No Let Up On The Bad News About Overdose Deaths

The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) just issued Data Brief Number 329, entitled “Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States, 1999-2017.” Drug overdose deaths reached a new record high, exceeding 70,000 deaths in 2017, a 9.6 percent increase over 2016. That figure includes all drug overdoses, including those due to cocaine, methamphetamines, and benzodiazepines. The actual breakdown according to drug category will be reported in mid-December. However, estimates are opioid-related deaths will account for roughly 49,000 of the total overdose deaths. 

The big takeaways, quoting the report:

- The rate of drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone, which include drugs such as fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and tramadol, increased from 0.3 per 100,000 in 1999 to 1.0 in 2013, 1.8 in 2014, 3.1 in 2015, 6.2 in 2016, and 9.0 in 2017.The rate increased on average by 8% per year from 1999 through 2013 and by 71% per year from 2013 through 2017.

-The rate of drug overdose deaths involving heroin increased from 0.7 in 1999 to 1.0 in 2008 to 4.9 in 2016. The rate in 2017 was the same as in 2016 (4.9).

-The rate of drug overdose deaths involving natural and semisynthetic opioids, which include drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, increased from 1.0 in 1999 to 4.4 in 2016. The rate in 2017 was the same as in 2016 (4.4).

-The rate of drug overdose deaths involving methadone increased from 0.3 in 1999 to 1.8 in 2006, then declined to 1.0 in 2016. The rate in 2017 was the same as in 2016 (1.0).

Despite the fact that overdose deaths from prescription opioids—and even heroin—have stabilized, the overdose rate continues to climb due to the surge in fentanyl deaths. 

This has happened despite policies in place aimed at curtailing doctors from prescribing opioids to their patients in pain. Prescription surveillance boards and government-mandated prescribing limits have pushed prescribing down dramatically. High-dose prescriptions were down 41 percent between 2010 and 2016, another 16.1 percent in 2017, and another 12 percent this year.

Policies aimed at curbing prescribing are based on the false narrative that the overdose crisis is primarily the result of greedy drug makers manipulating gullible doctors into overtreating patients in pain and hooking them on drugs. But as I have written in the past, , the overdose crisis has always been primarily the result of non-medical users accessing drugs in the dangerous black market that results from prohibition. As the supply of prescription opioids diverted to the underground gets harder to come by, the efficient black market fills the void with other, more dangerous drugs. Lately, the synthetic opioid fentanyl has emerged as the number one killer.

In a New York Times report on the matter today, Josh Katz and Margot Sanger-Katz hint that policymakers are aiming at the wrong target by stating, “Recent federal public policy responses to the opioid epidemic have focused on opioid prescriptions. But several public health researchers say that the rise of fentanyls requires different tools. Opioid prescriptions have been falling, even as the death rates from overdoses are rising.”

Prescription opioids are not the cause of the overdose death crisis. Neither is fentanyl, despite the fact that it is now the primary driver of the rising death rate. The ultimate cause of the drug overdose crisis is prohibition. US policymakers should drop the false narrative and face reality, like Portuguese health authorities did 17 years ago.

Portugal, in 2001, recognized that prohibition was driving the death rate. At the time it had the highest overdose rate in Western Europe. It decriminalized all drugs and redirected efforts towards treatment and harm reduction. Portugal saw its population of heroin addicts drop 75 percent, and now has the lowest overdose rate in Europe. It has been so successful that Norway is about to take the same route.

At a minimum, policymakers in the U.S. should turn to harm reduction. They should expand syringe exchange and supervised injection facilities, lighten the regulatory burden on health care practitioners wishing to treat addicts with medication-assisted treatments such as methadoneand buprenorphine, and reschedule the overdose antidote naloxone to a truly over-the-counter drug.

Unless this happens, we should expect more discouraging news from the NCHS in the years ahead.