For the first time in nearly three decades, drug overdose deaths in the United States stopped climbing and even fell a little last year, according to preliminary government statistics.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released preliminary numbers which showed that almost 68,000 drug overdose deaths were reported in 2018. The agency expects that even if the numbers increase as more data comes in, the final tally will end up below 69,000, the Associated Press reported.
AP reports that the improvement was caused by a drop in overdose deaths from heroin and prescription opioid painkillers. Unfortunately, overdose deaths involving cocaine, fentanyl, and psychostimulants like methamphetamines continued to rise.
Since 1990, overdose deaths have increased each year until they reached their peak in 2017 with 70,000 deaths.
Any leveling off or decrease in drug overdose deaths is positive news. However, as things currently stand, the overdose death rate is still approximately seven times higher than it was a generation ago.
Rebecca Haffajee, a behavior health research scientist at the University of Michigan who studies policies meant to limit opioid addiction told the Associated Press, “We’re still in a pretty sad situation that we need to address.”
The United States’ current drug overdose crisis has been the most deadly in the country’s history. From 2014 to 2017, overdose deaths increased by 5,000 or more each year.
The origins of the drug epidemic in the United States are often traced back to 1995 and the marketing and release of the prescription opioid painkiller Oxycontin. The drug was marketed as a miracle drug and as a non-addictive painkiller. Compassionate doctors gave the painkiller out liberally while morally bankrupt doctors gave it out unscrupulously.
The result – massive amounts of people ended up getting hooked. Drug abusers discovered they could crush the pills up and snort, smoke, or inject them to get an intense high.
As the medical establishment began to realize what they had done, tighter measures were put in place to restrict access to the drug. But the damage was done.
Millions of Oxycontin addicts turned to cheaper and more potent street drugs like heroin and fentanyl, and in 2015 heroin started to cause more overdose deaths than prescription pain killers and other drugs. By 2016, fentanyl and its analogs became the most deadly drugs, and last year they were involved in 46% of all reported overdose deaths, according to the initial CDC data.
Ways to reduce overdose deaths like tougher policing, the expansion of treatment programs, limiting prescription opioid painkiller prescriptions, and the mass distribution of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone have been slow to show results.
It’s possible that we are beginning to see them, however.