The United States saw a record number of drug-related deaths in 2020. The total exceeded 93,000, which was up 29 percent from 2019, according to the latest estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The 2020 spike—the largest ever recorded—was largely attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic and the legal restrictions it provoked. But drug-related deaths already were rising before anyone had heard of the coronavirus, not just despite but also because of the government’s efforts to prevent people from using psychoactive substances.
The new CDC numbers confirm the folly of relying on supply control measures to reduce drug fatalities. Those policies are based on the premise that drug availability by itself causes drug-related deaths, which is clearly not true in light of the social, economic, and psychological factors that plausibly explain last year’s surge. In any case, attacking production and distribution through legal restrictions, interdiction, seizures, and arrests rarely has a significant or lasting impact on prices or availability. Worse, those interventions drive substitutions that make drug use deadlier, as illustrated by the rise of illicit fentanyl and the crackdown on prescription pain medication, which accelerated the upward trend in opioid-related deaths.