A Record Number of Drug-Related Deaths Illustrates the Lethal Consequences of Prohibition

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.

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Drug overdose deaths in 2020 hit the highest number ever recorded, CDC data shows

Drug overdose deaths rose by close to 30% in the United States in 2020, hitting the highest number ever recorded, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday.

More than 93,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2020, according to provisional data released by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. That’s a 29.4% increase from the 72,151 deaths projected for 2019.

“Overdose deaths from synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) and psychostimulants such as methamphetamine also increased in 2020 compared to 2019. Cocaine deaths also increased in 2020, as did deaths from natural and semi-synthetic opioids (such as prescription pain medication),” the NCHS said in a statement.

“This is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, and the largest increase since at least 1999,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health, said in a statement.

“These data are chilling. The COVID-19 pandemic created a devastating collision of health crises in America,” added Volkow.

As in recent years, inappropriate use of opioids was behind most of the deaths. The NCHS reported that overdose deaths from opioids rose from 50,963 in 2019 to 69,710 in 2020.

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