Drug Overdose Deaths Hit an All-Time High in 2021, CDC Data Show

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There were an estimated 107,622 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2021, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The death rate is the highest on record for overdose deaths, up 15% from the rate of 93,655 deaths in 2020 – a number that was 30% higher than the 2019 rate. The data shows an increase in overdose deaths Overdose during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemic disorders — including limited access to rehabilitation facilities, naloxone (a drug that can reverse opioid overdose symptoms), and drug-assisted therapy — may have played a role in the increased mortality rate, Jules Netherland, director of research and academic involvement at Drug Policy Alliance, tells SELF. However, the rate rose before the pandemic took hold. “Unfortunately, pre-COVID overdose deaths were rising rapidly, but the surge during COVID has certainly escalated,” says Netherland. She adds that communities of color will be hit harder and strategies must be implemented quickly to reverse the current trend.

Alaska saw the largest increase in overdose death rate in 2021, up 75.3% from 2020. Other states that saw sharp increases include Vermont, South Dakota, Kansas and Oregon, according to the new data. Wyoming saw a 0% change, while Hawaii overdose deaths fell 1.81%.

According to the data, 80,816 opioids were involved among the 107,622 deaths. In addition to opioids, overdose deaths from synthetic opioids (mainly fentanyl), cocaine and psychostimulants (such as methamphetamine) also increased in 2021 compared to 2020.

Drugs contaminated with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, may have contributed to the rise in overdose death rates, the Netherlands says. “We know that fentanyl has contaminated much of the drug supply and is leading to overdose deaths,” she explains. But eliminating fentanyl won’t solve the whole crisis and bring rates back down, the Netherlands warns. Instead, experts need to focus on mitigation strategies. “Until we really scale up harm reduction and treatment services, I don’t think we’re going to change that,” she says.

The Netherlands points to a number of different measures that could slow the rise in overdose death rates, including widespread access to naloxone and fentanyl test strips. The test strips would show if a product is contaminated with fentanyl, 2 milligrams of which can be lethal, depending on body size. The overdose prevention centers set up in New York City could also reduce the death rate, according to the Netherlands. These allow people who use drugs to do so in a controlled environment where trained staff can supervise them and help with an overdose.

Until states decriminalize possession of small amounts of currently illegal drugs — which Oregon did in 2020 — the people who buy them will not be able to determine if their stashes are contaminated with a dangerous substance. “Criminalizing and banning buying and selling – that means people don’t know what they’re getting,” Netherland adds.

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