Provisional data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest the annual overdose death rate may be levelling off or even slightly declining. The data predict a drop in the death rate to 69,096 for the 12-month period ending November 2018, down from 72,300 predicted deaths for the 12-month period that ended November 2017. These provisional findings represent a 4.4 percent drop in the national overdose rate.
The drug overdose death numbers include deaths due to natural and semi-synthetic opioids, synthetic opioids other than methadone (fentanyl and its analogs), methadone, methamphetamines and other stimulants, cocaine, and benzodiazepines. For example, opioid-related deaths accounted for 47,600 of the 70,237 overdose deaths reported by the CDC for the year 2017. The final report for the year 2018 should be available in December of this year.
The possible slowing or decrease of the overdose rate is likely due to the fact that many state policymakers have begun to recognize the wisdom of harm reduction, a realistic acceptance of the fact that there will never be a “drug-free” society, that seeks to reduce the risks associated with non-medical use of licit and illicit drugs. As I have written here, harm reduction has long been an approach employed by health care professionals in modern and developed societies.
The provisional report from the CDC shows the most dramatic improvements in states that have expanded the availability of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone, allowed for the expansion of needle exchange programs, and increased the licensing of Medication Assisted Treatment (e.g., methadone, buprenorphine) programs. In fact, the greatest improvement was seen in Ohio, which has aggressively promoted these harm reduction measures. Ohio had been an epicenter of opioid-related overdose deaths. The provisional numbers for the year ending November 2018 show a 23.3 percent decrease in overdose deaths. The states that have made the most progress are those that have increased the focus on harm reduction strategies.
Despite these encouraging signs, the overdose rate continues to and is likely to remain high. As researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have discovered, overdoses related to the non-medical use of licit and illicit drugs have been on a steady, exponential increase since the 1970s. The only changes that have occurred over that time period pertain to which drugs came in and out of vogue for non-medical users.
Despite policymakers obsession with doctors prescribing pain medication to their patients, the government data show no correlation between the number of prescriptions and non-medical use or substance use disorder. In recent years deaths from fentanyl and heroin have come to represent the majority of fatalities reported by the CDC with cocaine, methamphetamines, and other stimulants showing a recent surge as well. And benzodiazepine-related deaths are also on the rise.
The driving force behind these deaths has always been drug prohibition. Ending the endless and unwinnable war on drugs would be the greatest exercise of harm reduction.
Speaking at the National Rx Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, John Eadie, coordinator for the National Threat Initiative, warned, “We’re now facing a very significant stimulant epidemic.” Abuse of prescription stimulants such as Adderal and Ritalin (used to treat Attention Deficit Disorders) as well as illicit stimulants, like cocaine and methamphetamine, are surging. “No one is paying attention to this,” Eadie said, because the focus has been on opioids.
Law enforcement has seized 15 kilograms of stimulants for every kilogram of heroin it has seized during the last 5 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that psychostimulant overdose deaths rose 30 percent in the past year. There is evidence to suggest stimulant abuse is now outpacing opioid abuse. And the Drug Enforcement Administration reports that cocaine use and availability are at their highest level in a decade.
I wrote here about the resurgence of methamphetamine abuse once meth labs, especially in Mexico, found a substitute for Sudafed after the federal and state governments made it more difficult to obtain. And Oregon health authorities reported overdose deaths from heroin dropped in 2016 to 107 while overdose deaths from methamphetamine rose to 141.
There are lessons to be learned from this news if anyone chooses to learn them. The obvious one is that the “War on Drugs,” America’s longest war, is unwinnable. This lesson was apparently not learned when the nation experimented with alcohol prohibition in the early 20thcentury. When a market exists for willing buyers and sellers, prohibition just drives that market underground. Waging a war on drugs is like playing a game of “Whac-a-mole.”
But the other lesson relates to current opioid policy. Policymakers seem stuck in what should, by now, be an obviously false narrative: that the opioid overdose crisis is a product of doctors prescribing opioids to their patients. And even after considerable reductions in the prescribing and manufacturing of opioids for patients has shifted non-medical users over to heroin and fentanyl—now the dominant causes of opioid deaths—policymakers can’t disabuse themselves of this false narrative. They continue to double down on restricting prescriptions of opioids and make many patients suffer in the process.
The opioid overdose crisis has always primarily been the result of non-medical users seeking opioids in the illicit market—where the dose, purity, and even the actual identity of a substance can never be known with confidence.
The resurgence of stimulant abuse and overdose should not be viewed in isolation. It should be integrated with the opioid issue. Both should be viewed in the broader context of substance abuse in the presence of drug prohibition. Sociocultural and psychosocial factors may ultimately explain why the use and abuse of mind altering drugs is on the rise across much of the developed world.
As long as policymakers continue using supply-side interventions, hoping to win an unwinnable war, the problem will continue to grow.