By Lise Millay Stevens
We’re turning a corner in the opioid epidemic – one that is accelerating into a deeper downward spiral. The crisis is getting worse, not better; New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the epidemic is growing even faster than experts had predicted; overdose deaths are rising at a break-neck speed. The CDC report is the first government data release on drug deaths that spans all of 2016, and indicates that drug-related deaths have increased 540 percent since 2014.
Fentanyl Deadly in 2016
The CDC report indicates that approximately 64,000 people in the United States died of a drug overdose in 2016, an alarming 22 percent increase over the 52,404 drug deaths in 2015. Fentanyl (and synthetic variations thereof) was particularly lethal: “These reports indicate that increases in synthetic opioid-involved deaths are being driven by increases in fentanyl-involved overdose deaths, which are likely due to illicitly-manufactured fentanyl,” the CDC noted.
Fentanyl-related deaths nearly doubled from 2015 to 2016. The CDC data also showed an increase in deaths associated with methamphetamine and cocaine use over last year’s numbers.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, similar to morphine, but is 50 to 100 times more potent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The drug is used clinically to manage severe pain; the versions found in street drugs, however, are manufactured by illegal labs and are lethally stronger. Street fentanyl often contains cocaine or heroin, which amplifies its potency, greatly increasing the risk of overdose.
The CDC has previously reported that confiscations and seizures of fentanyl increased seven-fold from 2012 to 2014, suggesting that illegally manufactured, non-pharmaceutical, non-prescribed fentanyl is more readily available than ever on U.S. streets. Fentanyl overdoses and busts are so common that law enforcement officials, fire fighters and emergency responders had to take measures to lessen the for exposure. The drug is easily ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
Havoc in the Heartland
Other CDC data shows that Ohio continues to be at the epicenter of the opioid crisis, and the leader in drug-related deaths – between 2010 and 2015, unintentional drug overdose fatalities in the state nearly doubled, from 1,544 to 3,050. In 2016, 86 percent of overdose deaths involved an opioid. In several of the state’s counties, the local morgues have run out of space, requiring local governments to rent refrigerated trailers for storing the corpses, and hire extra coroners to keep up with the carnage.
The Ohio criminal justice system has also felt the effects. In many areas, judges and other officials’ behavior has been transformed; instead of treating addicts as criminals, they are grasping that addicts are people with a medical condition who need treatment. The epidemic is so severe in the Buckeye State that CBS’ 60 Minutes recently dedicated an exclusive segment to the burgeoning problem in the state.
A Lack of Action from the Top
Despite the alarming data, the current administration seems unaware of the scope of the problem and the need for decisive action, effective policies to curb the mounting body counts. President Trump declined to call the opioid epidemic a national emergency until August 10, less than a month before the release of the CDC’s report. Granted, devising an over-arching response is complicated, but that is no excuse for inaction.
In July, a presidential commission provided its interim findings regarding the paucity of treatment and the potential use of federal resources to fight the epidemic. Yet the papers to officially declare the epidemic a national emergency have not been drawn up. No plan on allocating resources and expanding treatment has been unveiled. Not a finger has been raised.
Trump’s approach? Platitudes. A message to tell kids that drugs are, “No good, really bad for you in every way,” according to the president “But if they don’t start, it will never be a problem.” This statement completely bypasses the fact that most addictions start with the use of prescribed and legal opioid use.
The list goes on. The president’s proposed Obamacare repeal would cut $800 billion from Medicaid, which covers 60 percent of people currently in drug treatment. Talk of eliminating the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which oversees federal drug-related activities, and includes the aforementioned presidential commission. A threat to cut $374 million from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which provides education, prevention strategies and treatment drug use and mental health issues. Talk from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to aggressively pursue and prosecute drug users, which would replace treatment with incarceration. This approach was a disaster in the 90s, and would only exacerbate the current crisis.
No End in Sight
Although Ohio has a particularly marked overdose problem, it is not alone. In 2015, nationwide deaths related to synthetic opioids increased 72 percent from 2014. The numbers for 2016 are grim, on track to top the 70,000 deaths mark. And as was true in 2016, drug overdoses are projected to be the leading cause of death for people 50 years of age and younger in 2017. More people die from overdose than are killed in traffic accidents or by shooting.
Currently, an average 142 men, women and children die from overdose daily. Every day. This latest report confirms that the uptick continues, unchecked. When will the administration act to stop the deaths of children, mothers and fathers, friends and coworkers, blue collar workers and Wall Street executives? What number is too high? Time will tell, but the country is headed in the wrong direction.
About Sovereign Health
Sovereign Health is a national leader in the treatment of addiction, mental illness and co-occurring behavioral health disorders. Using evidenced-based medicine and measurement-based care, we provide the highest standard of care from assessment to discharge through our highly experienced, professionally licensed staff. We specialize in the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction, trauma, mental illness, eating disorders and other conditions. We accept most major insurance plans and financing is also available through MyTreatmentLender.com. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please call our 24/7 helpline today.