Addressing America's deadly drug epidemic goes far beyond fentanyl

Preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that drug overdose deaths in the United States surged during the Covid-19 pandemic and reached a record high in 2020.

Addressing America's deadly drug epidemic goes far beyond fentanyl


The Covid-19 pandemic caused a spike in drug overdose deaths across the United States. Preliminary data indicates that 2022 will be the deadliest year ever.

The trend is largely due to the rapid rise in fentanyl use, a synthetic opioid so powerful that it's now responsible for nearly two thirds of overdose deaths in America. Data suggests there are also other factors that contribute to the rise in overdose deaths.

Methamphetamine overdose deaths, which are highly addictive psychostimulants, have increased at a faster rate than those caused by fentanyl.

According to the latest data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2021 there will be more than twice as much death due to methamphetamine overdoses than in 2019. In that year, the drug was involved in nearly a third of overdose deaths - or more than 31,000.

According to CDC statistics, deaths involving cocaine will also increase, with a 24% jump in 2020 and 2021.

Experts claim that the increased use of drugs is more dangerous due to the widespread spread of fentanyl.

"Lethal opioids such as fentanyl contaminate the entire drug supply," said Magdalena Cerda. She is the director of the Center for Opioid Epidemiology and Policy, at New York University.

Sometimes the combination of drugs happens unintentionally, especially now that fentanyl is so prevalent. Sometimes, however, multiple drugs may be used in conjunction for a specific reason.

Cerda stated that stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamines could be used to treat withdrawal symptoms from opioids. People who are homeless may also use stimulants at certain points to stay alert, and opioids at other times to relax.

According to the CDC, fentanyl can often be found with other drugs on a death certificate.

Cerda stated that the picture was not complete.

A study published in march found that in 2021, 3 of every 5 methamphetamine-related overdose deaths also involved heroin or fentanyl. This share has increased with time, but only 2 out of 5 deaths involving methamphetamine do not include opioids.

Other research shows that the use of methamphetamine in general is increasing.

Pew Research Center's analysis of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health data shows that in 2019, more than 2 million people reported having used meth, up 22% on the previous year.

According to CDC data, in 2020 methamphetamine will surpass cocaine as the most commonly used drug that causes overdoses.

Cocaine was the second-most common drug in the overdose deaths of those aged 55 or older, and Blacks in general - a very close second.

According to CDC data the age-adjusted death rate for fentanyl in the US population is twice that of any other drug.

However, among Blacks the difference is smaller. The death rate due to cocaine is only 34% less than that of fentanyl.

Experts say that to manage the drug epidemic, it is necessary to invest in treatment for all drugs - and not just opioid use disorders.

Cerda stated that a great deal of attention should be paid to harm reduction because the increase in overdoses is largely driven by the lethal nature of the drug supply. Treatment should target all drug users, not just those who abuse opioids.

There are many medications available for opioid overdoses but not the same ones as other drugs.

Experts say that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated factors in society which could lead to an increase in drug use. These include housing instability, job instability, and a reduced availability of counseling and non-medication options.

Experts say that there are special challenges to reducing overdose deaths among Black people. This is especially true in relation to the criminal justice systems.

John Pamplin is an assistant professor at Columbia University, who studies the effects of structural race on substance abuse outcomes.

"I think that the narratives are outpacing reality quite a lot, especially in Black and Brown communities who have been hyper-criminalized."

A person with a criminal history may not be comfortable using Good Samaritan Laws, which shield bystanders from liability and encourage them to seek medical help, especially in cases of overdose.

Fentanyl has been the cause of an epidemic in the US for many years, but the death rate has been steadily increasing.

Cerda stated that "we're always responding to this next wave of crisis." It's important to put a lot of focus on harm-reduction. We also need to consider the importance of prevention, and how we might address the social factors that are driving the overdose epidemic in our country.