Last year President Donald Trump bragged that “we are making progress” in reducing opioid-related deaths, noting that they fell in 2018 “for the first time since 1990.” That 1.7 percent drop was thin evidence of success at the time, and it looks even less impressive in light of the the 6.5 percent increase recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2019. When you add preliminary CDC data indicating that opioid-related deaths rose dramatically this year, you have even more reason to wonder whether the government is actually winning the war on drugs.
The 49,860 deaths involving opioids that the CDC counted in 2019 set a new record that is likely to be broken when the data for 2020 are finalized. “Synthetic opioids other than methadone,” the category that includes fentanyl and its analogs, were involved in 73 percent of opioid-related deaths last year. According to the CDC’s preliminary data, “the 12-month count of synthetic opioid deaths increased 38.4% from the 12 months ending in June 2019 compared with the 12 months ending in May 2020.”
During the same period, total drug-related deaths rose by 18 percent. Although that includes increases in deaths involving cocaine and methamphetamine, the CDC says, “synthetic opioids are the primary driver,” and “the increases in drug overdose deaths appear to have accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.” As Zachary Siegel notes in a New York magazine piece, the pandemic and the lockdowns it inspired probably have driven drug-related deaths in two main ways: by contributing to the economic woes and social isolation that make drug use more appealing and by increasing the likelihood that people will use drugs without anyone else around, which magnifies the risk of fatal outcomes.
Although the pandemic and the restrictions associated with it have made matters worse, opioid-related deaths were already on the rise, which suggests once again that reducing access to prescription pain pills, the main thrust of the Trump administration’s strategy, has not had the intended effect. To the contrary, it has driven nonmedical users toward black-market substitutes that are more dangerous because their potency is inconsistent and unpredictable, while depriving bona fide patients of the medication they need to make their lives bearable.