that you have to grow and harvest. You know, these can be made in a lab, in a basement. So they're really cheap, really efficient to make and distribute. And so the drug cartels are just driving more and more of these - some of them look like prescription pain pills. Others are filtering into heroin.

Today Anne Milgram with the Drug Enforcement Administration spoke to reporters. She said this year alone, the DEA has seized enough fentanyl to provide every member of the U.S. population with a lethal dose - every person in the U.S. That's how much fentanyl is coming into the country. And what NPR's reporting has found is that efforts to stop those drugs inside Mexico or at the Mexican border - a lot of those efforts just aren't working. These drugs continue to surge into the U.S.

MARTINEZ: That was really sobering, Brian - what you just said. So what does the Biden administration say needs to be done? I mean, is there a way to bring this under control and keep more people with addiction safe?

MANN: Yeah, this is really interesting, A. Harm reduction is the new strategy. That means with - somebody is, you know, experiencing addiction - how can we keep them alive? How can we keep them safe? And the Biden administration today said they want more states to reduce regulations so that naloxone can be more widely available. This is a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses pretty quickly and easily. So they're pushing this.

But there's an interesting thing here. The Biden administration also declined today to support things like safe consumption sites for people with addiction. That's a strategy being used in Canada and Australia and other places. And also, the Drug Enforcement Administration is drawing criticism right now for pressuring pharmacies that issue buprenorphine. This is another drug that helps people with addiction avoid overdoses. So there is this mixed message coming out of the White House - more harm reduction, but also a lot of these rules that are still in the way.

MARTINEZ: Has the president himself said anything about this surge?

MANN: Yeah. President Biden did issue a statement today. And he said to families who've mourned a loved one and to all the people who are facing addiction and recovery - he said, you're in our hearts. He said, together, we will turn the tide on this epidemic. But I have to say, A, that, you know, the White House has been talking about this for months now. They've continued to roll out new ideas. And what we've seen is that these numbers just keep rising. You know, we see increases month after month as the CDC issues these new numbers.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann talking about the epidemic of drug deaths in the U.S. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.