Record Overdose Death Numbers Prompt Calls for Harm Reduction, Drug Decriminalizaion [FEATURE]

On May 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data showing that more than 107,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2021, the most overdose deaths ever recorded in a single year. The figure marks a 15 percent increase over 2020, with the number of overdose deaths more than quadrupling since 1999. And this is only provisional data; the actual death toll could be even higher.

More people died of drug overdoses last year than from gunfire and traffic accidents combined, and the ever-rising death toll is leading to ever-louder calls for effective policy prescriptions and harm reduction interventions to reduce the carnage.

Opioids were implicated in nearly 80,000 overdose deaths, with synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl and its derivatives, involved in more than 68,000. Cocaine was mentioned in more than 23,000 overdose deaths and psychostimulants, primarily methamphetamine, mentioned in more than 30,000.

To its credit, the Biden administration has recognized the urgency of the problem, embracing harm reduction interventions such as needle exchanges, drug testing, and access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone in its 2022 National Drug Control Strategy. The strategy includes $30 million for harm reduction grants, but also $300 million increases for the DEA and Customs and Border Patrol. While the prohibitionist impulse remains strong, at least the administration has explicitly recognized the need for harm reduction.

But that isn't enough, advocates say.

"New data from CDC has confirmed our worst fears. The combined pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasingly potent illicit drug supply, and an overwhelmed and under-resourced public health system have driven the overdose crisis to catastrophic levels," said Daliah Heller, Vice President of Drug Use Initiatives at Vital Strategies, in a statement.

>Vital Strategies is a global public health organization that in February, launched "Support Harm Reduction," a campaign to highlight five key interventions for preventing overdose that many people in the United States still don’t have access to: naloxone, drug checking resources, medications for opioid use disorder, safer drug use supplies, and overdose prevention centers. 

>"What we’re doing now isn’t working, because the decades-old punitive response to drug use still predominates: The transition to a health-first, harm reduction approach has been slow and piecemeal," Heller continued. "Anemic levels of funding and policy support are woefully insufficient to stem the tide of overdose we are experiencing. These data are an urgent call to action for government at all levels: we need to mount a massive public health response to overdose that centers harm reduction and support instead of criminalization and punishment for people who use drugs.  

"Far too few people have access to any of the five key interventions we know will reduce overdose deaths," Heller added. "Most of these services are available in some form, in some locations in the majority of states, but they all need to be massively scaled up with an emergency investment. Until such actions are taken, the continued escalation of this overdose crisis seems inevitable," she said.

"The devastating rise in overdose deaths is falling most heavily on Black and Indigenous communities, where the need for relief now is more urgent than ever before," Heller noted. "A massive surge in funding and support for a harm reduction public health response will save lives immediately, engaging people who use drugs with lifesaving resources and support. The time for action is now."

Likewise, the new CDC numbers prompted the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) to call on Congress to urgently support harm reduction services and move toward drug decriminalization.

"Once again, we are devastated by these numbers," said Jules Netherland, DPA Managing Director of the Department of Research & Academic Engagement. "Over 107,000 of our friends, family and neighbors lost their lives to drug overdose last year. And sadly, we know the numbers will only continue to climb unless our policymakers actually do what is necessary to curb them. The United States has spent over 50 years and well over a trillion dollars on criminalization - and this is where it has gotten us. It's clearly not working. It's time we start investing where it actually matters - in our communities, specifically Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities where we are now seeing the sharpest rise in overdose deaths. The evidence shows us, that in order to actually make a difference, we have to replace these approaches with those centered in public health, such as drug decriminalization coupled with increased access to evidence-based treatment and harm reduction services, overdose prevention centers, and legal regulation and safer supply to reduce the likelihood of accidental overdose," Nederland said.

It is time for safe injection sites, too, DPA insisted.
 
"We are grateful that the Biden Administration has embraced harm reduction as part of their National Drug Control Strategy, but we need to see that commitment met with Congressional funding and a massive scaling up of these health services," Nederland said. "It's also essential that Overdose Prevention Centers be implemented, which decades of evidence-based, peer-reviewed studies and utilization in over 14 countries show us are one of the most effective ways to save lives now. While it may not always be politically convenient, it’s time to be guided by the evidence about what works. Overdose deaths are avoidable and a policy failure—it’s time we stop recycling the same policies that got us here and take the actions that are necessary to save lives."

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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