Drugs, mainly opioids, are killing Americans at a record rate. The number of drug overdose deaths in the country quadrupled between 1999 and 2010 — and compared to the numbers we’re seeing now, those were the good old days.
Some 30,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2010. According to a new estimate from the New York Times, double that number died last year. And the rate of increase in overdose deaths was growing, up a stunning 19% over 2015.
The Times estimate of between 59,000 and 65,000 drug overdose deaths last year is greater than the number of American soldiers killed during the entire Vietnam War, greater than the number of people who died the year the AIDS epidemic peaked, and higher than the peak year for gun deaths. In the first decade of the century, overdoses and addiction rose in conjunction with a dramatic increase in prescription opioid prescribing; since then, as government agencies and medical professionals alike sought to tamp down prescribing of opioids, the overdose wave has continued, now with most opioid OD fatalities linked to illicit heroin and powerful black market synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and carfentanil.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says we are in the midst of the “worst drug overdose epidemic in history,” and it’s hard to argue with that.
So, what do we do about it? Despite decades of failure and unintended consequences, the prohibitionist reflex is still strong. Calls for more punitive laws, tougher prosecutorial stances and harsher sentences ring out from statehouses across the land to the White House. But tough drug war policies haven’t worked. The fact that the overdose and addiction epidemic is taking place under a prohibition regime should make that self-evident.
More enlightened — and effective — approaches are now being tried; in part, no doubt, because today’s opioid epidemic is…